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Navigating Trauma and the Polyvagal Theory: Restoring the Path to Healing



As a trauma therapist, I continually strive to deepen my understanding of the intricate connections between the mind and body as a way to help my patients regulate their nervous system again. Trauma causes disruptions to the way our nervous system regulates us, and those disruptions can wreak havoc on a person’s life. The trauma becomes cumulative and we can feel hypervigilant (ie overly anxious, alert, and/or panicky) or hypovigilant (ie shut down, spaced out, dissociative). The body becomes activated or triggered as cues from the outside and internal world reminds us of the scary things that happened and we can find ourselves in an unpleasant state of mind and body. 



One theory that explains how this happens in the body has gained significant recognition in recent years. Polyvagal Theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges and sheds light on how trauma impacts the different branches of the vagal nerve, ultimately influencing our emotional and physiological responses. The word vagal means wandering, as this set of nerves wander throughout our whole body activating different branches to allow us to survive. It can physically and metaphorically become the path of connection and safety, or the pathway to trauma responses that can be incredibly disruptive to our lives. In this article, we will explore the Polyvagal Theory, the effects of trauma on the vagal nerve, and methods to guide individuals back to the state of ventral vagal, where healing and connection can flourish.


Understanding the Polyvagal Theory


The Polyvagal Theory proposes that the vagal nerve, a key component of our autonomic nervous system, plays a crucial role in shaping our responses to stress, safety, and social engagement.


Perhaps you have heard of autonomic nervous system, and that is branched into two systems- the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Within these nervous systems is where the Polyvagal branches reside. The vagal nerve runs throughout our body from the tip of our pelvis, through most major organs, and into our brain. It consists of three branches: the dorsal vagal branch, the sympathetic branch, and the ventral vagal branch. The sympathetic nervous system is an “activating” system which kicks in the sympathetic branch of the vagal nerve. The parasympathetic nervous system is a “calming” system and is housed with the dorsal and ventral branches of the vagal nerve. 


The Three Branches of the Vagal Nerve


The Sympathetic Vagal Branch


The sympathetic branch of the vagal nerve, often referred to as the "fight-or-flight" response, is triggered when we perceive a threat. In small doses, this can be a good thing as it springs us into action and energizes us and keeps us alert. In cases of trauma (especially complex trauma), this response can become dysregulating, leading to chronic anxiety, hypervigilance, and an overactive stress response. Individuals may find themselves trapped in this state, unable to return to a sense of calm. In some cases, trauma has gone on for so long, that feeling unsafe is normalized, and moments of peace and safety can become too much to handle. Being safe becomes unsafe, because the rug can be ripped out from under us. Another downside to being in this state for too long, or too often, is that it can lead to digestive issues, chronic pain and fatigue, as well as other health issues. 



The Dorsal Vagal Branch

When we experience overwhelming levels of trauma, the body activates the dorsal vagal branch, which is associated with immobilization and disconnection. In this state, individuals may feel frozen, disconnected from their surroundings, and exhibit symptoms such as dissociation, depression, and feelings of helplessness. In a sense, we “shut down”.  If we are in this state of being too often, pervasive feelings of being numb can happen both physically and emotionally. Losing track of time, inability to recall events or conversations, and an inability to connect with others as well as self can be incredibly disruptive to a person’s life.


The Ventral Vagal Branch





The ventral vagal branch is associated with feelings of safety, social connection, and a state of ease. This state allows us to engage in healthy relationships, experience joy, and regulate our emotions effectively. Trauma can disrupt the functioning of the ventral vagal, making it challenging for individuals to experience and sustain this state. But there is good news- we can work to increase and flex this part of our nervous system. We can stay grounded in our body, and feel open and curious. 


Bringing Back the Ventral Vagal State

Restoring the path to the ventral vagal state requires a comprehensive and individualized approach. Here are some therapeutic options that can help guide individuals towards healing:


1. Regulation through Breath-work and Mindfulness:

Utilizing breath-work and mindfulness techniques can help individuals reconnect with their bodies and cultivate a sense of present-moment awareness. Deep, slow diaphragmatic breathing can activate the ventral vagal branch, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety. Dr. Porges’ research shows that extending the exhale longer than the inhale for a period of time will help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, when we are in a sympathetic activated state. 




2. Trauma-Informed Therapy:

Working with a trauma-informed therapist can provide a safe and supportive environment for individuals to process and heal from trauma. Therapeutic modalities such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy can help regulate the nervous system and facilitate integration of traumatic experiences. Mindfulness exercises which help you understand your own body and what part of the vagal system is being activated can be incredibly helpful in reorienting yourself and getting out of a dorsal or sympathetic state.


3. Building Social Connection:




Social support is vital for healing. Relationship issues heal in healthy relationships with others. Encouraging individuals to foster healthy relationships, engage in community activities, and seek support from loved ones can help activate the ventral vagal pathway. Others can help us with co-regulation which can help us switch into a more regulated state by following their lead. Group therapy or support groups can provide a sense of belonging and connection. 


4. Movement and Body-Based Approaches:

Engaging in physical activities that promote body awareness, such as yoga, dance, or martial arts, can assist in grounding individuals and restoring a sense of safety within their bodies. These practices can regulate the autonomic nervous system, helping individuals move from a state of hyperarousal to a more balanced state. It can also help us express emotions and urges that our body wants to do to discharge effects of trauma and move through it, rather than suppressing or reliving it over and over again. 


The Polyvagal Theory serves as a valuable framework for understanding the impact of trauma on the vagal nerve and our overall well-being. By recognizing the effects of trauma on the different branches of the vagal nerve and implementing targeted interventions, therapists can support individuals in their journey towards restoring the ventral vagal state. Through a combination of regulation techniques, trauma-informed therapy, social connection, and body-based approaches, individuals can gradually reclaim a sense of safety, connection, and resilience, paving the way for healing and a renewed sense of well-being.


If this article seems to resonate with you, and you would like to work on trauma related issues and learn to regulate your body, contact me, Amy Groven, LMFT for therapy sessions (amygrovenlmft@gmail.com). You may also want to check out a few of my other posts which go more into detail about aspects of polyvagal theory. https://www.amygrovenlmft.com/blog

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