Polyvagal Whatsit

POLYVAGAL WHATSIT

Most of you by now will have heard of Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. But you might be unclear about what it actually means and its implications. The actual biology and science are a tad complex, so here is my take on the core practical insights of polyvagal theory.  I’m being cheeky and stripping away the science to reveal what, for me, are its core insights that are practically useful for personal development. (For an introduction to the science of polyvagal theory, the Wikipedia article is a good start.)

 

Three Primal States: Petrified, Aroused, Cooperative

This, for me, is the essence of polyvagal theory: Embedded in all human beings are three primal states. These are evolutionary survival mechanisms and embedded parts of our biology. They are below our threshold of consciousness – they function without us being aware of them.

Polyvagal theory helps us to be aware of them and manage them.

These three states are:

  1. Frozen, petrified, inert
    This is what we do when experiencing traumatic threat.
  1. Aroused and ready to fight or flee
    This is what we do when we perceive threat that does not traumatise or overwhelm us.
  1. Cooperative
    This is what we do when we are not threatened.

Polyvagal Theory suggests that we move through these states almost as if we are reliving the primal evolution of our nervous systems.
Petrified —> Aroused —> Cooperative

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What I find useful about the polyvagal model is:

Built-In

It is realistic and useful to accept that these three states are an intrinsic part of our biology. To be petrified is normal. To be aroused is normal. To be cooperative is normal.

So they don’t need psychological analysis to understand them. For example, we all experience being petrified not because we were mismanaged by our parents but because it’s a natural state. To be petrified is a normal biological state and sits in all of us.

 

Simultaneous

I don’t buy that we move in a linear direction from one state upwards to another. I think it is more realistic to suggest that all three states are happening simultaneously in us. For example, if we go to an awkward social event or a shop assistant is rude to us – then simultaneously a part of us freezes, another part is aroused and wants to attack or run, and a third part wants to cooperate. This is the way we operate as human creatures.

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction

 

Body Aware Self-Management

I like the polyvagal model because it suggests how we can better self-manage ourselves and develop healthily. For example, if I am going into a meeting where there are authority figures who make me uncomfortable, I could go psychoanalytic and explore what these people represent for me and what needs healing; or I can simply say to myself: Ah ha my evolutionary nervous system is behaving normally. Let’s see how I can soothe and manage it.

This then points to all the strategies of body awareness, meditation, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, qi gong, internal martial arts and so on – which work directly into the nervous, endocrine and gut systems.

To do this self-management requires — roll of drums, fanfare of trumpets — consciousness. Yay for consciousness!

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So where I go is:

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction

TO BE SELF-MANAGED BY EMBODIED CONSCIOUSNESS

 

I hope that is helpful. If you want a very readable book that introduces polyvagal theory and therapy have a look at Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.

 

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Later in the Autumn I will be facilitating some workshops that develop this approach:

London – Alternatives 23 November – Polyvagal Theory and the Endorphin Effect

https://www.alternatives.org.uk/event/polyvagal-theory-and-endorphin-effect

 

Birmingham – Tree of Life 6-8 December – The Satori Experience

https://treeoflifemagazine.co.uk/december-2019/dec-6-8-the-satori-weekend-with-joginder-bola-william-bloom/

 

New Forest – Conscious Living Events 20 October – How to Inspire, Teach and Lead Meditation

https://consciouslivingevents.co.uk/event/william-bloom-how-to-inspire-lead-and-teach-meditation/

By | 2019-08-31T16:55:12+00:00 August 31st, 2019|Articles, Healing & Psychology|19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Marianne C Hollander August 31, 2019 at 10:59 am - Reply

    thanks William – Really helpful to get a basic steer before tackling the more complicated ways of explaining the processes – can we use it for a future blog ? – all credit to you of course, love and lots of blessings mari

    William: Thanks for appreciation. Yes anyone can use it for their own blog or articles. Just the usual courtesy of crediting me and pointing to WB website 🙂

  2. Marianne August 31, 2019 at 11:21 am - Reply

    This is similar to understanding post traumatic stress.
    There is a very good little book by Steve Haines, called “Trauma is really strange”, which is written like a comic strip, with some quite humourous pictures …that makes us realise that … hey, we are normal …. and your same idea about consciousness and mindfulness come through to the reader.
    We are all unique individuals, with our own experiences, beliefs, and memories ~ so when relating to others, our brains are linking up to similarities, and then it’s this right / left hemisphere brain dilemma that also gets in the way when we see differences in behaviour …. how to react …. while our brains are kept so busy sifting through memories, anticipating …. trying to make decisions.
    When we realise that the evolutionary brain is working so hard, mindfulness is a gentle way of turning the gas down, to stop situations getting out of hand and boiling over.

