Picture the scene; you are in a bank when armed robbers storm the building. All the customers are forced to the floor and the doors are locked. You have never been so frightened in your life. The panic and fear are rising and you think you will die.
You desperately scan the frightened faces of your fellow hostages and you spot your best friend. The relief is instant. You begin to slowly calm down and focus on staying safe. You have just seen polyvagal theory in action.
What Is Polyvagal Theory?
Polyvagal theory focuses on the vagus nerve and how we feel safe in our environment.
Polyvagal theory is developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. He says that to survive, humans have evolved three techniques:
- Freeze or play dead
- Fight or flight
- Social cues from our environment
Why do we panic?
We have an arousal system that alerts us to changes in our environment. The autonomic nervous system is part of our nervous system that regulates certain body processes without our conscious knowledge.
You have probably heard of the ‘fight or flight’ effect. What you may not have heard about is that this arousal system has two parts:
- The sympathetic nervous system: activates the body ready for a fight-or-flight response.
- The parasympathetic nervous system: restores the body to a state of calm and relaxation.
Both nervous systems work in different ways.
The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) arouses us with stress hormones that are released by the amygdala.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is activated by the vagus nerve which overrides these stress hormones.
These systems usually work in tandem with each other, a little like a seesaw. They balance one another. One raises the alarm, the other relaxes us. But here’s the interesting part.
The sympathetic nervous system gathers information through our senses and gives this to the parasympathetic system. It asks ‘Is this situation ok? Is there danger?’ Because if there is – I have the adrenalin you need.
The parasympathetic system assesses the information and using past experiences decides whether to take the brake off the vagus nerve. This allows the release of stress hormones to flood the body.
Polyvagal theory works in two ways:
- It targets the sympathetic nervous system to prevent the release of stress hormones.
- It activates the parasympathetic nervous system to override the effects of stress hormones.
The Vagus Nerve and Panic
The main role of the vagal system in humans is to monitor the environment and keep a close watch for changes. It is the vagal system that keeps a brake on our bodies going into the fight or flight overdrive.
When the vagal system tells us that all is well, it puts a brake on our heart, keeping it beating at a normal rate. Without this braking system, our hearts would beat out of control.
Only when the vagal system senses danger is the sympathetic nervous system alerted and the brakes come off. Then, the amygdala releases stress hormones and our hearts beat faster, preparing us for the anticipated danger.
Why some people are prone to panic and phobias?
Let’s go back to that seesaw again.
On one side is the sympathetic nervous system, which is constantly alert and prone to overreacting. To stop this overreaction, the parasympathetic nervous system has one foot on its side which keeps our body in check.
There are two things that can cause a person to be vulnerable to panic: one is a traumatic memory that weights the sympathetic side of the seesaw down, the other is an undeveloped parasympathetic side that is weak and unable to control the overreactions.
Now, imagine if you have a traumatic memory and a weak brake? Every time you come across a similar situation, you are primed for panic.
Social Cues and Polyvagal Theory
We now know how important it is to form early attachments with our caregivers. But research is only just revealing a link between those who are prone to panic and unhealthy childhood attachments. It has all to do with the parasympathetic nervous system.
Babies have no problem developing their sympathetic nervous system, you know, the one that increases arousal. Most parents will know how easy a baby can go from whimpering to a full-blown crying fit (known as hyperarousal) in less time than it takes to reach the crib.
On the other hand, babies cannot activate their parasympathetic nervous system, or calm themselves down on their own. This has to be activated by loving caregivers.
Babies are innately drawn to human faces, and this is for a good reason. They learn to recognise their primary caregivers. Not only that, but they are calmed and soothed by smiling faces, a soft voice, and a loving touch.
A baby will begin to associate certain behaviours with their caregivers. If the caregiver responds lovingly and soothingly when the baby is distressed, it will come to expect similar behaviour next time.
In other words:
- Baby is distressed: sympathetic nervous system activated
- Caregiver responds positively: parasympathetic nervous system activated
- If the caregiver consistently responds in a loving and calming way, the baby will develop a strong parasympathetic nervous system.
There are two interesting factors here.
If a baby is consistently soothed, then he or she will learn to anticipate that during hyperarousal, they will be comforted. Over time, the imagination alone will be enough to calm them. This is a sign of the healthy development of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Now picture the reverse.
A baby cries, reaching out in distress for its mother and the mother leaves it or chastises it. The baby learns that hyperarousal is something to be scared of. As a result, the parasympathetic system does not develop.
As the child grows up, it becomes afraid of hyperarousal and will either try to:
Control every situation
Find a way to escape
This is how phobias start.
But all is not lost. Even if you did not develop your parasympathetic nervous system in childhood, you can improve it now. There are several ways you can develop and activate your body’s natural calming process. All you have to do is activate your vagus nerve.
7 Ways Polyvagal Theory Can Help Eliminate Panic and Phobias
1. Slow the rate of exhalation breaths
Lower vagal tones are associated with anxiety. High vagal tones indicate our bodies can return quickly to a calm state after a hyperarousal event.
Our heart speeds up as we breathe in and slows down when we breathe out. The greater difference between the inhalation heart-rate and exhalation heart-rate – the higher your vagal tone. So slow your breathing when you exhale.
2. Yogic breathing
Yogic breathing is all about taking slow breaths, around 6 per minute. Inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds. Be sure to breathe from the belly upwards.
3. EFT Tapping
You may be familiar with tapping as a tool to reduce anxiety but not know why it is effective. Tapping activates the vagus nerve by tapping on nine different points of the body whilst simultaneously thinking about a traumatic memory.
4. Take a cold shower
Immersing the body in cold water stimulates the dive reflex which, in turn, activates the vagus nerve. If cold showers are a step too far, try splashing your face with ice-cold water instead.
5. Gargling while exhaling
Gargling is like a mini workout for the vagus nerve. Gargling activates the vagus nerve which is situated in the back of your throat. By gargling, you are exercising these muscles.
6. Imagine a trusted friend
Polyvagal theory centres on comforting social cues that calm and relax us. Thinking of a good friend that is non-judgemental, who we feel comfortable and relaxed with at times of stress can help to activate the vagus nerve.
7. Think of a time when you felt loved
The production of oxytocin helps to prevent the release of stress hormones in the first place. Lots of things can produce oxytocin, including sexual experiences, the sight of a new-born baby, stroking a dog, and hugging a loved one.
Polyvagal theory works by using our body’s natural braking system. You can train or develop your parasympathetic nervous system to override and prevent panic and anxiety.
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