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Harnessing the Power of the Polyvagal Theory

In our introductory article on Polyvagal Theory, we explored Dr. Stephen Porges’ theory about how trauma rewires a person’s brain to trigger the survival flight/flight/freeze response to trauma or extreme stress. This activates the Dorsal Vagal State, which causes immobilization and “shutdown”, associated with hyperarousal, to ensure survival. The survival instinct is a normal and healthy response to get you out of immediate danger, but remaining in that state for prolonged periods is deleterious to your long-term emotional well-being and your ability to form healthy connections and have healthy relationships with other people.

Key points

  • Trauma and prolonged stress evoke a “survival” response that, when perpetuated long-term, impairs your emotional well-being and your ability to form healthy connections with others. 
  • Polyvagal Theory is based on developing an awareness that will help you make conscious decisions to improve your situation.
  • Polyvagal Theory purports that cultivating body awareness, developing emotional self-regulation, and fostering social connections are integral components to being your best self.
  • Using these strategies, you CAN regulate your emotional responses and improve your resilience to handle life’s challenges, for the long term.
You CAN achieve emotional regulation and resilience, easily and permanently

Polyvagal Theory uses awareness and practical tools to help you gain better emotional regulation and resilience in your life

Polyvagal Theory has a multi-faceted approach, combining awareness with practical tools that can help you regulate your emotional responses and take deliberate actions that will help you develop healthier interactions with others.

The foundation of healing always starts with awareness. By understanding what’s going on for you, you can begin to identify the underlying causes of your issues and start working to address them proactively.

Polyvagal Theory employs a 3-prong strategy of body, mind, and connecting with others to help you transform your life

Cultivate body awareness

Developing a mindful awareness of your body is key to harnessing the power of the Polyvagal Theory. Take a few moments each day to check in with yourself. Notice any physical sensations, tension, or discomfort that may be signs of autonomic nervous system activation. By regularly tuning into your body, you can gain valuable insights into your emotional state and take proactive steps to regulate it.

Practical Tool: Engage in daily body scans. Focus your attention on different parts of your body, and observe any sensations without judgment. Practicing gentle stretching exercises, tensing, and relaxing your muscles can be helpful ways to connect with your body, especially if you incorporate them as regular practices in your life.

Enhance your emotional self-regulation

Integrating self-regulation techniques into your daily routine can significantly enhance your emotional well-being. These techniques help to activate the ventral vagal state, promoting a sense of safety and relaxation.

Practice Tool: Explore practices such as deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, journaling, meditation, or yoga. These techniques can help regulate your autonomic nervous system, reduce stress, and increase your resilience in the face of challenges. Experiment with different approaches to find what resonates best with you.

Healthy connections

Human beings are wired for connection, but when people feel depressed, stressed, disconnected, or either highly anxious or shut down, it is difficult to connect. The Polyvagal Theory emphasizes the importance of healthy connections in regulating our autonomic nervous system because we can only experience curiosity, joy, and social engagement when we are in the ventral vagal state. When we are in the Ventral Vagal state, meaningful relationships can give us a sense of safety and belonging, promote our emotional well-being, and help us stay in the Ventral Vagal state.

Practical Tool: Breathwork can be a powerful tool for regulating your nervous system. When you find yourself in a heightened state within the sympathetic branch, associated with fight or flight, try calming your system by practicing slow nasal breathing to return to a baseline state. Conversely, when you recognize you’re in the dorsal vagal state, characterized by feeling stuck, fatigued, overwhelmed, or overly concerned about others, use the rapid mouth breathe of fire technique to activate and shift back into the ventral vagal state where you can experience joy, presence, curiosity, and connection with others. 

Using these 3 strategies will help you consistently regain your equilibrium and improve your resilience to life’s challenges

Any time one of these 3 core aspects of your life is out of alignment, you’re likely to feel unbalanced. The good news is that being able to recognize what’s out of alignment enables you to take steps to get into a better space.

If your body is feeling wound up and tense, you might need to go get a good workout or have a warm bath to soothe your muscles. If you’re feeling anxious or unsettled, introspection, restorative breathing, or journaling can help you figure out what’s bothering you and guide you on what you need to do to regulate your emotional state. 

The nervous system is like a muscle that needs to be toned. The best thing you can do is actually “exercise” that muscle when you’re in the ventral vagal state. This will make it possible to come back into this state quicker when bumped out. Breathwork and other somatic exercises are useful to practice consistently. Be sure to discuss this with your therapist if you feel like you need some help with nervous system regulation.

Remember, incorporating these tips takes time and practice. You might find it most helpful to consult a qualified professional for personalized guidance and support in applying the Polyvagal Theory to your specific circumstances. By cultivating mindful awareness of your body, incorporating emotional self-regulation techniques, and investing in your social connections, you are embarking on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment that will stand you in good stead for your entire life ahead.