    William: Yes I have a copy of “Trauma is Really Strange”. Recommended. Thanks for reminder.

  3. Kate MacDuff August 31, 2019 at 1:32 pm - Reply

    Thanks William… I love your cheeky take on it. It makes perfect sense to me!

  4. Frances barker August 31, 2019 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    William, thanks as always for finding the kindness and ease and safety in all of this, for synthesising into practical, embodied, intelligence. I deeply appreciate you and what you continue to weave for us all. Just got the deb Dana book and am enjoying immensely so I particularly appreciate the timing of this article. I was noticing how it weaves so well with the endorphin practice

    William: 🙏

  5. Kristina Fitzsimmons September 1, 2019 at 1:26 pm - Reply

    Hello Wwilliam,
    I’m afraid I’m going to add a note of dissent here. I totally agree that all three states are embedded in our systems at a subconscious level and they are all normal strategies for survival and flourishing but from my understanding of nervous system biology and from Porges they cannot all be experienced at the same time. Your ‘cooperative’state is when all is normal. The vagus nerve is in charge and promoting calm, good digestion, goodimmune system function, clear thinking and the ability to hear other humans and communicate with them. A desirable state for dealing with any situation but all these activities while very important for maintainance of health take energy. When the system feels threatened, eg difficult meeting, then it is very possible that the sympathetic nervous system will take over and ready the body for fight or flight. The heartbeat accelerates, blood is diverted from the gut to the limbs, maintenance functions are shut down, all to conserve energy for the fight ahead. In addition the ability to hear and communicate is much diminished as is the ability to reason and think clearly and the vagus system has been effectively switched off. All is focussed on the fight for as long as it takes. Only then can the body sink back into it’s calm vagus controlled state. Sadly very many of us get stuck in a nervously aroused state which is bad for us and bad for our communication skills. Happily we don’t often get propelled into that state of complete overwhelm when we become frozen. It’s happened to me a few times and believe me no kind of normal functioning is possible as everything shuts down and pure survival Is the only objective. Any kind of speech or human contact is almost impossible.
    Where all our wonderful spiritual practices come in is that they give the body the message that all is OK so it’s fine to relax and be calm. They are the means by which we help to recognise our arousal, return to calm and deal with the situation effectively. We respond rather than react. That’s what I understood the SC training to be all about.
    William, the message is the same, spiritual practice helps us be conscious of and manage our nervous states but I think it’s important to recognise that the three states cannot occur simultaneously. I hope that’s helpful.

    • William Bloom September 1, 2019 at 1:45 pm - Reply

      William: Hi Kristina – I welcome all discussion and dissent 🙂
      I agree with you – but only in relation to trauma. Otherwise I think your approach is a tad too mechanical. The nervous system is in relationship with the endocrine system, which is a soup or cauldron of molecules of emotion (Candace Pert).
      So, for me, it is never just one mode. When someone is healing trauma, for example, the healing comes gradually and all three states integrate.
      But to repeat myself, Yes, when someone is deep in trauma they are trapped in that single tragic and painful state.
      And to be petrified sits always in our unconscious state no matter how blissed we may be.
      Such is the human condition.
      Good discussion. Thank you.

  6. Kim Flower September 1, 2019 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Thank you William for this excellent precise. Interesting discussion piece too.

    I can see how I can use this blog when helping people understand and deal with; emotional distress, understanding their disharmonious states of being, releasing trauma etc

    I can understand how the three states have the potential to meet and can see how can work synchronicitly

    My question is this: can this harmonious state be managed or reached, simply via conscious awareness and not soley via the more advanced state of embodied consciousness. I am thinking of a pre state of mastery rather than being.

    I am thinking that there is a pre state of consciousness that can be successfully used in order engage the magic of the poly vagal system, by the lesser conscious traveller on the road less travelled. 😊

    I look forward to hearing your wisdom on this. Kim🙏🏼

    • William Bloom September 1, 2019 at 9:39 pm - Reply

      Thanks for continuing the discussion, Kim.
      In my opinion we are looking at a spectrum here. At one end we have people actually frozen in trauma. At the other end we have ordinary folk getting on with their lives – with the three states in some kind of balance.
      Nature and evolution are usually efficient, so there is no advantage in being permanently petrified, is there?
      In a safe society people who have had half decent parenting will tootle along with the three states integrated and will behave cooperatively as best they can. (We all know friendly and cooperative folk who are manipulative and cunning ….) And don’t need to be aware of polyvagal theory and self-management.
      The insights of polyvagal theory become relevant when someone is (a) in trauma related crisis; (b) consciously working on self-development and looking at their own history and states.
      Wm 🙏

      • Kim September 2, 2019 at 7:50 pm - Reply

        Thank You William and Kristina

        I have a counselling client that is becoming far more sensitive to his senses and emotions. Recently he told me that he had realised that he was facing depression as his legs were beginning to get heavy and he felt that ‘ they were solidifying again.’

