Polyvagal Theory III

This is the last of three introductory posts that talk about what Polyvagal Theory is. For a head-knowledge overview, see Polyvagal Theory I. For a little more of a heart-perspective with personal examples, see Polyvagal Theory II. With a fuller picture of Polyvagal Theory from these first three posts, we’ll start to explore ways we can integrate Polyvagal Theory with our faith and formation in future posts.

I thought it was important to add one last post about what Polyvagal Theory is in terms of what we feel in our bodies. This is really one of the easiest ways to locate where we are in terms of the different “states” of Polyvagal Theory (if you’re thinking, “what is this person talking about?,” all you need to know is that in Polyvagal Theory, there are three main states that our central nervous system can be in depending on how our brain and body perceive what’s going on around us. In short, we might feel safe, stressed, or shutdown). If a refresher is helpful, please see the photo below for these different states:

What’s it like in your body when you feel calm? Restful? Safe? I think about my body snuggled up on the couch with my cat, or what it feels like at the end of a massage or acupuncture treatment. My muscles are relaxed and I’m present. My heartbeat and breathing is calm. I don’t feel anxiety or stress flowing through me. I’m not pushing my body or ignoring pain. This is the state on the sand in the image above. I like this image because it works on many levels. Often times if we are on the beach, we are relaxed because we are on some sort of vacation. We also feel relaxed because research demonstrates it’s soothing to our bodies to hear the waves and have our feet and other parts of our body literally grounding in the sand. This is a rare space we might give ourselves permission to tap a nap in the sun like a little cat. This is a place where our bodies feel good and are free to function as they were created to. This feeds into how we handle our heart in relationship with others and our headspace about ourselves and the world around us.

What does it feel like in your body when you feel stressed and uncertain as to whether you are safe or not? This is where our Sympathetic Nervous System, or the “gas pedal,” starts to drive us. This function can be helpful in a stressful situation that requires we act efficiently. It can also feel incredibly unhelpful when we are triggered by something and try to keep living life, feeling pulled out into the water by a rip tide. I’ve heard people describe what they feel in this state as lightening in their body, like a bolt of lightening down the spine, from the base of the brain the whole way to the tailbone. I’ve heard others describe a feeling of adrenaline coursing through their veins after this state was triggered. Other common comments include feeling tightness in the neck, throat, chest, or stomach. Some people report feeling tingles in their hands or feet, and many people resonate with feeling their heart rate increase, their breaths getting shorter, and their blood pressure rising. Some people start to feel warm and many people feel an active hypervigilance inside of them. I can relate with nearly every single one of the bodily experiences at one point or another when I’ve been in this stressed state. Considering the image above, this is of course how we would likely feel if a rip tide were dragging us out into the water and we didn’t know if we would get safely back to shore.

What does it feel like in your body when your system has frozen or shutdown? As I wrote in a previous post, this can feel like sinking in deep water or being frozen while drowning. Once we hit this third state, our body truly does not know what to do. Here our bodies might freeze, shut down, and/or fragment. I’ve heard people describe time in this state as though they were watching the situation they were in from outside of their body, disconnected from reality in their body. I’ve also heard people describe a frozen feeling that stopped them in their tracks. I’ve heard people describe their body collapsing beneath them, shutting down beyond their reach or choice. This is not a fun place to be. Because of how trauma and this third state often overlap, there are complex considerations for what happens when our body is in this place, both during trauma and later in life. We’ll look at this in more detail in posts to come. Once we’ve hit this state, like the deepest of the water in the picture above, it’s hard for our body to know that we will be ok.

I’m not sure which body-experiences of the above you can relate to. I feel confident there is at least one, if not several, that every single person can relate to. Over and over when I ask people in sessions where they feel something in their body, or what something felt like in their body, they always have an answer. It doesn’t matter if they’ve never answered this question before, if they pause and can consider it, there’s answer, even if it’s numbness. That’s why I love Polyvagal Theory! It’s not a way of looking at things that happen to some people or relate to a few. It’s a way of understanding things that all people experience. I think there’s a beautiful sense of shared humanity when thinking about how we are not alone in these experiences.

Stay tuned for future posts to see what we do with an understanding of these different states! We’ll look at why it matters to understand Polyvagal Theory and how this impacts our faith and the formation of our souls.


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