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Polyvagal Theory - The importance of our nervous system to our well-being.

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

There are aspects of our mental and physical health that are beyond our conscious control. Our nervous system plays a major role in this.

Polyvagal theory was developed by Dr. Stephen W. Porges, a U.S. neuroscientist and psychiatrist, and describes the interrelationships of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) in a new way in that it constantly picks up environmental and organ signals, as well as examines and evaluates them for risk, to help us distinguish between safe and dangerous situations. This is called neuroception.

Depending on the evaluation of our ANS, we sense danger and react with fight, flight or freeze behavior (as we did millions of years ago). This danger does not have to be real, e.g. in the form of a saber-toothed tiger 😉, the danger can also simply be felt.

Neuroception: our nervous system decides whether we are safe or dangerous.

Three variations on how we respond to perceived danger.

The results of Dr. Porges' research provide important insights for psychotherapy because they describe the connection between the psyche and the body in a new way and make us look at many of our behaviors in a new light.

We all process experiences, sensory stimuli from the environment and our bodies differently. Accordingly, we also react differently. Depending on the outcome of the perception, different adaptive neural circuits are triggered.

In the context of neuroception, our "three brains" play a major role, which have developed in the course of evolution.

Our "Three Brains": Rational brain, mammalian brain, reptilian brain.

We react to "felt" dangers according to our human evolution if necessary with our reptile brain or "immobilization system". That is to say, to play dead, to save energy, to paralyze, to freeze.

In the course of evolution we have developed an "activation system" to react to dangers. That is, we release energy in the form of fight or flight responses.

The last relevant system we developed about 200 million years ago when we evolved into mammals is called the "socialization system". We seek a solution to danger through communication and social interaction. The neocortex or our rational brain plays the main role here. Community and connectedness are paramount.

Depending on which system reacts, our parasympathetic nervous system (in freezing: dorsal vagus, in the socialization system: ventral vagus) or the sympathetic nervous system is activated.

So in our body, unconsciously, a lot is happening at once and we don't even notice it.

Evolution of the three brains: immobilization, mobilization, socialization

The Autonomous Nervous System and the Vagus Nerve

Our Autonomous Nervous System is not controllable by will and regulates our important bodily functions, such as heartbeat, blood pressure, digestion, breathing, etc. It is divided into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which act differently on our nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible in active or stressful phases for increasing our heart rate and speeding up our breathing, etc., whereas the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible in resting phases for building up energy, slowing down the heart rate and initiating digestion, for example.

If we are exposed to a real or even unreal danger, our body reacts, e.g. with rapid breathing, heart palpitations, etc. These reactions are the result of our autonomic nervous system's constant evaluation of environmental signals.

The vagus nerve, our relaxation nerve.

The vagus nerve is of particular importance in the polyvagal theory. This so-called 10th cranial nerve is the main nerve of our parasympathetic nervous system and is widely branched in the body. It runs behind the ear starting down into the chest and abdomen and has an influence on many organs and even our mood. It can even help reduce inflammation and improve immune response. It also regulates and reduces the amygdala's fear response.

Through targeted stimulation of the vagus nerve, it is possible to achieve more relaxation and thus, for example, also improve our sleep quality, remain more relaxed in stressful situations and increase concentration. Our body and thus also our psyche thus strengthen our sense of security.

Train the nervous system - increase well-being - reduce anxiety

We can stimulate the ventral vagus in many ways, for example through chanting, yoga, meditation, massage and music and movement programs such as the Safe and Sound Protocol or Focus System. The latter two were co-developed by Dr. Stephen Porges.

To calm your nervous system you can try the following exercise:

While doing this, consciously breathe into your belly and keep your mouth slightly open so that your jawbones are loose. Breathe in normally through your nose and out of your nose. Breathe out for 5- 10 breaths twice as long as you breathe in. After 5-10 breaths, lengthen the exhalation to three times the inhalation. Repeat this breathing exercise for another 10 breaths. You will feel your whole system calm down.

But physical actions can also relax your nervous system, such as hugs, cuddles, petting pets.

In my coaching sessions, I work with Core Energetics exercises as well as the SSP and Focus System training programs to specifically relax the vagus nerve. If you would like to know more or have any questions, please feel free to browse my website or arrange a free initial consultation directly.


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