Polyvagal Theory Helps Unlock Symptoms of PTSD-Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Getting Unstuck from PTSD

Polyvagal theory Dr. Arielle Schwartz

One of the painful repercussions of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the experience of a lack of control that can occur when you feel trapped by feelings of anxiety, panic, overwhelm, or despair.  Polyvagal theory, the work of Stephen Porges, Ph.D., offers a valuable framework for understanding and effectively responding to the intense emotional and physiological symptoms of PTSD.

“Healing the nervous system can take time and requires patience. Put the polyvagal theory into action in you life to increase your sense of freedom in body and mind” -Dr. Arielle Schwartz

The Nervous System: A Basic Model

EMDR Therapy Dr. Arielle Schwartz

A basic model of the nervous system shows that we have two components of our nervous system, one that is under our conscious control (e.g. moving your hand) and another that functions without our awareness (e.g. regulating our body temperature). The portion of the nervous system that functions without our conscious awareness is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). All of our emotional expressions are mediated by the ANS as it either mobilizes energy through our sympathetic nervous system or conserves energy through our parasympathetic nervous system.

  • The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight response and the release of cortisol (stress chemicals) throughout the bloodstream.
  • The parasympathetic is associated with relaxation, digestion, and regeneration.

The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are meant to work in a rhythmic alternation that supports healthy digestion, sleep, and immune system functioning.

The Polyvagal Theory

warm smile

Research by Dr. Stephen Porges offers an advanced understanding of the ANS, especially as related to trauma and PTSD. The autonomic nervous system is regulated by the vagus nerve or the tenth cranial nerve. The vagus nerve connects the brain to major systems in the body supporting mind-body communications.

Mammals have two vagal circuits, an evolutionarily older circuit called the dorsal vagal complex and a more recently evolved vagal circuit called the “ventral vagal complex” (VVC) which is also referred to as the “social nervous system.” The dorsal vagal complex connects to the organs underneath the diaphragm including the stomach, spleen, liver, kidneys, as well as the small and large intestines. The ventral vagal, social nervous system connects above the diaphragm to your heart, lungs, larynx, pharynx, inner ear, as well as the facial muscles around your mouth and eyes.

Broadly speaking, the vagus nerve is always associated with the parasympathetic nervous system and has an inhibitory influence upon the heart and sympathetic nervous system activity. Most importantly, Porges’ research identified that the parasympathetic nervous system has two presentations that depend upon whether you feel safe or feel threatened. In times of safety, the parasympathetic nervous system facilitates rest, relaxation, and digestion. However, in times of threat the parasympathetic nervous system has a defensive mode.

Biobehavioral Defenses

When we feel threatened, we will typically attempt to engage the social nervous system to re-establish a sense of connection and safety. If we are unable to create a safe, relational bond, we will progressively resort to evolutionarily older biobehavioral defense strategies. First, we will draw upon sympathetic nervous system actions such as fight or flight to mobilize us into self-protection. Here, you might feel shaky, anxious, or panicky.

If the sympathetic nervous system is unsuccessful in re-estabilishing safety, we will default to the evolutionarily oldest part of the vagus nerve, the “dorsal vagal complex” (DVC). This more primitive strategy engages the parasympathetic nervous system in an unrefined manner. Here, the parasympathetic nervous system engages immobilizing defensive strategies such as dissociation or fainting. Here, you might feel tired, dizzy, or nauseous.

The Vagal Brake

Both the dorsal vagal complex (DVC) and the ventral vagal complex (VVC) will exert inhibition on the sympathetic nervous system. Dr. Porges uses a metaphor suggesting that the vagus nerve is like pressing pressing the brake pedal when driving a car. Removal of the parasympathetic “vagal brake” causes an increase in heart rate and greater vulnerability to stress.

The social nervous system functions as a refined brake which has calming and soothing effects reflected in rhythmic oscillations in heart rate variability. This is associated with increases in health and emotional wellbeing. In contrast, the dorsal vagal complex acts like an abrupt vagal brake. Getting stuck in this dorsal vagal defensive strategy for long periods of time can have serious repercussions on mental and physical health.

