Do you know the feeling of thinking you’ve just grown in self awareness or your faith, and then something happens and you react the same way you used to? As if you hadn’t read all those books, gone to those counseling sessions, or prayed and memorized verses to ground and encourage you? That’s been the story of my life for many years. Polyvagal Theory is one a few things that has been so helpful to identify where I get stuck and how to unlock those stuck places. If you can relate, or even if you can’t, keep on reading and see what you think of this thing called Polyvagal Theory… I’ll give an overview of what the theory is and how it can be helpful.
I’m guessing you’ve maybe heard of Polyvagal Theory recently, it’s all the buzz right now. If you want to do a deep dive into what Polyvagal Theory is, I highly recommend looking into the work of clinician and author Deb Dana, LCSW. Her books can be easily found by googling her name, and I have listed a couple of her books under the “Resources” page (they’re even free on the Hoopla app, which is also free!). Her books are built on the work of Stephen W. Porges, PhD, who first proposed Polyvagal Theory in the early 90s. If you’re fine with the cliff-notes, read on below…
My initial exposure to the concepts in Polyvagal Theory came in the form of a simplified “zones” exercise for children. I was a new counselor in a group supervision session and I heard a colleague talking about how she was using “zones of regulation” with a child. Her worksheet included cute pictures of horses alongside a traffic light. The “green zone” had a nice calm horse. The “yellow zone” had a horse that was galloping. While I can’t remember the exact image of the “red zone,” I remember it had a horse that was clearly dysregulated and not-ok. Around the same time, I was at a doctor’s appointment with a loved one who was dealing with long-term injury and illness. The practitioner brought out an image very similar to the PDF below and talked us through how long term illness and stress can have negative impacts on our body and overall wellbeing. At this point in time, I had received training in working with conflictual couples and trauma reprocessing. While I had not seen this visual exactly, it so clearly mapped out so many pieces of information I had previously received. I am a highly visual person and was so excited to have a visual framework for myself and those I work with. Over and over I find that people can relate to this image and place themselves in the different “states.”
If you’re looking at the picture, you might be wondering, what does that word “neuroception” mean? In short, Polyvagal Theory looks at three distinct states we function in that can be identified by what specific branch or “setting” of our central nervous system is in charge. Depending on what our brain/nervous system perceives (neuroception), we will be in one of the three states depicted above. We used to think our body states were as simple as (1) we are ok, or (2) we’re in fight/flight/freeze. We now know there is more than one way we respond to different degrees of danger or threat, hence “Poly” at the beginning of Polyvagal Theory. This prefix means many, and as you see on the chart above, there is more than one place that “vagal” is referenced under the two places that our Parasympathetic Nervous System is in charge. The “ventral vagal” and “dorsal vagal” functions are triggered in different scenarios and instinctually respond depending on those triggers.
I think animals are the most clear (and cute!) way to understand these states. Let’s take cats for example… If they are feeling safe, they are the sweetest and snuggliest things, connecting relationally and calm. If they sense they are in danger, their claws might come out to fight or they might sprint away and flee. If they think their life is at risk (such as when you put a leash on them…!), they freeze and flop over based on a survival instinct.
While cute to consider in animals, when see this in our own lives, it doesn’t always feel so cute. If I feel safe and calm, in that green zone, I am most likely to be open, flexible, and connected with my loved ones or those around me. If something in me senses danger, I’m likely to feel some adrenaline in my body, a faster heart rate, and some drive to keep myself safe or resolve whatever is driving a conflict. If something in me feels unsafe to the point of panic or perceived life threat, my brain and body decides there’s nothing left I can do, and shuts down. An example of this happened a couple of months ago, in the middle of the night I heard a crash in our master bathroom, which is on the first floor. My husband being a deep sleeper didn’t wake up, and there I laid, completely frozen. I truly could not move. In reality, only a shelf had fallen, causing the loud noise. We were completely safe. I didn’t know this though, it sounded like someone had broken into our house, and I laid there unable to move, my heart nearly outside of my chest, barely breathing. The red zone is not a fun place to be.
The connection between the situation we are presently in and the state of our central nervous system is determined by our neuroception. Most simply, neuro- has to do with our central nervous system and -ception has to do with perception. It’s what our brain and body perceives is happening, not a consciously thought out or cognitive assessment of the world around us. Based on what our central system perceives of the world around us, a certain branch and function is triggered, leaving us feeling safe, in danger, or threatened, and responding accordingly.
And here’s the kicker — all of this happens before we can decide how we’d like to respond. A small example — if I put my hand on a hot stovetop, my brain and body will decide for me to move my hand and not get burned, I don’t wait for thinking part of my brain to assess if the temperature is hot enough to cause a burn. And that’s why this matters: if so much is decided by our brain and our body that is not the thinking part of our brain, but we use the thinking part of our brain to try to navigate life and issues of faith and formation, we need to be aware of what’s happening across all those domains. If we want to live mindfully in a way that integrates all parts of us that God created — brain, body, soul, heart, etc., exploring how these different parts of us function and can work together is crucial.
So, here’s a summary answer to the initial question, What is Polyvagal Theory?… Polyvagal Theory is helpful way to understand what goes on in our brain and our body, down to the depths of our central nervous system. Understanding and awareness of ourselves in this kind of detail allows us to think about and apply how we want to live in a thoughtful and rewarding way. Polyvagal Theory provides helpful puzzle pieces to the larger picture of what it means to be human. Understanding and navigating what it means to be human is central to our faith and spiritual formation. We will build on this basic understanding of Polyvagal Theory as we consider the intersection of how we react and respond in different life circumstances alongside how we would like to live as we grow and develop in our faith.
If you’re wondering why any of this might matter or how a person would apply learning about Polyvagal Theory in their faith journey, here are a couple of ideas…
Any person who wants to grow in their personal development, especially in places where they get stuck in faith related disciplines and practices. Sometimes we wonder why we can’t put our head knowledge into our heart or a heart change. I absolutely believe God’s power is needed in this process for transformation. I also believe that just as much as we need God to bring about transformation in the thinking part of our minds, we need Him to bring about transformation in the feeling part of our beings as well. We can’t completely separate the thinking part of our brain from the rest of us. God has created us so gloriously! We are a connected whole, and as we ask God to grow the connected whole that we are, a deeper understanding into aspects of our being, such as our central nervous system, can help us in places we might otherwise be blind or stuck.
This might also be specifically applicable in certain roles we want to grow in. It’s so easy in relationships to react in a way that’s not helpful, and get frustrated when this happens over and over. Whether with a spouse, child, friend, or other relationship, an understanding of Polyvagal Theory can help us piece together what goes on when we react in our relationships, those places we find ourselves stuck or feeling regret or shame, over and over again, even though we never want to end up there again! This can also provide us with specific things to be praying about as we ask for growth and transformation in our lives.
If you want to explore more about Polyvagal Theory and your spiritual formation, explore the additional posts with the header: Polyvagal Theory.