By Judith E. Lipson, M.A., LPC
I began learning about polyvagal theory, founded by Dr. Stephen Porges, years ago while attending the international trauma conference in Boston. I had the privilege to hear him talk and knew it was vitally important. I have continued to read, attend lectures, and view videos on the subject. Additionally, over the last year I have participated in a weekly polyvagal practice group. As I gain a better understanding, I’m learning how to utilize its principles for my own well-being and my clients.
Sensitives and those who have encountered trauma are not the only ones who are challenged by the external and internal sensory impact on their nervous systems. Dr. George Thompson says: The motto of the amygdala [part of the nervous system] is “better safe than sorry”. We all deal with a reactive nervous system. Psychologists call it negative bias. Recognizing that challenging thoughts and feelings originate in the body’s nervous system helps me to explain the process to others and to recommend helpful responses.
Dr. Gabor Maté explains: “The usual conception of trauma conjures up notions of catastrophic events: hurricanes, abuse, egregious neglect, and war. This has the unintended and misleading effect of relegating trauma to the realm of the abnormal, the unusual, the exceptional. If there exists a class of people we call ‘traumatized’, that must mean that most of us are not. Here we miss the mark by a wide margin. Trauma pervades our culture, from personal functioning through social relationships, parenting, education, popular culture, economics, and politics. In fact, someone without the marks of trauma would be an outlier in our society. We are closer to the truth when we ask: Where do we each fit on the broad and surprisingly inclusive trauma spectrum? Which of its many marks has each of us carried all (or most) of our lives, and what have the impacts been? And what possibilities would open up were we to become more familiar, even intimate, with them?”
Physician, Dr. Lucy McBride wrote in her 10/17/22 newsletter: “It’s what some medical professionals, including myself, are calling ‘post-pandemic stress’, which is not an official diagnosis (nor does it mean that COVID is gone!) but is characterized by anxiety, mood instability, and mental exhaustion that is interfering with quality of life. I witness the full spectrum of this trauma response among my patients. I feel it myself. Some of us lean on friends; others seek solitude. Some rigidly adhere to strict diets; others binge on alcohol or sugary foods. Some grieve quietly; others lash out on social media — or at the supermarket — in anger. As trauma specialist Dr. Gabor Mate said, ‘Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you.’ Isolated for over two years, we’re being forced to confront our interior worlds — and each other. No matter how one processes loss, this transition out of this pandemic requires us to face uncomfortable truths about ourselves. We must normalize any feelings of despair and face our self-sabotaging behaviors to more appropriately direct our angst. Healing from the psychological toll of the past two years and rebuilding healthy relationships requires embracing our vulnerability. It requires accepting that we will not have all the answers, and that some questions simply don’t have one. To do so, we must embrace the practice of ‘holding paradox’. Holding paradox is about abandoning black-or-white thinking. It involves reframing our mindset to view issues as ‘both-ands’ instead of ‘either-ors’. It’s about approaching each day with an open, curious mind, instead of the impulse to predict, control, or win every argument.”
Ultimately, I now understand that polyvagal theory informs us of the body’s major role in one’s mental health. Sure, our thoughts and feelings are important. But it all begins in the nervous system….in the body. And we therefore must include those supports in addition to the cognitive reframing, verbal expression, and all the other therapeutic techniques that we use to address our “issues” and symptoms. To borrow Dr. McBride’s phrasing from above, this provides for a both-and therapeutic scenario. In fact, I still believe the best approach is holistic, utilizing a mind, body, spirit perspective. I’ve understood this theoretically for years, and now I’m learning how to incorporate “body” when related to therapy.
As we learn about the body’s responses and how they can then lead to our emotions and stories, we can consider these concepts that I learned at the recent Polyvagal Institute Summit:
- Learn to sit with the agitation, sadness, or distress for 90 seconds.
- Ask yourself if you can turn towards yourself, the world and others even during your distress, turning with kindness, warmth, and acceptance.
- Be a welcoming harbor for self, world, and others, trusting that your survival system is doing the job it best knows to do.
- Recognize that there is a neurobiological choice — to turn towards self, the world, and others.
As I bring this article to a close, I thought I’d add a few additional quotes that I have recently heard or read that relate to polyvagal and the nervous system:
- The kids who need love the most will ask for it in the most unloving ways. Russel Barkley
- Move from a task-based environment at work to a relationship-based environment. Marilyn Sanders
- Meet the person where their nervous system is. Stephen Porges
- It (their autonomic system) is not the individual. This clarity creates space for others to not judge harshly, and for self-compassion by the individual who struggles. George Thompson
- Regulation is connection. It’s not about being calm. Regulation is not a behavior, but an authentic connection to the self. Kim Barthel
I have found that understanding the nervous system’s role is a great way to better understand what is happening when I (or my client) has been overly stimulated into the fight/flight (sympathetic) or has found themselves in shutdown/collapse (dorsal). It’s a place to begin to understand your nervous system and your responses more completely so that you might better move yourself towards a more calm/connected (ventral) response.
The accompanying video offers a verbal discussion of ventral, sympathetic and dorsal, using a graphic of the autonomic ladder that was created by clinician Deb Dana. This article and video are provided to start a conversation – to help you to understand that since it begins in the nervous system, then the body can be the powerful entry point for ease and healing. I hope this moves you one step closer to experiencing the world in a more calm and connected manner.
If you wish to learn more about the concepts provided here while working with a trained professional, I recommend that you seek professionals who are trauma-informed and/or somatically trained.
Judy Lipson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and educational strategist in West Bloomfield, MI. She helps clients of all ages who have learning difficulties, work or school related anxiety, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorders, and those who wish to Remember and Become ‘Who You Really Are’. Contact Judy at 248.568.8665 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit www.JudyLipson.com for more information.
This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to replace medical care.