What the Heck is Poly Vagal?

Warning- for some people this will be difficult content to digest. Please consider a grounding exercise such as a mindfulness exercise or using temperature to the ground after you have read this article.

Dr. Stephen Porges a researcher and scientist emphasizes the importance of bidirectional neurofeedback between body and brain. Porges emphasizes the importance of relating to another human from a bottom-up perspective instead of a top-down. He explains that many western therapies have been designed around the idea of top-down. Cognitive therapies are based on thinking rather than feeling or focusing on internal sensations. He poses the question; What if we have it wrong? What if our nervous system sends a signal to the brain which then creates the feelings and visceral reactions?

For this reason, he studied the two branches of the Vagus that were important for understanding the freeze response known to be on the continuum of immobilization response

What is Vagal?

The Vagus nerve runs from our brain stem into our nervous system There are many branches running from the vagus into the nervous system.

The two interesting branches that are important in terms of healing from trauma are the Dorsal Vagus DVC and the Ventral Vagus VVC

The dorsal part of the vagus is known as the ” vegetative vagus,” because it is known for its lower-level survival responses connected to our reptilian brain. (Reptiles freeze when threatened).

The VVC or ventral part of the vagus is the first response towards the threat. Dr. Porges speaks of a hierarchy of threat responses that happen when the nervous system is under threat.

The responses to threat typically fall in this order, however, in some cases people will immediately go to B or C rather than A. This is sometimes true for survivors of childhood trauma

A) Social engagement – ask for help from friends or family or huddle with other humans close by

B) Fight or flight – Flee from the threat or fight the threat

C) Freeze – Freeze, go floppy, or immobilize – death.

When the Dorsal part of the vagus is activated it causes the nervous system to freeze or dissociate. In its very extreme response, the dorsal activates and the nervous system immobilizes much like you would see a mouse in a cat’s mouth immobilized or floppy.

The DVC activates when a child is abused by its caregivers and the child is unable to get away or fight off the threat. The freeze response can sometimes activate in a sexual assault or molestation.

The freeze response is incredibly important to understand particularly so that one does not blame themselves for a traumatic event that may have caused their nervous system to freeze. Without this understanding, a survivor often blames themselves for not fighting back when they are under attack. Worse yet is service providers also used to blame the victim before there was an understanding of this freeze response. This response according to Porges is hardwired and ” not a personal fault,” ( personal communications 2011).

There is no particular reason why a person would freeze over social engagement or fight or flight before social engagement. The Vagus operates in milliseconds and the brain lapses behind these hardwired responses. In other words, the thinking brain is not working.

The important fact here is that these responses are hardwired, cannot be helped, and designed for our protection. Therefore, blaming oneself for freezing in a particularly threatening situation is like saying you should not have yelped when boiling hot water poured on to your hand.