Trauma is a FACT of being adopted or of giving up a child to adoption. While adoptive parents may believe they are traumatized by behavior they don’t understand, their trauma is more a lack of understanding than an event that happened to them at an age when they had no conscious ability to understand what was being done to them.
This concept of Polyvagal Theory is new to me today, so this particular blog will not be complete in the sense of connecting all the dots but a dear friend I trust has made a point of bringing me to an awareness of this and so, I am sharing it for whatever good it might do someone else.
Polyvagal Theory can help with –
Understanding trauma and PTSD
Understanding the dance of attack and withdrawal in relationships
Understanding how extreme stress leads to dissociation or shutting down
Understanding how to read body language
Emotions are responses to a stimulus (internal or external). Often they happen out of our awareness, especially if we are out of touch, or incongruent, with our inner emotional life.
Our primal desire to stay alive is more important to our body than even our ability to think about staying alive. That’s where polyvagal theory comes in to play.
The nervous system is always running in the background, controlling our body functions so we can think about other things—like what kind of ice cream we’d like to order. The entire nervous system works in tandem with the brain, and can take over our emotional experience, even if we don’t want it to.
Animals are a great example of how we handle stress, because they react primally, without awareness. They do what we would, if we weren’t so well tamed.
If you have ever watched a National Geographic Africa special, you’ve seen a lioness chase a gazelle. A group of gazelles is grazing, and suddenly one looks up, hyper aware of what is happening around him. The whole group notices and pays attention.
After a moment, the lioness starts her chase. The gazelle she’s singled out runs as fast as he can (sympathetic nervous system), until he is caught. When he is caught, he instantly goes limp (parasympathetic nervous system).
The lioness drags the gazelle back to her cubs, where they begin to play with it before they go in for the kill. If the lioness gets distracted, and the gazelle sees a moment of opportunity, he’s up and sprinting off again, looking like he suddenly came back to life (back into sympathetic nervous system response).
When the gazelle was caught, with fangs around his neck, his shutdown response kicked in—he froze. When he saw the opportunity to run, his fight or flight kicked in, and he ran.
Polyvagal theory covers those three states—connection, fight or flight, or shutdown.
During non-stressful situations, if we are emotionally healthy, our bodies stay in a social engagement state, or a happy, normal, non-freak-out state.
I like to call it “connection.” By connection, I mean that we are capable of a “connected” interaction with another human being. We are walking around, unafraid, enjoying our day, eating with friends and family and our body and emotions feel normal.
It’s also called ventral vagal response, because that’s the part of the brain that is activated during connection mode. It’s like a green light for normal life.
In fight or flight, at some level we believe we can still survive whatever threat we think is dangerous.
When our sympathetic nervous system has kicked into overdrive, and we still can’t escape and feel impending death the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system takes control.
It causes freezing or shutdown, as a form of self preservation.
I have Dr David Puder’s podcast text to thank for today’s blog. You can go there for more information.
There is also this audio by Deb Dana: Befriending Your Nervous System that my friend offered me (I haven’t listened to this myself yet).
3 thoughts on “Trauma And Polyvagal Theory”
One thing that’s been interesting has been how we can do things (like emotional eating) when we are in flight mode. We’re in sympathetic mode, so we’re often not able to access the wisdom of the ventril vagal system and we grab the cookie or ice cream because of our biology. We keep trying to control our eating, but this shows that what can be the more helpful thing is returning to ventril vagal. In that state we’re not being controlled by our nervous system and can make better decisions.
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This so talks to me, Kathy. I’ve discovered that stress can cause me to abandon good sense in a fit of despair. I was aware of the vagus nerve from some years ago but it didn’t really capture my attention at the time. However, having learned how much incredible trauma is associated with adoption, this theoretical and targeted approach that I found illustrated by that diagram just fit perfectly with what I have learned in the last 3 years. I do “try” to make better decisions but some days it seems I want to be mean to myself and prove my unworthiness ? I don’t know. But it can be a struggle sometimes, for certain. Thanks for the inspiration and the comment.
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Deb, it’s a struggle for me, too. The more I learn about this theory—the more it feels possible to become more attuned.
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