Modern Bioenergetics Series: Part 2 of 3
The Polyvagal System
More recently, Modern Bioenergetics has been integrating how to work with the polyvagal system over the past several years. Based on the profound work of Dr. Stephen Porges, the polyvagal system explains the physiology of why many people can get stuck or immobilized in their bodies, unable to effectively follow through with the actions that their minds may prefer as healthier and more functional or positive choices. It helps to understand how mental illness, addictions, or more can happen. It also offers a significant amount of hope in healing the body-mind relationships at a core level, rather than being perpetually dependant on prescription medications to manage your symptoms by numbing your feeling responses.
The polyvagal system describes a new way of understanding how the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are deeply interconnected in the ANS (Autonomic Nervous System). Our emotions, senses, nervous system and social engagement system are all connected to the Vagus Nerves which originate at the base of our skull, on top of the neck area. In terms of our relationships, there is a hierarchy of function that helps to regulate our emotions with their corresponding physiological symptoms that helps us to keep safe when danger threatens us. This is the key to core healing, in how the body becomes interrupted or ‘dis-regulated’ to be able to feel calm and safe.
The highest level of this hierarchy is the myelinated branch of the Vagus Nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic system. These cranial nerves run through our face, neck, lungs and heart areas and affects our social engagement system – that is our ability to be relational in positive healthy and nurturing relationships. This is expressed through the muscles in our face, around the eyes, mouth, the middle ear and in our hearts. Our facial expressions of a smile, or welcoming eyes or a ‘warm’ receiving heart are all affected by the upper Dorsal Vagus Nerve and Ventral Vagus branch.
The second part of the Vagus Nerve is called the Dorsal Vagus Nerve Branch and it goes down further to the digestive organs – the stomach, pancreas, liver, spleen, ascending and transverse colon (not the descending colon).
The next level of hierarchy is the sympathetic system which is part of the unmyelinated branch of the Vagus Nerve. It regulates our fight or flight response to danger or threats. It’s the ‘fall-back’ strategy when the social engagement system isn’t working. The ANS regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems and they work in tandem with each other. The social engagement of the parasympathetic system works initially in response to a threat and when this isn’t working the next level of functioning is to engage the fight, flight or freeze direction in the sympathetic system. From a positive point of view, if there is a threat and we can fight it or run away from it, it tells our body to move. Or, if there is severe pain from a shock trauma injury, or giving birth, it freezes by shutting down the receptors of how we register pain in our body.
The next article in this series will discuss the various common body symptoms that can occur with trauma and how it affects the polyvagal system. In the meantime, you can click on this link for a Body Perception Questionnaire by Dr. Porges, that can help you to identify how your trauma may be affecting you within your own physiology:
Body Perception Questionnaire
 Porges, Dr. Stephen. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, NY, 2011. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3490536/]