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Trauma and Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory in layperson’s terms.

Polyvagal theory states there are three different branches of the autonomic nervous system that evolved from very primitive vertebrates to mammals. First, you have a system that is really an ancient one, which is death feigning or immobilisation. Then it has a fight or flight system, a mobilisation system. Then finally, with mammals, you have what Porges calls a social engagement system, which can detect features of safety and actually communicate them to another. When feelings of safety are triggered, the autonomic nervous system can help health restoration. In terms of dealing with a life threat, however, we are most likely go into this feigning death, dissociative state.

Immobilisation is the critical point of the experience of life-threat trauma events. It used to be assumed by trauma therapists that stress was a fight-flight reaction but that’s not what the survivors of trauma describe. They were describing this inability to move, the numbness of the body and functionally disappearing and that’s what polyvagal theory described. When Porges started giving talks in the trauma world, the theory had tremendous importance because the survivors of trauma said: “This is what I experienced.” They had been confronted with a world that said: “That’s not what you experienced; why didn’t you fight?”

Understanding how our bodies react during traumatic events has changed the therapeutic world. More emphasis on creating calm and safer environments, physical exercises and face to face work to help regulate and mirror emotions is supporting more people. All of us are going to experience some traumatic events. Isn't it better we are more informed to lessen the judgement and shame?


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