“Polyvagal Theory” describes a group of ideas related to the role of the vagus nerve in human psychology. According to this theory, the vagus nerve serves an important role in emotional regulation, social behavior, and fear response. Stephen Porges, director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, first introduced Polyvagal Theory in 1994.
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve, also called the pneumogastric nerve, is a cranial nerve made up of sensory and motor fibers. It is also the longest nerve of the human autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS controls and regulates many bodily functions, usually unconsciously. Such functions include heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and urination.
The ANS is important for the human body’s stress response and defense mechanisms. One branch of the ANS, the sympathetic nervous system, is connected to the “fight-or-flight” response. Another branch, the parasympathetic nervous system, controls what is sometimes called the “freeze-or-faint” response. In stressful situations, these systems may work together, or one may inhibit the other.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
Under Polyvagal Theory, human beings can immediately, even unconsciously decide if an environment is safe or threatening because of information sent via the vagus nerve.
When responding to their environment, Polyvagal Theory proposes that humans use not only the fight-or-flight and freeze-or-faint responses, but another division of the ANS. This third division includes a social communication and engagement system, which includes facial muscles, middle ear function, and vocalizing.
According to Polyvagal Theory, a person who, with the information sent via their vagus nerve, has determined that an environment is secure can feel safe in using their social engagement system. This includes a calm heart and respiratory rate, and the free use of vocal and facial expressions.
However, if the environment is not safe, it will trigger the fight-or-flight response. If that system somehow fails, then the freeze-or-faint response kicks in, and the affected person is less able to relate to the world socially. Porges also suggests that the body can remember a traumatic experience and become “stuck” in one of these trauma response states.
Polyvagal Theory in Mental Health
Psychologists and therapists who are interested in Polyvagal Theory often use it to inform decisions about anxiety, fear, and trauma.
According to Bessel van der Kolk, professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and author of The Body Keeps the Score, the Polyvagal Theory “makes us look beyond the effects of fight or flight and put social relationships front and centre in our understanding of trauma. It also suggested new approaches to healing that focus on strengthening the body’s system for regulating arousal.”
Because Polyvagal Theory is a relatively recent idea, supporting evidence remains limited. While it has been used to help inform trauma treatment, Polyvagal Theory has also been criticized for this lack of research. Additional research may be necessary before the theory is more widely incorporated into behavioral health clinical practice.
Trauma recovery is just one of many challenging areas for behavioral health providers. In particular, mental health and addiction treatment professionals can prepare to see an increased demand for services related to trauma connected to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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