Those who live with the after-effects of severe childhood trauma understand well how it feels to be continually on the lookout for danger. Some experience this as hypervigilance feeling unsafe no matter who they are with or where they are in life.
Polyvagal theory does a wonderful job of explaining these responses as well as defining some ways survivors who live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder can help themselves heal.
This article attempts to conquer this enormous yet important topic and put it into perspective.
A Revisit to What Polyvagal Theory Is
The Vagal Nerve is the longest cranial nerve controlling a human’s inner nerve center, the parasympathetic nervous system. It oversees a vast range of vital functions communicating sensory input from outside triggers to the rest of the body.
Polyvagal theory emphasizes the evolutionary development of two systems: the parasympathetic nervous system which is ultimately connected to the vagal nerve and the sympathetic nervous system. Each has its own function, and cause the body to react differently before, during, and after a traumatic or stressful event. If these two systems become damaged from excessive and recurrent trauma, a break down occurs and mental illnesses such as CPTSD and anxiety disorders may result.
The sympathetic nervous system gets the body ready for the fight/flight/freeze response. With the fight or flight response, the sympathetic nervous system begins revving up the heartbeat and blood pressure and stealing blood from the body to make muscles ready to run. If there is nowhere to run and no hope of escape, the sympathetic nervous system will cause the person to freeze or collapse (both forms of dissociation).
The parasympathetic nervous system is a calming force, that when kicked in, allows the heart rate and blood pressure to lower, calming down the body after a traumatic event.
If the sympathetic nervous system is hyper-aroused then the body suffers from a lack of adequate blood supply as the person is always ready to flee or fight. This damages the person’s ability to calm down after being triggered by something that even barely resembles the danger that damaged their sympathetic system.
If the parasympathetic system does not kick-in appropriately, the body suffers because blood pressure can suddenly drop leading to fainting and other physical problems.
The Fear Response and Polyvagal Theory
Have you ever wondered why a baby is calm when handled by someone he knows but becomes agitated and cries if a stranger tries to hold them? This response to perceived danger comes from “neuroception”, how brain circuits interpret if situations or people are safe. (Schwartz, 2018)
Since the baby does not recognize the person who is holding them, their central nervous system becomes alarmed setting off a cascade of chemical reactions to prepare them to seek shelter. In a baby’s case, seeking shelter involves loud crying to get the attention of their caregiver to rescue them from their perceived enemy.
You see this response throughout nature as offspring of different animals say a puppy, will yelp until mother returns to help them back to safety.
Humans, according to the polyvagal theory, are unique in that through neuroplasticity we can change our responses.
Neuroplasticity, Polyvagal Theory, and Psychotherapy
When as children, adults received repeated and continuous stimulation of their nervous systems from abuse, their brains change to include a hyper response to their environment.
However, polyvagal theory stresses that humans are unique in that we can change the construction of our brain through neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new brain cell connections after responding to new learning or experiences. These changes can and do occur every day as people learn information and have new experiences in life.
The polyvagal theory states that psychotherapy is invaluable to teach the brain circuitry responsible for fight/flight/or freeze to calm down. It does this by allowing the person who is having problems because of neuroception to use their experiences in therapy to calm their hyperactive brains. In psychotherapy, clients learn grounding techniques and get help through the therapeutic alliance in reinforcing the notion that the client is both safe and not alone in their healing.
Healing from Childhood Trauma Through a Good Therapeutic Alliance
Healing from childhood trauma takes time and much introspection with a trained mental health professional. However, until one has formed a good therapeutic alliance, built on trust and mutual respect, no amount of introspection or hours spent in a therapists office will help a person with a severe mental health condition heal.
The reason it is impossible to heal without a solid therapeutic alliance is that in order to heal, a survivor must feel safe and be in a trusted environment, just a polyvagal theory states. Knowing that the person they are speaking to is not only safe but is not going to leave is one of the most basic needs for someone who struggled with trauma in childhood.
However, therapy need not only be talk therapy, but may also include music, art, and physical therapies or a mixture thereof. Any way the therapist can connect with the part of their client’s brain that has gone into overdrive will help them heal.
The polyvagal theory also explains why it is devastating when a therapist must leave and stop their services to a survivor. Without a sense of safety, they cannot heal and to have a therapist discontinue services for whatever reason before therapy has ended feels like abandonment and betrayal.
Hope for Those Who Living with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
To sum up, what this article has produced, polyvagal theory helps explain why survivors behave and feel the way they do. It gives an explanation to the hypervigilance, constantly waiting for something horrible to happen, and the sense of being unsafe that survivors feel every day of their lives.
The polyvagal theory explains what happens in the brain to set off the fear response and how it has become the norm for so many who survived childhood trauma. Understanding the physical reasons why survivors suffer from these feelings should take away the self-shame and blame.
The most important message that one can take away from this series is that because we are understanding the human brain better and how it responds to stress and trauma we are better able to treat the effects later in life.
The polyvagal theory is only one arrow in the quiver of theories scientists are beginning to put forward to help humanity defeat and heal from childhood trauma.
The next series from the Complex Post-Stress Disorder Foundation for April will focus on the human response to the Corona-19 virus and the advantages survivors have amongst the fear and panic of society.
“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” ~ Albert Einstein
“You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.” ~ Michelle Obama
“Ten years ago, I still feared loss enough to abandon myself in order to keep things stable. I’d smile when I was sad, pretend to like people who appalled me. What I now know is that losses aren’t cataclysmic if they teach the heart and soul their natural cycle of breaking and healing.” ~ Martha Beck
Schwartz, A., (2018). The polyvagal theory and healing complex PTSD. Retrieved from: https://drarielleschwartz.com/the-polyvagal-theory-and-healing-complex-ptsd-dr-arielle-schwartz/#.XneFvYhKjIV
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