Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory is rooted in neuroscientific concepts of brain activation and brain signals. If you’re heard of “fight or flight” (and especially “freeze”!) responses to danger, you’re halfway to understanding polyvagal theory.

What is Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal therapy posits that our bodies react physiologically and neurobiologically to heightened stress, especially in the face of perceived danger. Often, our body systems react to stressful situations by freezing. When in stressful situations, even if we don’t physically stop what we’re doing, our thoughts or emotions might become frozen and leave us with a numb feeling. The goal of polyvagal theory in therapy is to decrease this freezing response by activating the vagal system.

Polyvagal therapists educate clients about the vagal system and the vagus nerve, which runs from our brains to our stomachs. Clients will develop an understanding about how this system impacts trauma symptoms. They’ll also learn how to activate the vagal system, which combats falling into the “freezing” reaction. While we can activate the vagus nerve by deep breathing (exhaling longer than we inhale), we can also engage it by experiencing strong social connections. Polyvagal theory helps clients with both.

What happens in a Polyvagal Theory session?

Using polyvagal therapy, the therapist and client will initially explore the reasons that the client reached out for help. Typically, before the sessions focus on physiology or neural systems, the client will talk about their backgrounds, symptoms, and mental health goals. This includes sharing any traumatic experiences such as toxic relationships, abuse, accidents, complicated medical situations, and more. Gathering this information not only helps the therapist better plan for treatment, but also offers an opportunity for bonding between the therapist and client. This will come into play when the client practices activating the body system related to social interaction.

Clients learn how to become aware of their body’s reactions. They’ll monitor how they feel throughout their daily routines, reporting back to their therapist any instances of activation. This could look like elevated heart rate or sweaty palms. Therapists will also watch for these cues that their clients feel stress, such as watching facial expressions or body language. These signs indicate that the body’s fight, flight, or freeze response has been triggered.

Clients will also learn breathing techniques that help in times of stress. As they process through painful memories of their trauma, therapists will encourage them to use these techniques to calm down the body. Therapists also engage the client in positive feelings of connection to help them break free from their “frozen” state.

What can Polyvagal Theory help with?

Polyvagal theory is most commonly used to treat the symptoms that result from traumatic experiences. This includes conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Because of the nature of polyvagal therapy, it’s vital to work with a therapist who has training and certification in polyvagal theory. Working with trauma requires an understanding of and sensitivity to trauma responses – you may have heard of the phrase “trauma-informed care” before, which describes when a therapist has additional training in creating feelings of safety and security for the client. Polyvagal therapists take this trauma-informed approach and those that have certification can help clients move past their trauma and feel connected to their daily lives once more.