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The Polyvagal Theory

As we learned in the past post the nervous system is our first response to trauma and stress. Life doesn’t teach us how to process emotions let alone traumatic experiences that we’ve lived through the years. Dr. Stephen Porges the developer of Polyvagal Theory identified the biological order response of our body when it encounters trauma via our nervous system and Vagus Nerve. But before going there we have to meet the movie star of this theory: “The Vagus Nerve”.


The Vagus Nerve is also known as the 10th cranial nerve. It is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system and is one of the most important nerves in the body.This cranial nerve originates in the brain stem and extends down through the neck into the chest and abdomen. It carries both motor and sensory information, and it supplies nerve stimulation to the heart, major blood vessels, airways, lungs, esophagus, stomach, and intestines. Connecting every major organ to the brain. The location and function of this nerves help us understand why the body reacts so rapidly while stressed. Why our hearts raise when we encounter a fearful situation. When we are in a state of homeostasis the Vagus Nerve acts as a neutral break keeping us calm and open. When the Vagus nerve gets activated and it enters its defensive system fight or flight responses can manifest in our body immediately.

Social Engagement.


Most of the people in this world including myself in some cases live in a near constant of a fight or flight mode. This stress response is an automatic function of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) which we already discussed on the previous post. In short recap our ANS is in charge of allocating our bodies resources constantly scanning our environment for hints analyzing if we are in a dangerous situation or a safe surrounding. Using a system called neuroception this sixth sense operates out of our conscious awareness to asses our environment and put places, situations and people in a safe or unsafe box. When the ANS categorizes a situation as safe our Vagus Nerve tells our body to relax. This is when the PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) who manages the rest and digest phases of our body activates. I this cal state is where we enter this Social Engagement Mode. Where we are able to connect freely to others because our body feels safe. When we are in this state we even seem more open to connecting with others. Our bodies are relaxed, our voices sound friendlier (due to the Vagus connection to the larynx). When we are in these receptive PNS state our resources are allocated to higher executive functions in the brain such as self motivation and planning for the future.

Fight or Flight


The fight-or-flight response is activated by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) in this activation mode the Vagus Nerve send danger signals to the SNS activating a stress response in our adrenal glands that increase cortisol and adrenaline levels. Raising our bodies temperature, heartbeat and preparing the body to earth fight or flee. We focus on louder sounds making the muscles of the inner ear to close to register only high and low frequencies so we can defend ourselves from predators. Our whole physiology and biology start to change.

All of these changes are super helpful if we are in fact facing any type of danger. People who struggle with poor Vagal tone with only means that we have an overactive nervous system. Have emotional, mental and physical problems due to this constant state of fight or flight danger state.

Inmovilization


Our vagus nerve has 2 pathways: Social activation and engagement mode on one pathway. This pathway is sheath with a layer of fact so it can be activated quicker and shutdown faster. The second pathway is unmyelinated and therefore less reactive and slower to shut off and more primitive. We actually share this pathway with reptiles. When this second pathway is activated we become immobilized our whole body shuts down. Our heart rate and metabolism slow our bowls either release completely or clench up and hold our breathing may stop.


How does this polyvagal theory affect us in our daily lives?


A lot of social, emotional, mental and physical problems derive from a poor vagal tone. And as I stated before this poor vagal tone only means that we have an overactive sympathetic system. Even to try to make an emotional connection with someone with this poor vagal tone would be a challenge due to our constant state of alertness.


Co-regulation


When we are stuck in a trauma response our neuroception(our own personal scanner) can become inaccurate it can misread the environment can see threats when there are none and can return us to the fight or flight state. Then this cycle of activation can start all over again. Our nervous system states are feedback loops and as Dr. Porges explains in his Polyvagal Theory we mirror the autonomic star of those around us. When we feel safe it is reflected in our physiology and our biology. Our shoulders go down, our eyes are brighter and we feel as some say “single and ready to mingle” with others.

How can you activate the vagus nerve?


According to the American Chiropractic Center. The easiest way to manipulate your vagus nerve is through regular exercise deep breathing. The trick to activating the body’s relaxation response is to make your exhalations twice as long as your inhalations. Try this “4-7-8 breath”: breathe in through your nose, count to four, hold your breath, count to seven, and exhale through your mouth until you count to eight. Do eight cycles of this at least twice a day, especially when you’re stressed. This exercise along with a lot of them which you can find them online and on youtube can help activate your vagus nerve. So lets start our own healing we deserve to live the life we always dreamt of.


YOU HAVE THE POWER!!

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Sources:

Chiro, A. C. (2021, September 27). What is the Vagus Nerve? American Chiropractic Center. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from https://www.americanchiropractors.org/headaches/what-is-the-vagus-nerve-activate-the-vagus-nerve/

Colletti, M., PhD. (2019, October 2). Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threat and Safety. Elite Learning. https://www.elitecme.com/resource-center/rehabilitation-therapy/neuroception-a-subconscious-system-for-detecting-threat-and-safety

The Role of the Vagus Nerve in the Nervous System. (2020, June 17). Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/vagus-nerve-anatomy-174612

LePera, N. (2021). How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self. Harper Wave.


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