Polyvagal Theory: Understanding the Physical Body in Trauma

This week I wrote another explanation for my coworkers that might be helpful for others.

Ever since I went to the National Sexual Assault Conference this past September, I had my attention tuned into this notion of Polyvagal Theory as it relates to trauma.

Here is a tiny, 4-minute little video from Dr. Porges (through the amazing resource that is NICBM), himself, with a moderator.


Here’s the general idea (to explain those 4 minutes of video a bit more for those of you still saying “what they heck is Christy talking about now?”):

When we experience trauma (to the point we are overwhelmed in our capacity to respond and we think we are going to die), we are unable to use the MAMMAL mobilization strategies that we are used to having at our disposal (fight or flight) AND we are unable to use HUMAN (social) strategies to get out of the traumatic event. This puts a person into an immobility response.

BUT then he goes on to explain what is happening in that immobility response is based in our Polyvagal system.

He says we are going back to a REPTILIAN response (not mammalian and not human, both of which have a different vagal response).

The Reptilian response is the most primitive and includes less blood flow; everything slows down. This includes less blood flow to the brain (which creates dissociation). It is the old primitive vagal system that takes over. Like a reptile, slowed breathing, low heart rate—to survive.

And so it’s the vagus nerves, the physiological response, that are the guiding system in trauma (and after trauma).

Why is this important? This is just a step further than saying a person doesn’t fight or run because of tonic immobility and stress hormones. This uncovers more, and digs deeper.

Immobility happens because the primitive reptilian survival tactic takes over when the other tactics for survival don’t work. The human social tactic failed and the mammalian fight/flight tactic failed. All that is left is the brainstem-based reptilian survival method.

Dr. Porges says the trauma event itself is bad. But what we need to think about – is how this trauma response continues after we emerge from the trauma event. He says that after trauma, the survivor has an extremely difficult struggle to make sense of the body’s changed response (and a struggle to make sense of the consequences of the event because the body’s ability to relate in the world has so drastically changed). He says figuring this out and making sense of all this is almost as bad as the trauma event itself.

But when we uncover WHY this trauma response continues (in the Polyvagal system, outside of any cognitive, thinking choice at all), we can help trauma survivors in helpful ways.

(Note: In one an article by Scaer, he shows how an unresolved polyvagal Reptilian response is what causes disease and sickness—because there is a dysregulation in the body’s nervous system). THIS piece is really important for how we facilitate opportunities for healing both trauma and vicarious trauma in our field. This is the key to wellness, right here. (And, this is where I really geek out, just saying).

BUT, back to this video, he really drives home the point that the word “choose” is inappropriate. We don’t choose anything in trauma. Because our Polyvagal system does the choosing. And he gives a little example of how irritated he was with his own system’s decision. He talks about how his mind wanted one thing (to participate) but his body wouldn’t let him stay immobile without fear.

And now you can say you know a tiny bit about Polyvagal Theory.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s