The term Polyvagal Theory may sound intimidating, but the concept is actually simple to explain. Understanding polyvagal theory can start by taking a look at the two parts of the nervous system. The two parts of the nervous system include the central nervous system (brain stem and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (controls everything else). Both are controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS). In this video, Heather Mazzei, ASW discusses in more depth what the Polyvagal Theory is and how it can help strengthen relationships.
What Exactly is Polyvagal Theory?
As previously stated, the nervous system includes two types: the peripheral nervous system which comprises the ANS and create the sympathetic nervous system’s feeling of fight or flight. The parasympathetic nervous system creates the freeze response. Polyvagal Theory looks at the vagal nerve, which runs through one’s whole body and helps attune the ANS. The vagus nerve includes two parts – the dorsal vagal complex (DVC), or dorsal motor nucleus (freeze response) and ventral vagal complex (calm activation) Creator of the Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges, found that the vagal nerve operated as a third state between sympathetic and parasympathetic activation, the social engagement system, or a social nervous system. He also found that there was a defense system hierarchy. A person is unconsciously moving through stages of activation throughout the day. Where one is at in the stages of activation depends of if one feels safe or if their safety feels threatened.
How It Can Help Relationships
Couples experience the social engagement system when each person’s vagus nerve allows them to verbally and physically interact without feeling emotionally activated. It can be important for couples to identify what they individually need to feel safe physically, sexually, and emotionally, in order to best function within their relationship. While arguments are normal for couples in moderation, when fights result in yelling and insults, the fight or flight response has been activated.
Safety is of vital importance for relationships to successfully and securely function. In terms of the vagus nerve’s role in relationships, the vagus nerve prompts the muscles of the face and neck. This means that one can sense how their partner is feeling based on the facial expressions they are witnessing and vice versa. If partners are unable to read each other’s facial expressions, listening for tone can be another indicator if a partner feels safe enough to engage in contact. If one feels an aggressive or agitated tone, it can be beneficial to communicate that they feel unsafe and wait a bit before they continue any emotional conversations.
Polyvagal Theory in Practice
Understanding how to use polyvagal theory can help one strengthen their mind body connection. It can assist with assessing for real or perceived threats to one’s safety. It can help one understand when their nervous system is activated, as well as the nervous system of their partner and loved ones.
It can be helpful for those with a history of trauma to work with a therapist or mental health professional to better understand their vagus nerve, via body based trauma-informed therapies, and master the art of conserving energy. Polyvagal Theory and other trauma-sensitive clinical applications can help one understand their nervous system’s response to threat, and fight response, flight mode, freeze or fawn response, and how to regulate emotions, heart rate variability, and behavior when they feel activated. Understanding the vagus nerve helps couples co-regulate and remain more mindful.