POLYVAGAL THEORY & ENDORPHIN EFFECT
Click here for PDF of these Notes
Stephen Porges – psychophysiologist – first proposed polyvagal theory in 1994 following his research on what is going on in critically ill new-borns who become passive. Interestingly his wife, Sue Carter, identified the significance of oxytocin in bonding relationships (working mainly on voles.)
Three core states
Safe & Cooperative Parasympathetic — Ventral Vagus — Heart/head, face muscles, ear drum
Aroused, Fight, Flight Sympathetic — animals fight/flight/survive
Petrified Parasympathetic — Dorsal Vagus — Reptile/worm, gut
Our subconscious awareness (not conscious) responds to triggers and moves us through the three states.
Polyvagal theory has been mainly taken up by therapists working with trauma, because it provides a coherent map and method for the stages of healing.
What goes on in the mind –> Triggers nervous system –> Triggers endocrine system
Conversely what goes on in the body (neuro-endocrine system) –> Triggers the mind
Emotions are feelings.
Feelings are physiological sensations.
Physiological sensations are based in body chemistry and mediated by neuropeptides (hormones.)
The three vagal states are also Hormonal
Safe & Cooperative Endorphins/oxytocin/etc — cocktail of feel-good hormones
Aroused, Fight, Flight Adrenalin/cortisol as fuel
Petrified Adrenalin/cortisol as stress; endorphins as anaesthetic
HUMAN INSTINCTS, SUFFERING AND THERAPY
CARE — connect, nurture
FEAR — humiliation, defeat
HUNGER — Food – survival
LUST — Procreation – sex
PANIC — frozen, petrified
PLAY— cooperative, fun, humour, joy
RAGE — violence
SAFETY — fear, anxiety
SEEKING — Enquiry – curiosity – make sense of
SPACE — territory
STATUS — pecking order, identity
We hurt each other: big Traumas – little traumas
We hurt ourselves with self-judgement and thwarted desires.
Buddha: Desire is the source of suffering.
Traumas and traumas sit in the body as memories
Medical science is unclear about where memory resides.
Holistic therapists know/feel that it resides in body tissue as tension, suffering and pain. They intuitively enquire, feel into and follow clues.
Triggers and depth of trauma depend on • inherited traits • DNA • Conditioning • Karma
Releases tension, suffering and pain
Brings tissue, feelings and emotions into open flow
Takes people from Petrified –> Safe/cooperative
Takes people from Frozen adrenalin/cortisol –> Endorphins, cocktail of wellbeing hormones
Q: What enables someone to feel safe, move, ‘exorcise’ tense tissue and come into wellbeing?
A: It always depends on the unique history, character and circumstances of the individual.
First identified in 1974 by teams in Aberdeen and John Hopkins universities. Researchers looking to find a substitute for morphine. Became well known via the work of one of the main researchers at John Hopkins, Candace Pert author of Molecules of Emotion.
Endo — produced internally
Morphine — the opiate
Endorphin — the opiate produced internally (inside the body)
- Opiate hormones/neuropeptides produced in every cell of the body. The body’s natural morphine.
- Production can be small and local, or cascading/flooding whole body.
- Function – kill pain, relax tissue, create feelings of pleasure, allow healing agents into affected region.
- Continuously present and ‘humming’ in the background for children and good-humoured people.
- Can be guided by the mind into particular body regions or triggered into increased production.
- Ongoing physical movement. (Tissue needs to open to allow more oxygenated blood.)
- Any pleasurable event, activity or thought.
- A kind focus given to your own body or any area of tension or distress. ‘Inner Smile’
- A good rest or purposefully guiding the body into the sensation of a pleasant rest. ‘Curled deer’
- Biophylia – connection with natural world, beauty of the universe, spiritual dimension
Production and Effect Increased by
- Mental pause.
- ‘Soaking.’ Allowing any good feeling to sink into you (like a warm bath).
- Letting chest and stomach sink.
- Long, quiet, calm, soft, deep breaths.
- Extended focus on pleasurable thoughts.
- Amplified kind attitude towards your own body.
- Increased awareness of earth, nature, sun, universe.
- Doing things you enjoy.
When ‘Endorphinated’ it is natural to
- Feel good and connected to the things that matter.
- Feel positive and optimistic.
- Be fully present to challenges and suffering.
- Feel strong and flexible.
- Extend one’s own charisma to ‘hold’ people so as to encourage and support them.
- Have a kind and ‘holding’ attitude towards one’s own distress and foibles.
William Bloom, The Endorphin Effect and Feeling Safe
Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy
Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion
Stephen Porges, The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory
Porges & Dana (eds) Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory
I found the following image in Corrigall, Payne & Wilkinson (eds), About a Body: Working with the embodied mind in psychotherapy.