        Where as previously he had allowed fear to set in, which had exasperated the situation. He is now recognising the onset of what may well be an emotionally based paralysis; so instead of diving into the depressive abyss he is using the power of mind over matter in order to work through a natural process.

        I have taught him to use the inner smile which is helping.

        Thanks to the Gods for conscious awareness. 😇 I will share your blog with him too.

        • William Bloom September 2, 2019 at 7:59 pm - Reply

          Me again, Kim. I don’t know the therapies in which you are trained. But I have a general opinion that when there are physical symptoms, talk therapy can be well supported by body therapies and energy healing. — For example a lot of people are integrating Peter Levine’s work on trauma into the polyvagal approach. And with something like ‘heavy legs’, acupuncture, qi gung and massage might also be appropriate. —– Forgive me if I am stating the obvious, but other readers may not be familiar with a more generalised approach. Wm x

  7. Kristina Fitzsimmons September 2, 2019 at 4:00 pm - Reply

    Thank you Kim for your contribution and thank you William for your further elucidation.
    I can agree that in a normally healthy person the three states are integrated. and everyone will have different triggers and different thresholds for moving from the normally calm state into a state of sympathetic arousal(fight or flight) As we all know about 20% of the population are HSPs (highly sensitive persons) and their thresholds will be lower than the majority. As you say William when workingon our own self development Our SC training and practice helps us be aware of our own history and states and our spiritual practice can help us deal with situations that tend to arouse the sympathetic system. So we agree on all of that. But I think it’s important to be clear that the calm (ventral vagus) state is suppressed by the arousal of the flight or flight response, that’s part of its function. The two states work antagonistically, as one goes up the other comes down. Of course it’s complicated and all sorts of factors including hormones work on the nervous system. The ventral vagal ststem has a good deal of flexibility and can cope with a certain level of stress but there is a tipping point after which it shuts down and the fight or flight response takes over with all the obsessive thinking, irritabilty and reduced communication skills that come with it. My point was that you can’t be in two states at the same time as you seemed to imply William. I’d like to hear from anyone who thinks I’ve got it wrong but I believe that’s how the science works. It’s all pretty amazing and supports all our intuition which I find deeply satisfying. For me understanding the science means I can talk to other scientists, explain the value of spiritual practice to sceptics and be listened to. As I understand what’s going on and recognise my own vulnerabilities I am able as you suggest, William to sooth myself as I realise that what I’m feeling is a normal function of my highly evolved self protecting nervous system.

    • William Bloom September 2, 2019 at 4:18 pm - Reply

      Ha! Kristina – you’re relying 100% on the science. Which may in time need adapting as the model evolves and science brings in new evidence and theory.
      I think the model is accurate in one mechanical dimension but needs expanding.
      Yes – at one level it may just switch off one part of the system and another switches on; but it is all part of a bigger system. It needs to include muscle memory, neural grooves of behaviour, plasticity of the brain, eco-system of the gut, etc, etc, all the subtleties and complexities of the human psyche.. A holistic approach.
      I think Porges’ research is incredibly useful and insightful, but needs viewing in a wider context of experienced human behaviour. Where, for example, does the memory of being petrified/inert sit?
      My fear is that the polyvagal model becomes incorporated into a mechanical CBT like theology – without space for other levels of analysis and creative therapeutic approaches. Some boffins might just think of the human psyche as being like a light switch. On – off – medium.
      Maybe this is a debate between boffins and psychologists.
      The best thing that I learned doing my PhD is that there are different levels off analysis, or lenses, for understanding any issue. They don’t exclude but enhance each other.

  8. Kristina Fitzsimmons September 4, 2019 at 9:02 am - Reply

    Hi William, you misunderstand and misinterpret me. Of course the science is provisional. Of course the polyvagal nervous system ins embedded in a complex interconnecting hierarchy of systems which together produce the human experience. Many types of analysis will indeed be needed to understand the issues and as each human has a unique experience there is no one size fits all therapy.
    Insofar as polyvagal theory, as currently understood, gives us insight in to one part of the system it is on the basis that we cannot be in two mutally incompatible states of nervous arousal at the same time. Of course all the factors you mention contribute to our particular state at any given moment and it can change very rapidly. When calm we can be aware of the possibilty of other states but we cannot be experiencing them as live sensations. You seem to suggest otherwise. If you are right I believe polyvagal theory falls apart. That’s where our disagreement lies, no where else. So be it.
    I sympathise with your fear that Porges will be applied as a simplistic band aid solution but the reality is that if it becomes fashionable that will happen. Currently gut flora is the answer to all human problems, mindfulness is another panacea, that’s how it goes.
    I think that’s all I have to say on this subject. I hope it adds more light than heat.
    All the best, I’m looking forward to some William wisdom on how to cultivate a Benevolent Presence in the current political climate.
    Kristina

    • William Bloom September 4, 2019 at 10:06 am - Reply

      Hi Kristina – This is a great conversation.

