Emma, a counsellor, trainer and University lecturer is Person Centred and integrates elements of CBT and other theories if needed by clients. Emma began by explaining the Polyvagal Theory had emerged around 1994 (Stephen W. Porges).
The key learning outcomes identified by Emma were:
Understanding the basic principles of the Polyvagal Theory;
What Neuroception is and how it can activate different survival states;
Recognise some of the signs and symptoms of the different survival states;
Understand why and how some people get ‘stuck’ in different states;
Explore strategies which may help clients support themselves better in understanding and managing these different survival states.
Descartes said, ‘I think; therefore I am.’ The mind can often be seen as all important, but the work of Stephen Porges, Bessel Van der Kolk and others within the field of trauma, revealed the truth actually lies within our body – ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ 2015.
Communication and information from the Vagus Nerve is the main highway for the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), 80% of which moves from the body to the brain and only 20% moves from the brain to the body. The body reacts to a Neuroception as it constantly senses cues of danger and cues of safety’ (Sunseri, 2019) and the brain creates a ‘story’ (which may not be completely accurate) to explain the state. In monitoring risk the body and brain work together to keep it safe which supports the maintenance of the essential functions for staying alive.
The Vagal Nerve controls the state of Social Engagement. Both branches of the Vagus Nerve work to keep the body and mind calm. The Parasympathetic branch consists of two parts: The Dorsal part of the Vagus Nerve controls Shut down and Freeze in times of danger and the Sympathetic branch fight or flight, a mammalian response to danger where feelings of rage, fear and shame can occur, plus the seeing of danger everywhere – not trusting anyone or anything. Some people become stuck in this state, feeling helpless and hopeless, for which they may need support to work their way through it.
Shifts in the ANS produce three basic states (The Triune Theory of the ANS): rest and reflect (safe and social); fight or flight (mobilisation) or shutdown (immobilisation) Dana D. 2020.
The Polyvagal Ladder. The ladder may be thought of as horizontal or vertical with three different sections layered on top of, or besides, each other: The lowest step is Shutdown; the middle is Flight/Fight and the top, Social Engagement. The movement between these states ‘is anchored in our evolutionary past’ (Dana 2018) and one cannot leapfrog any state. If a traumatic event has caused shutdown, when ready the person must go through the flight/fight stage to release excess energy caused by the adrenalin/cortisol driven feelings held. Significant shaking or trembling may be difficult to witness, but is as it should be, as the energy needs to be expelled before any movement into social engagement is possible. This shift can occur once calmer feelings are restored the story may be re-written with gratitude and true facts.
The Vagal Brake is a biological function which regulates heartrate and allows movement between feelings of calmness, safety and action or stress without activating flight/fright or shutdown. It needs regular toning to hone its uses. A child encouraged to develop its own vagal brake supported by the healthy modelling from its parents or care-givers will also develop resilience, both of which are vital in times of challenge. Children from homes where they do not feel safe, or are over-protected, may not develop healthy vagal brakes or resilience which has implications for their health and wellbeing. People can learn, even in later life, to understand and tone the vagal brake and so improve their well-being.
This was a ‘information packed’ workshop and so the review could only be a brief snapshot of what was explored. It is hoped the reading list below may offer .
Thank you Emma for such an interesting and comprehensive workshop delivered in an accessible way and on a subject that was insightful and useful to everyone involved in our profession. I want to give a huge thank you to Helen Gordon who co-organised this workshop and also hosted the Zoom for the event so well too.
Reviewed by Jacqueline Holloway.
Additional reading options:
Dana D. 2018 1 St Ed. ‘The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation’
W.W. Norton & Co. New York.
Dana E. 2020 ‘Polyvagal Theory: A Ladder of Nervous States’. Khiron Clinics
Dana D. 2021 ‘Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System using Polyvagal Theory’
Levine P. PhD 1997 ‘Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma’ North Atlantic Books, U.S.
Porges S.W. 1995 ‘Orienting in a defensive World: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary
heritage: A Polyvagal Theory.’ Psychophysiology 32(4), 301 – 318.
Porges S.W. 2011 ‘The Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology. The Polyvagal Theory.
Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation.’
New York NY: Norton.
Porges S.W. PhD & Dana D. 2018 1st Ed. ‘Clinical Application of Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence
of Polyvagal- informed Therapies’. Norton Series Interpersonal Neurobiology.
Schwartz A. 2020 ‘The Post-traumatic Growth Guidebook: Practical Mind-Body Tools to heal
Trauma, Foster Resilience and Awaken your Potential’. PESI Publishing, Esau Claire, WI, USA.
Sunseri J. 2019 (continues) ‘Stuck not Broken’ Podcast.
Van der Kolk B. 2015 ‘The Body keeps the Score: The brain, mind and body, and the Transformation of Trauma’. Penguin Books.