Polyvagal theory (PVT) is a scientific framework for understanding the human nervous system so that people can optimize physical and mental health. PVT is centered around the role of the vagus, a cranial nerve that forms the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system. Historically, the autonomic nervous system presents a two-part system: the sympathetic nervous system, which is more activating (fight or flight), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which supports health and restoration (rest and digest). PVT asserts there is a third type of nervous system response centered around social connection, which is both activating and calming, and leads to better flexibility and adaptation of the nervous system.
PVT gives us strategies and tools to develop a relationship with ourselves so we can better respond to our mind and body’s needs with appropriate, effective and compassionate responses. Our autonomic nervous system is continuously responding to the environment around us, particularly cues of safety and cues of danger. This awareness and understanding help us to take appropriate actions to support ourselves to reduce stress, and become more physically and emotionally regulated.
Approaching our individual stress and anxiety through a polyvagal lens gives us a new language to understand our nervous system and partner with it to support our health. Being in relationship with our nervous system means knowing its language, and speaking its language, and attending to our various needs, which look different, depending on what state we are in. For example, if we are aware that our heart is beginning to race when we prepare to speak up at a work meeting because it feels “unsafe” in some way, we can recognize this as anxiety and prepare ourselves in advance. We can prepare by taking a deep breath before speaking, or by conjuring a cheerful image in our mind of a beautiful place or someone we love that helps us feel calm before we begin. Understanding our nervous system helps us respond and prepare for instead of react.
Sometimes your body responds to situations in ways we cannot control. Your heart rate, digestion, blood pressure, how much you sweat, and your breathing are all controlled by your autonomic nervous system, with minimal input from you. Many of us live stressful lives and it would help to intentionally downregulate our nervous systems to be more relaxed and resilient in the face of daily stressors. Polyvagal techniques can be used by health and wellness coaches to help you gain some understanding and control over these responses that are normally considered involuntary. This is especially useful in dealing with stress and anxiety. Health and wellness coaches partner with you to practice polyvagal techniques. Coaches provide you with actionable steps and tools that you can use independently to sustain these life changes.
Understanding our autonomic nervous system
As mentioned above, the autonomic nervous system can be divided into two main sets of nerves that cause opposite reactions.
Your sympathetic nervous system prepares your body’s “fight or flight response” when faced with any real or perceived danger. This leads to increased blood pressure and heart rate plus faster breathing, and more tensed-up muscles. Often these muscles may be around your back, since the nerves of the autonomic nervous system originate along your spine.
Your parasympathetic nervous system opposes those stressful responses, keeping your body from overworking itself and restoring it to a calmer state by slowing your breathing and heart rate. The parasympathetic system is actually further divided into two branches: the ventral vagal system and the dorsal vagal system.
A third ventral vagal system is the one that polyvagal informed coaching aims to tap into. The response it creates encourages social engagement, and allows you to feel most at ease and able to connect with the people you’re around. Your body feels a sense of safety, can more easily relax, and stress is at a low point.
Polyvagal coaching can help you gain a better awareness of your nervous system states. It provides tools for when you feel like you’re stuck in a stressful sympathetic state, unable to calm down, and need to move to a more relaxed state.
What are some examples of polyvagal tools?
Some examples of these polyvagal tools that coaches will take you through to help you become aware of your nervous system and gain some control over it include:
Personal profile mapping. This helps you identify your individual experience of each nervous system state, so that you can recognize how each one affects you. This will give you more control and hopefully the ability to recognize that your nervous system state is tricking you into thinking that an environment is stressful or threatening, when in reality it’s not.
Regulating resources map. In addition to recognizing your response to different nervous system states, you can now begin to identify the events or situations that trigger those responses. This makes it easier to regulate your current state and move out of it if need be.
Ventral vagal anchors. Finding your anchors means evaluating which people, places and activities bring you out of a stressed nervous system state and into a state of calm.
The basic exercise. This is a five-minute eye movement exercise that will stimulate your vagus nerve, building the flexibility of your nervous system and its ability to return you to a calm state.
Soundscapes. Identify certain sounds your body may respond to, especially the ones that calm you. Ideally, this will lead to retraining your body so that you only enter into a stressed and disconnected state when necessary, and your natural resting state is a calm one that allows you to recover from those needed periods of acute stress.
How can a Lemonaid Health and Wellness coach help me with Polyvagal techniques?
Polyvagal strategies can help individuals assess what daily habits and actions support them to regulate emotions, decrease stress, and bounce back from challenges. Often polyvagal techniques are used in helping individuals who struggle with chronic pain, generalized or social anxiety, and stress, among other issues. Lemonaid coaches can partner with you to learn and practice polyvagal techniques to improve your health. Coaches will meet with you regularly over video, and you can also check in via secure messaging anytime you need extra support between your regular coaching sessions.
Porges, S. W., & Dana, D. (2018). Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory: The emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies (Norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). WW Norton & Company
Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 76(Suppl 2), S86.
Rosenberg, S. (2017). Accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve: Self-help exercises for anxiety, depression, trauma, and autism. North Atlantic Books.