The Social Nervous System

Your social nervous system (VVC) is strengthened by myelination. Myelination is a fatty coating on nerve pathways that is increased through repeated use and results in increased speed and control. You can imagine here the myelination that occurs in the learning of a new piece of music for the piano. Initially notes are played slowly and carefully but with repeated practice you begin to create music, eventually without reading the music at all. Likewise, the pathways of the social nervous system are strengthened through repeated practice. You know that you are in your social nervous system when you feel a warmth in your smile and see the sparkle in your eyes.

You can engage your social nervous system (VVC) to connect to others, feel playful, and relax into connection. If you feel unnecessarily keyed up with anxiety, you can use the social nervous system to identify that you are safe. You can look around and listen for cues of safety or engage in strategies such as calm, slow breathing to help you relax. All of these actions use the action systems above the diaphragm.

Once you know that you are safe, you no longer need to focus outward. This allows you to connect to the restorative side of your Dorsal Vagal Complex. Here, you can choose to immobilize into an experience of safety by relaxing into a hug with a loved one or resting into a nourishing meditation. It is also possible to blend your social nervous system with your sympathetic nervous system which facilitates your ability to engage in lively play.

In short, your social nervous system increases your ability to respond effectively when you feel keyed up with anxiety or shut-down with depression.

Mobilization into Play – Immobilization into Intimacy 

Whether you are feeling anxiety or depression, you can use tools to engage your social nervous system to re-establish higher order nervous system functions.

If you are experiencing anxiety you are likely in fight or flight, a key defense reaction of sympathetic nervous system. Sympathetic actions involve mobilization; the need to move your body to release the build of stress cortisols. You can engage your social nervous by rubbing your hands together vigorously and making physical contact to your own face, neck, upper chest, arms, and legs. You can also explore physical movements that feel safe and grounding such as going for a walk or shaking your arms and legs to release stress. When we feel safe we can engage our social nervous system to use the energy of the sympathetic nervous system to dance, play, and laugh.

Feeling shut down, collapsed, depressed, or numb is an indication that you are in the defensive reactions of your parasympathetic nervous system which is characterized by immobilization. If you have a history of trauma it is possible that you are perceiving threats in your environment that are not actually occurring in the here and now. This is because a common symptom of PTSD is confusion between the past and the present. In this case, your social nervous system can help recognize that you are not in imminent danger. This allows you to access the positive, relaxing elements of your parasympathetic nervous system to “rest and digest.” When possible, turn towards a loving connection with a friend, caring partner, or a pet. Initially, you might need to make eye contact or call someone you trust and listen to the sound of their voice. You can also visualize a loving animal, friend, or protective ally to restore a felt sense of connection.

When you can embrace immobilization with safety, you can access the nourishment of the relaxation response.

Implications for Healing PTSD

sleep with cat

The polyvagal theory in action can allow you to increase your sense of freedom in body and mind when experiencing symptoms of anxiety, panic, or depression. Here are some suggestions:

  • Focus on the present moment
  • Engage the sense of smell with an essential oil that brings a positive association or feeling
  • Re-establish connection by calling a friend, snuggling with your pet, or loving self touch
  • Express feelings through talking, writing, drawing, or movement
  • Focus on your breath as a fine tuning mechanism to regulate the nervous system
  • Engage in a mindfulness practice such as meditation or therapeutic yoga
  • Allow yourself to play or get creative
  • Focus on the good by tuning into the beauty around you

Therapeutic implications of Polyvagal Theory inform Somatic psychology and EMDR Therapy. Healing the nervous system can take time and requires patience with the process and with yourself. You are not failing when you feel anxious or depressed. You are also not alone. Put the polyvagal theory into action in you life to increase your sense of freedom in body and mind Further Reading:

About Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Therapeutic Yoga for Trauma Recovery Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Photo Credit: Jes Kimak

Arielle Schwartz, PhD, is a psychologist, internationally sought-out teacher, yoga instructor, and leading voice in the healing of PTSD and complex trauma. She is the author of five books, including The Complex PTSD WorkbookEMDR Therapy and Somatic Psychology, and The Post Traumatic Growth Guidebook.

