What is the Polyvagal Theory?
Polyvagal therapy posits that our bodies react physiologically and neurobiologically to heightened stress, especially in the face of perceived danger. Often, our body systems react to stressful situations by freezing. When in stressful situations, even if we don’t physically stop what we’re doing, our thoughts or emotions might become frozen and leave us with a numb feeling. The goal of polyvagal theory in therapy is to decrease this freezing response by activating the vagal system.
What happens in a Polyvagal Theory session?
Polyvagal therapists educate clients about the vagal system and the vagus nerve, which runs from our brains to our stomachs. Clients will develop an understanding about how this system impacts trauma symptoms. They’ll also learn how to activate the vagal system, which combats falling into the “freezing” reaction. While we can activate the vagus nerve by deep breathing (exhaling longer than we inhale), we can also engage it by experiencing strong social connections. Polyvagal theory helps clients with both.
Using polyvagal therapy, the therapist and client will initially explore the reasons that the client reached out for help. Typically, before the sessions focus on physiology or neural systems, the client will talk about their backgrounds, symptoms, and mental health goals. This includes sharing any traumatic experiences such as toxic relationships, abuse, accidents, complicated medical situations, and more. Gathering this information not only helps the therapist better plan for treatment, but also offers an opportunity for bonding between the therapist and client. This will come into play when the client practices activating the body system related to social interaction.