Looking back at the start of the pandemic, I witnessed two things. Shutting down- disengaging and stopping normal activities. Alternatively, doing too much- hoarding toilet paper, fighting people over cleaning wipes, and stocking up on food. Reading the news, it looked like everyone was losing their minds… me included. Understanding the polyvagal theory is helpful in understanding why people function the way they do in times of stress, and also why we as a society, have had a hard time regulating our emotions and behaviors again.
The Polyvagal theory
Dr. Stephen Porges has become the leading expert on the vagus nerve, a core part of the autonomic nervous system. The polyvagal theory looks in-depth into the “fight, flight, freeze” response, and how the autonomic nervous system responds to each of these phases.
The dorsal vagal “primitive vagus” is the oldest part of the autonomic nervous system, as well as a branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. A fun fact about the dorsal vagal pathway is that it actually plays an important part in regulating digestion! As an ancient survival mechanism, it’s main function is to conserve energy through collapse and shutdown. It’s functioning can actually help rescue from pain during a traumatic event through dissociation. Have you ever had a scary or traumatic event and realized you couldn’t remember the details after it was over? That experience was the dorsal vagal response doing it’s thing. For instance, I was mugged at the start of the year, and when the police officer began asking details of the make and model of the car, and the appearance of the attacker, I wasn’t able to offer any details and this experience can be common for many who have experienced anything traumatic . My dorsal vagal response had caused dissociation. The dorsal vagal pathway responds to extreme danger, and uses the strategy of stillness for survival in order to conserve energy. For instance, when I was 6, I thought I was brave enough to get my ears pierced. I successfully endured the piercing guns, left with what my 6 year old self would describe as “stunning” fake diamond earrings, and then fainted when I took 2 steps out of the store. My parents didn’t understand what had happened. Dorsal vagal to the “rescue!” I was just responding to my fear and stress.
The sympathetic nervous system is the second on the evolutionary timeline, and it brings the ability to action. It allows for more response than just stillness for survival. It’s pretty cool because when the body senses danger, the sympathetic response leads to some superhuman features. For instance, our hearing changes to where we have better ability to focus on human voices, and the ability to read facial cues is impacted. In order to protect us, the sympathetic activation has us read neutral cues as hostile. This makes complete sense if you think to about any arguments you have had with your partner. It seems like no matter what you say, your partner “twists” it to being negative. This is because they are having a sympathetic activation and it’s the normal response during this time! During this time, heart rate speeds up, breath becomes shallow, and we are looking for danger and hostility.
The top part of the ventral vagal pathway in the ventral vagus. When it is active, our attention is toward connection and co-regulation. When we co-regulate we are soothed by talking and listening with someone. Have you ever wondered why you can leave therapy after talking for 50 minutes and you just feel better? It’s like a big relief just having someone “sit with you” for those 50 minutes. It’s because the ventral vagus becomes active during therapy, and you are now co-regulated. During this time, the heart rate is lower, eyes are softer, and there is a kindness in our voice that allows connection to others. During the activation of the ventral vagus, the immune system is strengthened and stress is reduced. Being in the ventral vagal pathway is a time of hope and connection. I imagine the time of laughter during staff meetings, where new ideas are thought of and innovation can begin. The vagal brake can be used to reengage during challenges during this time in order to return to balance.
Now that we captured the polyvagal theory 101, we can go over how the pandemic has impacted everyone, and why we have had difficulty getting to a state of feeling safe. In the US, March was the time that most felt a threat to our health and life as we knew it. At the same time, we now know we need to co-regulate with people and/or environments that feels safe- for me, that is through travel and the beach. All of this is stripped. We are told to stay at home, avoid people, as they are now dangerous, and all places that bring us peace are forbidden. That left us in either the dorsal vagal or sympathetic nervous system response. People’s fight or flight was activated and the panic over toilet paper began. For many, I disengaged, work and school felt like too much. I felt the need to escape. That was my dorsal vagal response. Like many, I had so many group texts going. Friends from the past were connecting via texts and messengers. We were literally trying to Zoom and message our way into the ventral vagal pathway. I purchased a small kiddie pool and sat in the water in the backyard in order to pretend I was at the beach and became innovative at ways to create co-regulation. This was our resiliency kicking in knowing we had to adapt in order to not just survive during 2020 but to thrive. We couldn’t have an entire year of fight, flight or freeze. As we continue with the struggles and new normals of 2020, think in terms of the polyvagal theory in order to regulate your emotions and activate the ventral vagus.