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Polyvagal Theory: Understanding and Mapping Our Own Nervous System

Woman meditating in a field at sunset.

“Fight, Flight, or Freeze.” Many of us have likely heard this phrase before, but what does it mean? Why do we respond in these ways? And why are we so often told to “take a breath” to help us calm down?

While “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” has become a common phrase, what is rarely discussed is the reasoning and scientific understanding of what transpires in our nervous system, resulting in these three responses. In fact, these responses themselves happen automatically via the two parts of our autonomic nervous system; our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Given these automatic responses, the more insight we can gain about our individual nervous systems the more we can guide ourselves towards greater control, balance, and regulation in our lives. It is here where the core of the work of Psychologist, Dr. Stephen Porges, becomes critical in our ability to map and understand our nervous system.

Dr. Porges introduced “Polyvagal Theory” in 1994, focusing on the role of the vagus nerve throughout our parasympathetic nervous system, which controls bodily functions such as our digestion and heart rate, also known as “rest and digest.” It also has a direct connection to our immune system and thus, our overall health. What is unique to these functions however, is that they are involuntary, or “automatic,” meaning we have no conscious control of them. When the automatic responses take place, they activate our sympathetic nervous system to either jump into “Fight,” “Flight,” or “Freeze” mode. One of the most helpful and voluntary actions we can do to regulate and calm our parasympathetic nervous system is in fact breathing. It works! Not only does it send more oxygen to our brains, but breathing tells our nervous system to stop and regulate, while giving the brain a moment to pause and reprocess. In so many words, it reminds our nervous system that we are safe and in control, even if just for a moment.

Given the vagus nerve’s connection throughout this part of our nervous system, we can see how deeply intertwined it is within our unconscious mind and our unconscious responses. In fact, the fibers of the vagus nerve send messages to our brain, heart, and digestive system, emphasizing how critical this nerve is to our overall understanding and processing of the world. In short, our nervous system processes the information and events we experience within our environments and interactions with others, developing our unique nervous system’s automatic decision of “Fight, Flight, or Freeze.” Therefore, when we experience traumatic events, both singular and/or continuous events, this can greatly impact our vagus nerve, resulting in our nervous system having a maladjusted understanding of the world and interpersonal relationships.

As we loop back to this idea of mapping our own nervous system and Dr. Porges’ “Polyvagal Theory,” it is helpful to consider our nervous system operating on three main levels: Ventral Vagal or our state of feeling safe, grounded, joyful, and, compassionate, Sympathetic or our state of being in “Fight” or “Flight” mode while feeling angry, anxious, or panicked, and Dorsal Vagal or our state of being in “Freeze” mode while feeling shame, helplessness, shut down, or trapped.

What does each mode or level look like for you? Can you identify a word, image, sound, or smell that is personal to you when you are in each state? What activates or catapults you into each level? Or conversely, what helps soothe you in coming down from a heightened or triggered state?

This can be helpful and tangible data that is unique to you and your experiences, while supporting you in getting to better know both your conscious and unconscious self. A therapeutic relationship also becomes key in supporting one’s vagus nerve and nervous system towards healing, reprocessing, and engaging the world in a healthy manner. It may take time for our nervous system to recalibrate and adjust to newly learned safety, but healing IS possible.

The following sites provide additional information, guidance, and recommendations on beginning to map your nervous system without judgment via “Polyvagal Theory.” See what you notice and what curious thoughts pop up along the way. And please reach out if we can provide support in the process:

https://www.redeemercounselingcenter.com/articles/polyvagal-theory-mapping-your-nervous-system

References:

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