Polyvagal Theory & Emotions
Like many folk I hugely benefit from talk therapy. It helps me understand who I am. It clarifies how I navigate my relationships and my work.
But for mental and emotional pain, I benefit more from body-oriented therapies — becoming aware of the actual physical sensations of hurt and tension, and working directly with my body to shift them.
Teaching a holistic approach to personal development, I have sometimes sounded over-enthusiastic and judgmental, asserting that talk therapists need to better understand what is going on in the body. In the tea breaks at workshops psychotherapists and counsellors have asked me to be less critical of talk therapy. I have apologised.
In my twenties I experienced three years of psychoanalysis with one of the founders of talk therapy in the UK, Edward Glover, a wily eighty-year old. I remember halfway through our first session, when he gently paused me and pointed out that I had just contradicted myself. I almost wept that someone was really listening to me. I loved him. I was his last client. Shortly after ending our relationship, he died and I went on two years retreat.
And then my best friend, Allen, brought me to California where I experienced body-based therapies. Massage. Shiatsu. Breath-work. Feel the sensations of tension and pain. Drop down into them and then follow a strategy of movement and release to bring them into flow and healing. I was startled by — and grateful for — how well they worked.
With all this background I am obviously an enthusiastic advocate for both talk therapy and body therapy.
My grumble is when either of them does not acknowledge the validity of the other. Mainstream medicine also has its fundamentalists. Imagine a three-way argument between fundamentalist talk therapists, body therapists and medical clinicians. Groan. What does that mean? Here, have a pill.
POLYVAGAL THEORY AND MOLECULES OF EMOTION
This is why the discoveries and theories of scientists such as Candace Pert and Steven Porges are so crucial. They give us grounded, evidence-based maps for how physiology and psychology, body and mind integrate.
Candace Pert’s research described and explained how human moods, feelings and emotions are mediated and experienced through hormones/neuro-peptides. For example, anxiety is a physiological experience mediated by the neuropeptides of cortisol and adrenalin. The physiological experience triggers and loops with the psychological. Candace Pert’s research explained how human beings can experience ‘stews’ of mood, as neuropeptides mix with each other and flood the body. Have you ever experienced lust, hunger, enjoyment and anxiety at the same time? This is not unusual. It is a physiological, hormonal state, which we usually describe in purely emotional language, ignoring the biology. (Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion. My The Endorphin Effect.)
Steven Porges’ explanation of polyvagal theory presents another profoundly useful perspective. Deeply embedded in our biology are three states, which from birth are continuously responding to our circumstances.
State One: Safe, cooperative, relational, social
State Two: Threatened, aroused, energised to fight or flee
State Three: Traumatised, petrified, immobile, dissociated
Depending on our circumstances, on our personal history and specific triggers (inner and outer) we move unconsciously between these three states. Think of a row with a family member or colleague, how it starts, escalates, triggers and subsides.
In the therapy world, polyvagal theory has been particularly influential in its understanding of trauma and trauma treatments. It focuses on the biology of immobility and dissociation, appreciating that the frozen state of trauma victims, such as victims of torture, is an evolutionary survival response to insurmountable threat, injury and pain. From this perspective therapists can then carefully explore the strategies of safety that may enable the victim to return to health.
(If you want to explore the therapeutic strategies associated with polyvagal theory then for the general reader I recommend Deb Dana The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy and for therapists Porges & Dana (eds) Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory. For the pure science avoid Porges’ original work unless you are a postgrad biologist and read his The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory.)
My own interest in polyvagal theory is more focused on how it explains our every day behaviour, as the three vagal states unconsciously influence how we feel and think and behave. (My original doctoral research was in identity politics and how biological imperatives for a secure sense of identity work out through the individual into society and world politics. See my Personal Identity, National Identity, International Relations.)
In particular I am focused on how these understandings of the body, its neurology and hormones, can support holistic personal development and spiritual growth — more love, more consciousness, more ethics and compassion, here and now, in action.
A FOURTH STATE
So to the three states of polyvagal theory and to the stew of emotions I want to add a Fourth State.
To describe the Fourth State physiologically: The human nervous system and brain is so evolved, sophisticated and adaptable that it can create synapses and connections that transcend the vagal and hormonal states. Instead of being submerged in these states, the human mind can develop a new faculty, which is able to step back and take an overview. The mind-brain likes narratives. Just as it can watch a movie, it can also watch its own body and behaviour. So its own thoughts, feelings and behaviour are just another narrative.
The mind-brain can develop so that it steps back and observes the three vagal states and the molecules of emotion. It can be a witness to all the stuff of feelings and thoughts. More than that, it can choose to self-manage, influence and guide these states. (Plato said that the rational mind is proof of the soul.)
But this rational, higher, self-managing mind is a new state and a new neural groove and muscle. So the synapses and connections need development and repetition.
Of all people it is meditators who, sitting quietly with themselves, experience this new witnessing state and an ability to self-manage inner sensations and chemistry. Like benevolent white witches and wizards meditators can stir, blend and reformulate the bubbling stuff in the cauldron of their bodies. Always with more love, more wisdom, more consciousness.
Emotional intelligence. Mindfulness. Meditation. These approaches help us develop our higher mind, our detached compassionate witnessing. Not a floating, disembodied balloon of awareness, but a kind awareness that is fully engaged with flesh and blood realities.