      First – I apologise for misrepresenting you. Not intentional. But we do disagree 😀

      You pinpoint our disagreement really well when you write: “When calm we can be aware of the possibility of other states but we cannot be experiencing them as live sensations. You seem to suggest otherwise. If you are right I believe polyvagal theory falls apart. That’s where our disagreement lies, no where else. So be it.”
      But . . .

      (1) You write: “When calm we can be aware of the possibility of other states but we cannot be experiencing them as live sensations.”
      To which I suggest: There is no difference between being aware and experiencing. It’s just that awareness is more subtle.
      I had a long conversation with a psychiatrist yesterday evening who specialises in trauma work and was making the same criticism as yours, Kristina. But when we discussed how trauma release actually happens, he had to acknowledge that the patient was indeed experiencing the different states simultaneously, which was part of the healing integration.
      He was disappointed that the simplicity of Porges’ model did not stand up, but acknowledged that any systems theory had to integrate into other systems and be seen holistically.

      (2) I don’t agree that if my opinion is right polyvagal theory falls apart. The theory is an accurate and hugely useful description of what happens at a certain level. But, when integrated into other human biological systems, the actual lived experience is more fluid, juicy, subtle and complex.

      Just to say, on a personal note, I am very grateful for this conversation and the rigorous chat last night. It pushes me to think through my opinions more clearly.
      And of course my opinions may be completely wrong. But this is always the way with psychology and biological models. For instance I also like the models of evolutionary psychology, transpersonal psychology, psychoanalysis, etc – but none of them have the whole picture.

      I struggle to understand the whole picture.

      I struggle to understand the soul’s journey and the nature of incarnation, and how spirit integrates with biology. It is all enquiry. So I enjoy disagreements because they progress the enquiry.

      And am grateful. Many thanks 🙏

      (Jane Roberts once wrote in the ‘Seth Books’ that Carl Jung finally fully understood what he had been writing about – shortly after his death.)

  9. Peter Burns September 4, 2019 at 10:05 am - Reply

    Hi William
    I’m excited to see that you are getting into the Polyvagal Theory – and putting on affordable workshops to popularise it. I agree with you (sorry Kristina) that the different states can blend together. Stephen Porges and Deb Dana both support this view: polyvagal theory supersedes the old view of two antagonistic nervous system states. Fight/flight with social engagement in charge gives play; immobility with social engagement gives intimacy and/or transcendent states. So yes I’m sure they can blend in other ways. One small quibble with the language: while it’s important to demystify the language of “ventral vagal states” etc, “cooperative” could be read as submissive in some situations, e.g. relating to abuse. My suggestion would be “flowing”.
    So yes keep up the good work William.
    Peter

    • William Bloom September 4, 2019 at 10:11 am - Reply

      Hi Peter – Yes good point about the language. Thank you. But if we are being realistic then cooperative in human relations can be: submissive, manipulative, affectionate, trusting, cautious, etc etc
      This is also where the model needs to be more psychologically nuanced. Cooperative is not always a positive and creative form of social interaction. Gangs. Sociopaths.
      Wm 💚

  10. Kristina Fitzsimmons September 4, 2019 at 2:21 pm - Reply

    Thank you William for the apology, I appreciate that. I will think more about awareness and experiencing. Your conversation with the psychiatrist sounded very interesting. Thank you too to Peter. I must read Porges again and check on what he says. Thoughts are bubbling up and I may get back to you on this later. For now I have to pack up for a very long train journey tomorrow.
    Vive la difference!

  11. Mrs Naomi H Duffield September 14, 2019 at 7:34 am - Reply

    I just wonder if there are only 3 primal states
    Daniel Goleman speaks of a different ‘freeze’ state – when the world around us seems to stop and suspend, allowing us to make wise choice. This is the state, in the animal kingdom, when the hunter and the hunted go into just prior to making the judgement to ‘fight or flight’.
    It seems to me this state is key – enabling us to respond to the environment with congruence .
    Thanks
    Naomix

    • William Bloom September 14, 2019 at 10:16 am - Reply

      That ‘freeze’ state is one that Porges also identifies. It is the first of Porges’ three states. In common parlance I like the term ‘petrified’.

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