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What everyone gets wrong about the Polyvagal Theory

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

I think this is what most people get wrong about the Polyvagal Theory...

When I see what others are putting out about the Polyvagal Theory, they tend to focus on a couple of things. And both are short-sighted.

The first thing that they focus on is the behavioral aspect of the Theory. Specifically, the "trauma response" aspect. They've learned that the PVT has something to do with trauma and lump it in with other vague learnings about "trauma responses".

You'll often see people talk about "fight, flight and freeze." Sometimes they mention "fawn." Sometimes they mention "friend" or "f***" or "faint" or other things that all seemingly somehow start with the letter "f".

This is a convoluted mess. It's unnecessary and confuses the issue of understanding trauma and understanding the Polyvagal Theory.

The other thing they tend to focus on is an over-emphasis of the biology. People love love love to mention things like "dorsal vagal" and "ventral vagal". They love it. Really, they do. Oh and the "vagus nerve"? Forget about it.

Talk of the vagus nerve is all the rage. Stimulating it? Sure. Resetting it? Heck yeah. Rewiring it? Maybe? Activating it? Most definitely. All of these things at the same time? I mean, sure, why not, right?

Then they instruct you to do things like gargle. Or tilt your head and stretch your neck. Or rub your neck. Or go into a cold body of water. Or splash water on your face. Or dance or sing.

Huh? What is this accomplishing? How can you tell?

(This is all a convoluted mess as well. Unnecessary and confusing to the beginner.)

The reality is the heart of the Polyvagal Theory has little to do with the vagus nerve itself.

I know, I know. This doesn't make sense.

The PVT is much more than the vagus nerve. It's much more than "trauma responses". It's much more than - you guessed it - gargling.

The PVT is a biological unified theory of various human domains. Thought, emotion, sensation, impulse, autonomic state. The Theory connects the biology of our everyday experience to the theory of evolution. It's the science of connection and survival.

It's not a psychological theory. It's not an educational one. It's not a medical one. It's all of these and more. It's the underlying biology of what makes us who we are (and other organisms too, but focuses on mammals), which is then applied to various professional pursuits. It doesn't belong to the trauma sphere. Nor the educational. Nor the psychological. Nor any other. It unifies each of these professions.

And yeah, it's more than the vagus nerve. It describes how the brainstem and our senses are involved in something called "neuroception". It connects to other biological processes, like optimizing bodily resources for safety or defense. (Things that I lack knowledge in, sorry.)

The vagus nerve is the conduit. Messages are sent from the brainstem down to your various bodily organs and processes. The vagus nerve is like a highway the information travels. That's it.

If you don't believe me, give my interview with Dr. Porges a listen (he created the Theory). He says so himself -

The vagus nerve is a conduit. It's a wire. That's not what we're really concerned about. We're more concerned about the regulator that's sending signals through that wire and the impact of those signals to the target organs and then the target organs through the sensory part of the vagus sending signals back to the brain. So we're more concerned with the feedback loop between organ and brainstem that's going through the vagus than the nerve itself.

We need clarity, not novelty and confusion

The Polyvagal Theory is deep and complex and highly academic. Rather than attempting to fit it into other ideas you already have about "trauma responses" or popular psychology trends, focus on understanding the Theory for what it is.

Yeah, it's fun to connect to other things and I have done a lot of that on the podcast. But you need to have a clear understanding of the Theory first.

Podcast listeners and students of my online courses tell me consistently that I make the Polyvagal Theory easy to understand right away. Thom is a member of my Polyvagal 101 course and he said in a feedback form that he got "a clearer understanding of the fundamentals of the polyvagal theory and its relationship with trauma."

And that's exactly my goal when I teach the PVT. Easy peasy, no confusion. Makes sense the first time. No more and no less.

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