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Somatic Trauma Therapy informed by Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory in Henrico, VA.

Polyvagal Theory

What’s Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal Theory was introduced to the world by Stephen Porges as a way to conceptualize 3 distinct nervous systems within our Autonomic Nervous System, and their hierarchical relationship for how humans respond to novelty in their environment. These three nervous systems are:

  • Social Engagement

    • This is our Ventral Vagal branch of the Parasympathetic Nervous System

    • Here, we feel connected to ourselves and to others

  • Mobilization

    • This is our Sympathetic Nervous System

    • When we feel threatened, it is responsible for our fight/flight response

    • When we feel safe, it allows us to play

  • Immobilization

    • This is our Dorsal Vagal branch of the Parasympathetic Nervous System

    • When we feel threatened, it is responsible for our freeze response

    • When we feel safe, it allows us to rest

The name “polyvagal” comes from the Vagus Nerve, which is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system. The Vagus Nerve influences the behavior of our heart, lungs, and digestion. Through a Polyvagal lens, pathology in these areas can be linked to the over or under activation of these nervous systems. For example, high blood pressure can be the result of a persistent state of mobilization.

While scientists have long recognized the fight/flight response in our sympathetic nervous system, and the freeze response in our parasympathetic nervous system, Stephen Porges has uniquely identified the Social Engagement nervous system. It is the Social Engagement nervous system that allows us to connect with others and to co-regulate into an internal sense of safety.

Effective trauma treatment borrows heavily from this theory. The symptoms experienced by a trauma survivor reflects which parts of the nervous system are overdeveloped, and which parts are underdeveloped. Treatment heavily relies on the practitioner having high self-awareness of their own dysregulated and regulated states and the ability to self-regulate, as not to taint the energy that is available for absorption in the treatment room. From this place of internal safety, the clinician is able to co-regulate with the client, much like a caregiver might soothe a crying baby.

From here, the practitioner gently leads the client into slight activation of either a Mobilized or Immobilized response, and then “pendulates” back into the Social Engagement nervous system. The goal is not to relax, but to build the muscle to independently shift between nervous systems without getting stuck.

Polyvagal Theory is not an independent therapy practice. Instead, it informs a clinician’s interventions. It is easily integrated into treatment modalities, such as Somatic Experiencing, Internal Family Systems, psychodrama, and EMDR.

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