Understanding Polyvagal Theory is easier than it sounds. The nervous system is your friend, especially if you can learn to understand and modify its course. There are two parts, the central nervous (brain and spinal cord), and peripheral nervous (everything else) system. The peripheral system comprises the autonomic (ANS) which controls sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (freeze) actions within the body. The ANS is unconsciously controlling bodily functions like breathing, digestion, and heart rate, while also causing elevation or decrease in energy levels. Think of it as your environmental alert system. Ever felt like you were in the zone during a great workout? Thank your sympathetic system for coming online. How about a time you were frozen in fear? Parasympathetic system at work. Humans are social creatures, and in order to survive, the body works to find clues, process, and respond to your environment. These ANS states allow you to function, but being aroused or staying frozen are not ideal for everyday interactions.
But, What is Polyvagal Theory?
Polyvagal theory looks closely at the vagal nerve to understand a third state between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation, the social engagement system. The vagus, or 10th cranial nerve runs through the entire body, helping to modulate the ANS. Dr. Stephen Porges, creator of Polyvagal theory, posits there is a defense system hierarchy. The vagus nerve has two parts, the dorsal vagal, responsible for shut down or freeze. And the ventral vagal, which allows you to move into a state of calm activation. Ventral states allow you where to interact and engage with others. Consider intimacy or play with a partner as social engagement states that allow for optimal functioning. This hierarchy is much like a control system in a music lab. Your body is unconsciously adjusting the control up and down all day. Movement in and out of these stages is dependent on levels of safety and threat. Going into work and finding you missed an important meeting, dorsal vagal freeze. Head to the bathroom to be comforted by a coworker, ventral vagal calm.
How Can Polyvagal Theory Help Your Relationship?
Understanding the social engagement system means recognizing the need to feel safe in order to function in a partnership. The variability of the vagus nerve allows interaction without feeling hyper aroused. Think of it like a brake, by pressing or releasing, individuals can approach and avoid, and engage in self-regulation to maintain neutral behavioral states. Conflict and fighting are a normal, natural part of relationships, how you handle these situations is determined by your level of personal insight and commitment to effective communication. The sympathetic system (fight or flight) takes seconds to come online and nearly 10-20 minutes to re adjust. This is you and your partner quickly resulting in yelling, disrespect, and a general lack of safety. On the other hand, the social engagement system takes milliseconds to adjust, but requires safety first. Without understanding the process of arousal it’s easy to lose control, and mindfulness in tough conversations. The first step in modifying behavior is awareness. Interested in learning about how couples therapy can help your relationship? Checkout this blog on the PACT model to learn how to create safety in your relationship.
Creating Safety in Relationships
The perception of safety is what allows relationships to move toward social engagement or apart in defensiveness. The vagus nerve helps innervate muscles of the face and neck, as well as regulation of the inner ear. Everything happening with your face and voice provides clues to your partner about whether to approach or avoid. Keep in mind, how you say it, often matters more than what you say. Watch your tone, if you are becoming agitated and start raising your voice, your partner only hears, “I am not safe, don’t come near me.” Humans are uniquely receptive to low-frequency sounds and if intonation causes the wrong pitch, all of a sudden a neutral face appears as an angry face, and safety is out the window. If you want to experiment, record your next planned discussion and play it back. See what you notice. Unfortunately, the brain has a negativity bias, it is primed to look for and assume the worst. Ever catch yourself thinking your partner is late because they are cheating, only to find they were picking up food for a romantic dinner. Time to turn off the defenses to truly see and hear the truth, remember safety trumps fear. If you are struggling with safety and regulation, check out this video for more information.
What To Do If Your Partner Shuts Down?
Individuals who are starting to withdraw need to be woken up and then calmed. Try a few of the following strategies next time your notice your partner leaving the conversation before it’s over:
- Say something along the lines of, “I see this is causing some uncomfortability, I’m going to back off for a moment, but I’m right here”.
- Lower your voice and talk more slowly. The vagus nerve helps filter noise out of the inner ear so your partner can focus on just your voice.
- Ask your partner what they might be feeling and be patient while they take the time to think. Don’t demand engagement.
- Engage in conscious breathing with your partner, emphasizing the exhale.
What To Do If Your Partner Is Amped Up?
When an individual is hyper aroused it becomes nearly impossible to have full executive functioning (brain power) and engage in a meaningful conversation. Try these strategies to help bring your partner back down:
- Try putting your foreheads together and taking 6 deep breaths, emphasizing the exhale (yes this strategy works for bringing someone up and down!)
- Say something like, “I can see you’re really stressed huh?”. Name the emotion and wait, recognize they are being threatened.
- Lower your voice, remember the vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords too.
- Rub the side of your neck and encourage your partner to do the same. The vagus nerve is stimulated by massaging certain parts of the body including the carotid sinus on the right side of your neck.
How to Build Your Own Vagal Tone?
Strong vagal tone can help increase levels of compassion and empathy, as well as assisting you with emotional regulation in sticky situations. Try these strategies on your own:
- Splash your face with cold water, or take a cold shower (just try 30 seconds at the end). Cold stimulates the vagus nerve.
- Practice conscious breathing, perhaps take up meditation or yoga.
- Sing, hum, chant, or gargle.
- Socialize and laugh. Socializing helps reduce stress hormones in the body. Research even highlights reflecting on positive social interactions helps deepen vagal tone. Feeling overwhelmed, think back to a fun weekend.
Keep in mind everyone’s nervous system is unique and that much of your responses are unconscious. For those who have experienced severe trauma, there may be a tendency towards hypervigilance. Situations you find neutral may be incredibly threatening to a trauma survivor. Use your interoceptive abilities to learn how to modulate your automatic responses and then turn towards your partner. Secure functioning relationships require a willingness to learn about one another. People are not mind readers, but with a little help, you can use polyvagal theory to help control the knob on your nervous system.