Dr. Schwartz is an accomplished teacher who guides therapists in the application of EMDR, somatic psychology, parts work therapy, and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of trauma and complex PTSD. She guides you through a personal journey of healing in her Sounds True audio program, Trauma Recovery.

She has a depth of understanding, passion, kindness, compassion, joy, and a succinct way of speaking about very complex topics. She is the founder of the Center for Resilience Informed Therapy in Boulder, Colorado where she maintains a private practice providing psychotherapy, supervision, and consultation. Dr. Schwartz believes that that the journey of trauma recovery is an awakening of the spiritual heart.


Polyvagal Theory Helps Unlock Symptoms of PTSD-Dr. Arielle Schwartz — 16 Comments

  1. Anti-social people in your life can be the biggest source of stress, that’s why it’s so great to keep in contact with animals.

  2. Love this! As a combat veteran I can associate with what you’ve shared here, AND the methods of relieving the pressures of stress and anxiety. For me, Yoga was a God send! Best regards, Greg

  3. Thank you for this. This offers a possible explanation for a history of immobilization and flight methods of dealing with stress from PTSD.

  4. This section of your article is incorrect: “Porges identified that the vagus nerve does not simply have two branches but a third branch that plays a central role in the regulation of the nervous system.

    His polyvagal theory reveals that our nervous system reflects a developmental progression with three evolutionary stages of the vagus nerve. The earliest evolutionary action of the vagus nerve is the parasympathetic nervous system, the second stage of vagal nerve development is the sympathetic nervous system, and the most recently evolved portion is what Porges refers to as the “social nervous system.”

    It is not the parasympathetic or vagus that is divided into 3 evolutionary stages, but rather the nervous system is divided into 3 branches including ventral vagal, dorsal vagal and sympathetic.

    • Brian,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to note an error in my blog! After having written and taught about this, and I even studied with Dr. Porges himself I still find it challenging to articulate this theory. I will make the change you note today. I took a look at your website too. It is always to good to know of like minded practitioners and I see you have an office here in Boulder. I look forward to connecting with you in person some time.
      Dr. Arielle Schwartz

  5. Thanks,
    Explains the Functional Neurological Disorder / Conversion Disorder where extreme stress and life threatening trauma can cause people to become paralyzed and unable to move.
    I have found animal therapy, positive environments and EMDR helpful for conversion paralysis, which is in line with this article.

    • Yes, Kate!
      Interesting last month I taught a training for therapists on EMDR and Somatic Psychology. One of the participants came with her therapy dog who helps her regulate her own trauma induced vagus nerge medical conditions. This dog was such a regulating presence for the whole room.
      Thank you for writing!
      Dr. Arielle

  6. Amazing information. This is a crucial part of my need to realign my damaged mental, physical Being… Two years ago at age fifty-four my elderly mother died suddenly, which helped shock me enough I was able to consciously wake up and see and begin accepting my lifetime of trauma bonding at the hands of a very ill malignant narcissist mother…. I was raised in a family of origin by religious ritual abuse, placed in the role of Identified Patient and thus I was bound by Stockholm syndrome….

    I am finding all my unmatched parts that are crying out for my attention and self care…. I know I am doing what I deserve since just last year I was sleeping only 2 hrs a night interrupted and now I sleep 6-8 hrs of solid sleep with dreams and restfulNess upon waking. My inner systems are finding peace enough to calm down and be reset to healthy functioning.

    No contact with 99% FoO for 2 years, lots of self care and self forgiveness and I am gaining growth and access to my Whole integrated and healing Self…

    And all without health care, doctors, therapists or friends… the severity and degree of the trauma proved too much for others personally and professionally… no judgement against them, only awareness for now i see how deeply this FoO dysfunction runs for generations and triggers people’s own personal fears and pain..

    I am blessed with one adult son who is heart and brain functioning enough to partner with himself and help meet my/our needs for mirroring, healthy supportive listening and having fun with, all in our new, safe Life free from oppression, fear and bondage of lies.

    • Ananda, Your story is quite powerful and speaks to resilience! You are incredibly strong to walk this healing path on your own. I do hope that at some point you are able to find health care providers who are not frightened by your past. Thank you for posting here.

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