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  • Sara Winnick, MA, LMHCA

Your Body is Trying To Tell You Something

A Primer on Polyvagal Theory


“Let’s check in with our nervous systems.” This invitation is one my clients hear almost weekly and illustrates the importance I place on a client’s ability to notice when they are feeling distressed. In a world where “I’m fine!” or “Could be worse!” is a perfectly acceptable answer when greeted with an inquiry about our wellbeing, I challenge my clients in therapy to slow down and become curious about what their bodies are telling them. But why? Quite simply, our bodies are the dashboards to what’s going on in our nervous systems, and a window into our feelings, which further illuminate our needs.


If you have ever met with someone at Grey Sky Counseling, you’ve likely heard the analogy of the dashboard. If not, it goes something like this:


You’re driving along the highway, listening to the latest episode of “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” when you notice a light appear on your dashboard. You see the orange outline of the gas pump and immediately understand you have 30 miles to find a gas station or spend the afternoon on the side of I-5 waiting for AAA. You pull off the highway, fill up your tank, and continue your road trip with little interruption or incident.


In my work as a therapist, I help my clients understand how our bodies’ reactions, like the gas light, can help us understand what we’re feeling. These feelings, when accurately identified, provide useful information about our immediate needs, so that we can respond to those needs and limit further distress. For those who have a history of trauma, however, their bodies reactions, may signal they are in danger, when in fact, they are quite safe. In other words, their gas light is turning on when their tank can take them another 100 miles.


Humans are remarkable! Most often, we develop adaptive responses to seek safety in efficient and effective ways. However, this drive for efficiency sometimes undercuts accuracy. Our history, including difficult life-events or trauma can create “short-cuts” in our brains that can lead to maladaptive responses, such as avoiding asking the clerk at the supermarket which aisle the raisins are shelved even though you’ve been up and down each aisle twice, or “doom-scrolling” on Instagram to avoid writing a blog post for work (ahem!).


The groundbreaking work of Stephen Porges, the author of Polyvagal Theory, describes the brain-body connection via the role of the vagus nerve and highlights three distinct branches of the nervous system responsible for helping us achieve safety. These three branches include the Ventral Vagal branch, the Sympathetic branch, and the Dorsal Vagal branch. When a branch is activated, it cues a response.


Ventral Vagal

The Ventral Vagal branch, also known as “The Social Engagement System,” responds with cues of safety. When this branch is activated, we have a sense of being safe in the world. We may notice our heart-rates are regulated, we feel open to connection with others, we feel calm, are curious, and generally have a sense of control over ourselves.


Sympathetic

The Sympathetic branch is characterized by feelings of “I can!” or fight or flight. When this branch is activated, our bodies mobilize against a threat. We may feel activation in our hands or feet. Our heart-rates increase and our muscles tense. When this branch is activated, we have an overall sense of needing to do something to protect ourselves. We may react, rather than respond in times of conflict, making it difficult to connect with those we care about.


Dorsal Vagal

The Dorsal Vagal branch is characterized by feelings of “I can’t!” or freeze. When this branch is activated, we may feel hopeless or overcome with despair. Activation is often felt in the gut. Other words that describe what it feels like to be in this state include stuck, unimportant, and disconnected.


Healthy nervous systems move between the branches effectively in response to actual threats in our environment. They are nimble and responsive, meaning they have the ability to read and respond accurately to signals of safety and danger. With work, nervous systems that have become stuck, may become more flexible. In plain language, this means you don’t have to be ruled by anxiety, depression, or give in to maladaptive behaviors that are no longer serving you.


Interested in taking the next steps toward developing a healthier nervous system and experiencing a life with greater peace, joy, and meaning? I encourage you to reach out to myself or someone from our therapeutic team here at Grey Sky Co. If you’re a visual learner, like me, click on over to The Polyvagal Institute and watch this adorable and informative video about Polyvagal Theory.

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