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The Polyvagal Theory: Understanding the 3 Neural Circuits that Shape our Behavior

The Polyvagal Theory serves as a validating and normalizing knowledge base for anyone, but maybe especially for that person that is stuck in a traumatized state. Stuck. Not Broken! If you're new to the Theory, this is an easy and free starting point here on my site. If you're familiar with the Theory, it's still a good idea to brush up on your knowledge, especially from the primary sources.


The PsychAlive video below feature's the Polyvagal Theory's creator, Dr. Stephen Porges. I'll share 3 key takeaways and my thoughts as well.




#1: The upside down triangle

Our nervous system functions like an upside-down triangle, with the brain circuits being regulated in the brainstem that control our underlying state. But the brainstem also receives information from the body.

The polyvagal theory provides us with an understanding of three neural circuits that support different types of behavior. -Stephen Porges

The Polyvagal Theory highlights that our behaviors, emotions, thoughts and interpersonal interactions are supported by the state that our body is in.


There are three neural circuits that support different types of behavior: social engagement behaviors in safe environments, fight or flight mobilization in dangerous situations, and the third circuit of shutdown for life-threatening situations.


The state of the body affects the state of the brainstem, which affects the potentials of the brain and its higher functions. Likewise, the brain's cognitions will affect the brainstem, which will affect the state of the body. It's a self-perpetuating loop with the brainstem being at the center of it all.


"When we're in safe states, we can access higher cortical functions. When we're in danger states, those systems turn off and we're defensive."

To change the stuck defensive loop of trauma, the individual needs to get in alignment with their body's natural inclination toward self-regulation. I break this down into three large phases:

  1. learning accurate information, like the Polyvagal Theory. This lays a foundation for non-judgment and validation of the self. It also allows for new narrative-building.

  2. Identify, practice and build the neural circuits for safety and social engagement, the ventral vagal pathways.

  3. Once the ventral pathways are strong enough, then allow for the natural compulsion of self-regulation through mindfully experiencing the stuck defensive state.

This 3 phase process is covered in detail in my comprehensive Polyvagal Trauma Relief System.



#2: Neurobiological responses

Our responses to different environments, relationships and contexts are not voluntary, as our nervous system picks up information from the environment and evaluates that information on a subconscious, neurobiological level.


(BTW, I really enjoyed when Dr. Porges stumbles on the word "subconscious" and says "if we want to bring that term back".)


Our senses detect various levels of safety or danger in the environment. Then our brainstem uses that information to shift up or down the Polyvagal Ladder into a state of defense or safety. None of this is conscious and self-determined. These are responses that are encoded into our DNA, passed down from generations of successful evolutionary survival.


This means that we may feel our heart pounding in certain environments, and that's our nervous system reacting to cues in the environment that we may not be aware of. Or maybe there's a certain smell in the environment that's a trigger for defense. Or a certain person.



#3: Co-regulation

Social interaction is a neural exercise of using newer mammalian structures to inhibit very primitive defensive systems. Being in the state of safety calms the defensive states. This is a biological process. And one can get into a state of safety through interactions with safe others.


This means that the way we interact with others can help to regulate our nervous system, especially in safe environments where we can use our face, intonation, or voice to negotiate relationships and maintain safety. Safe others + safe environments are key ingredients for Polyvagal ladder-climbing.


However, if we don't have experiences of "using people" to regulate in a pro-social positive way, people can be perceived to be threatening. Even people who are not threatening might be perceived that way from a defensive state.


Him saying "using people" might sound like a negative thing. But really, he's referring to our body's natural capacity to receive cues of safety from safe people around us. It's not an intentional using of others in a selfish way. It's more like neurobiologically receiving cues of safety from safe others.


Doing so builds the strength of those very important ventral vagal safety pathways. And doing that allows us to then provide cues of safety to others perpetuating the co-regulation offering over generations.


 

Stephen Porges Quotes from the video:

  1. "If you have a history in which there are no experiences of using people to regulate in a very pro-social positive way, people will then become threatening or damaging to you."

  2. "The polyvagal theory provides us with an understanding of three neural circuits that support different types of behavior."

  3. "When we're in safe states, we can access higher cortical functions. When we're in danger states, those systems turn off and we're defensive."

  4. I'm talking about three states that provide a neural platform for a great diversity of expression."

  5. "But what if we can't get away from the danger?... The possibility is we could trigger a 3rd circuit, which shuts us down."

 

Q&A


Q: What is social interaction according to the Polyvagal Theory?

A: According to the Polyvagal Theory, social interaction is a neural exercise of using newer mammalian structures to inhibit very primitive defensive systems.


Q: What triggers our defensive responses according to the Polyvagal Theory?

A: According to the Polyvagal Theory, our senses detect various levels of safety or danger in the environment, and our brainstem uses that information to shift up or down the Polyvagal Ladder into a state of defense or safety.


Q: How can an individual change the stuck defensive loop of trauma according to the Polyvagal Trauma Relief System?

A: An individual needs to go through the 3 phases of the System, which are: learning accurate information, building the neural circuits for safety and social engagement, and allowing for the natural compulsion of self-regulation through mindfully experiencing the stuck defensive state.


 

Dr. Stephen Porges

Stephen W. Porges, Ph.D. is Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University where he is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. He is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He has published more than 400 peer-reviewed papers across several disciplines. In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, which is now leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders. Dr. Porges has written or co-edited several books on the Polyvagal Theory and is the creator of the the Safe and Sound Protocol™. Read more here >


PsychAlive

PsychAlive.org is a non-profit website that offers psychology for everyday life. The PsychAlive YouTube channel features interviews with experts in the field of mental health. Video topics include mindfulness, self-development, relationship advice, attachment, parenting, suicide prevention and other key topics in psychology. PsychAlive is funded by the non-profit The Glendon Association. Learn more at PsychAlive or Glendon.org. Visit the YouTube channel here >


Justin Sunseri

Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.

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