Understanding how our body handles emotional stress can help us to rewrite the effects of trauma.
Polyvagal theory explains three different parts of our nervous system and their responses to stressful situations. Once we understand those three parts, we can see why and how we react to high amounts of stress.
If polyvagal theory sounds as exciting as watching paint dry, stick around, the wisdom is worth it. It’s a fascinating explanation of how our body handles emotional stress, and how we can use different therapies it to rewrite the effects of trauma.
Been seriously considering adding The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) 1st Edition by Stephen Porges to Starseed Yoga Immersion RYT required reading because it scientifically validates yoga as a tool to truly help change impulsive surface reactivity to mindful response by becoming more connected to your here and now body.
WHY ISPOLYVAGALTHEORY IMPORTANT?
For everyone from yogis to mental health professionals to pop-psychology enthusiasts alike, understanding polyvagal theory can help with a deeper understanding of:
Trauma and PTSD
The dance of attack and withdrawal in relationships
How extreme stress leads to dissociation or shutting down
How to read body language
We like to think of our emotions as ethereal, complex, and difficult to categorize and identify.
The truth is that emotions are responses to a stimulus (internal or external). Often they happen out of our awareness, especially if we are out of touch, or incongruent, with our inner emotional life.
Our primal desire to stay alive is more important to our body than even our ability to think about staying alive. That’s where polyvagal theory comes in to play. The nervous system is always running in the background, controlling our body functions so we can think about other things—like what kind of ice cream we’d like to order, or how to get that A in med school. The entire nervous system works in tandem with the brain, and can take over our emotional experience, even if we don’t want it to.
HOW TRAUMA AFFECTS THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
As humans, we do the same thing as our four-legged friends when we perceive emotional or physical danger. We alternate between peaceful grazing (parasympathetic - connection mode), fight or flight (sympathetic system- fight and flight) or shutdown (parasympathetic- shut down mode).
Our response is all in our perception of the event. Maybe someone was just playing a game when they jumped out to scare us, but we fainted. Whatever the reason, whether the incident was intentional or not, our body shifted into shutdown mode, we registered it as a trauma. Our body shifted into shutdown mode. Or maybe the trauma event was really life threatening, and our nervous system responded appropriately to the stimuli.
No matter what the cause was, our brain believed what was happening was life threatening enough that it caused our body to go into flight, flight, or shutdown mode. If someone has been through such a traumatic event that their body tips into shutdown response, any event that reminds the person of that life-threatening occurrence can trigger them into disconnection or dissociation again. People can even live in a state of disconnection or shutdown for days or months at a time.
The problem occurs when we haven’t processed the original trauma in such a way that the original trauma is resolved. That’s what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is—our body’s overreaction to a small response, and either stuck in fight and flight or shut down.
People who experience trauma and the shutdown response usually feel shame around their inability to act, when their body did not move. They often wish they would have fought more during those moments.
The right amount of stress, with good recovery skills, can lead our nervous systems into higher levels of adaptation.
COMING OUT OF SHUTDOWN MODE
So how do we climb back out of shutdown mode? The opposite of the dorsal vagal system is the social engagement system. In short, what helps heal shutdown mode is bringing ourselves into healthy social engagement, or proper attachment.
Getting down into the nuts and bolts of how this works in our body can help us understand why we feel the way we do physically when your body is in fight, flight, or shut down mode.
When we understand why our body reacts the way it does, like a string of clues and some basic science about the brain, we can understand how to switch states. We can begin to move out of the fight or flight state, out of the shutdown mode, and back into the social engagement state.
As starseeds, whether we are just establishing a connection with the root of our own anxiety, or helping others deal with their deep traumatic memories, knowing how to navigate the polyvagalstates is important. If you have even just a basic understanding how this works, you have a stronger skill set to pull out of a disconnected state.
Studies show that some parts of the brain shut down during the recall of traumatic events, including the verbal centers and the reasoning centers of the brain (Van Der Kolk, 2006).
The entire polyvagal theory should make us say “thank you!” to our bodies. Even if that system is overactive at times—unwarranted panic or anxiety—that our body is watching out for us, trying to keep us alive.
Our body reacting in that way is the same thing as animals either running away or going limp. And animals have no idea what emotions are in the first place.
When we understand that our emotional responses were adaptive, primal, and appropriate, we can get rid of the shame that non-reaction caused. Anger is an incredibly adaptive emotion, and it’s one we don’t allow ourselves to have. We think anger is bad. But truly, anger shows us where our healthy boundaries were crossed.
Anger gives us energy to overcome the obstacle. If we can identify our anger, we will see that we were not completely unresponsive to the traumatic event. If we can feel even the tiniest movement of a microexpression of anger on the face—the slight downturn of the inner eyebrows—we can prove our body didn’t totally betray us in that moment.
We can reconnect our body and our feelings to our emotions. This helps develop a state of congruence—where inside feelings match outer demonstrations of those feelings.
Further, as a dissociative memory is explored, finding anger and reducing shame allows for the memory to fundamentally change. Anger brings us out of dissociation. Movement helps to move the angry energy through the body.
Because shutdown causes us to freeze, reactivating body movements as well as talking through the trauma is a great way to reconnect the body and mind, to bring us out of shutdown.
It’s important to do the movement mindfully and slowly, focusing on the sensation of the movement. Eventually, a release of energy will cause the memory to become a narrative, instead of dissociating.
Moving, slow punching, kicking, twisting, running slowly in place—flips the person from shutdown into the fight or flight mode, with the goal being to move into connection, or social engagement, mode.
Body movement exercises, (and in my case, in conjunction with talking to a therapist) can fundamentally change the memory.
The human experience is so powerful that when we re-engage the trauma, with someone else to support us, it rewrites that event in our brain, adding in the feeling of being supported within the trauma memory. We create new neural pathways around the trauma, and we can change our body’s response to it.
Practice assertiveness. Emotional shutdown can occur within relationships where one person feels they cannot communicate with the other person well. One therapist, John Gottman, describes this practice as stonewalling. Practicing assertiveness can help the patient feel more in control of their emotional state, and feel safe to move into healthy relationship patterns.
Breath work, mindfulness, and yoga all have a role in becoming more connected to your here and now body. Our next e-book releasing next month will have specific poses that can help inflammation, anxiety and depression.
Engage in strength building practices and self-defense training. Teaching yourself how to better protect yourself in the future can be powerful and also resets the stress system over time. Learning to fight is an active way to not remain passive or fall into a victim archetype both in mindset and capability. Further, doing something hard, on an ongoing basis, allows for building inner strength which can keep you in fight and flight longer before going into shut down.