This relatively new understanding of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) – called Polyvagal Theory – can allow most adults, but especially parents, teachers and health professionals to assist children, students, patients, and ourselves, toward greater wellness.
Most people will be familiar with the long-held view of the ANS as a continuum between just two ‘poles’: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) at one end; and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) at the other. In that earlier understanding of the ANS, there was the common assumption that the SNS referred to the person’s “Fight or Flight” response, while the “Rest and Rebuild” response occurred as a result of PNS function. While there is truth in those associations, they were not fully accurate, for two main reasons: 1. The view was lacking the fact that Fight or Flight is a stress response, while Rest and Rebuild is a normal response; and, 2. the under-pinning of our most highly evolved human behaviours come neither from the SNS, nor the PNS, but from what psychiatrist Steven Porges called the Social Vagal (or Ventral Vagal) that we’ll get to in a moment.
This three-part, or triune, layout of the neural circuits of the ANS has evolved as a phylogenetic heirachy. In other words, we share the Parasympathetic part of of our brains autonomic functions with more primitive animals (lower in the phylogeny). Then later in the evolutionary chain of biological development, the alertness and readying-for-action abilities of the SNS developed. Then most recently, only in higher mammals (and most especially in humans) were the most complex and inter-relational functions and responses conferred by developing the Social Vagal Nervous System.
In both normal functions and stress responses, physical, mental and energetic expressions can come from anywhere in this heirarchy of ANS function. In the varying circumstances of normal everyday life most of us can move smoothly between and amongst the three stages of ANS patterns. In the case of historical trauma that hasn’t been fully processed, like PTSD, however, there is likely to be some fixation, or interruption in that smooth flow.
In stressful circumstances (from novelty to outright threat) we will use our newest, most evolved strategies, first (check in with others, provide love, comfort, touch, empathy). If that doesn’t work, (or hasn’t typically in the past) however, we’ll move to the alarm, fight or flight, discharge type of reaction. If that does not work, we revert to our most primitive and final strategy, which can progress from immobilization to deep depression, to parasympathetic shock.*
From having some understanding of Polyvagal Theory, and how all of us, as humans, move smoothly from one of these stages of response to another (or how we sometimes don’t) we have very useful tools to work more compassionately with ourselves and everyone around us. I highly recommend the book I have named and given a link to below, to parents, teachers, health professionals and humans in relationship…
*Most of this article is based heavily of the excellent summary of Dr. Porges’ work, written by John Chitty in Chapter Six of his book: “Dancing With Yin and Yang”