Navigating Stress and Anxiety: Applying the Principles of Polyvagal Theory

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Polyvagal Theory is a groundbreaking theory in psychology that provides a framework for understanding the role of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) in our daily lives. According to this theory, the ANS is responsible for regulating our bodily functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion, and plays a crucial role in our emotional experiences.

Polyvagal Theory proposes three physiological states that are activated by the ANS: the Engagement State, the Mobilization State, and the Collapse State. In addition to these physiological states, the theory also proposes three organizing principles that explain how our bodies shift between them: Hierarchy, Neuroception, and Co-Regulation.

  1. Hierarchy

The first organizing principle of Polyvagal Theory is Hierarchy. According to this principle, the three physiological states are always activated in a specific order, without skipping any state. As our level of arousal and perceived danger increases, we move from the Engagement State (ventral vagal activation) to the Mobilization State (sympathetic nervous system activation), and then, if arousal continues, to the Collapse State (dorsal vagal activation).

As arousal and perceived danger decrease, we move from the Collapse State to the Mobilization State, and if we are sufficiently calmed, then to the Engagement State. It is important to note that arousal can happen very quickly, such as when someone who is calm jumps to freezing behaviour in response to an abrupt threat. However, this is the one notable exception. In most cases, an individual does not move from a state of calmness and connection (Engagement State) to a state of numbness and hopelessness (Collapse State), or vice versa, without first passing through the state of frustration or anxiety (Mobilization State).

Understanding the Hierarchy principle of Polyvagal Theory can help us to recognize our own physiological responses to stress and anxiety. By being aware of how our body moves through different physiological states, we can better regulate our emotions and respond in more adaptive ways to stressful situations.

  1. Neuroception

The second organizing principle of Polyvagal Theory is Neuroception. Neuroception is the premise that our nervous system can and does take in outside information and respond to that information without our conscious awareness. This process happens through the detection of cues in our environment that our nervous system associates with safety or danger.

Neuroception stands in contrast to perception, which is our capacity for consciously interpreting the world around us. While perception is moderated by conscious thought, neuroception is not. Neuroception explains how a person, object, or environment that subconsciously reminds us of danger can create changes in our ANS, even if we consciously know the person, place, or thing does not pose a threat to us.

Understanding the Neuroception principle of Polyvagal Theory can help us to recognize when our ANS is being triggered by cues in our environment. By being aware of these triggers, we can take steps to reduce our physiological arousal and respond in more adaptive ways to stressful situations.

  1. Co-Regulation

The third organizing principle of Polyvagal Theory is Co-Regulation. As our bodies and bodily systems mature throughout our lives, our ANS develops the ability to self-regulate. For example, once it is sufficiently developed, our ANS can “learn” to transition out of heightened states of arousal on its own. However, this development process begins with co-regulation, which involves mirroring or mimicking the behaviours and arousal states of others.

Co-regulation can be seen commonly among young children, such as when an upset child is soothed by a parent or caregiver. Through neuroception, the child’s ANS responds to the calming cues given off by the parent and successfully de-escalates its own arousal level. Although co-regulation becomes less critical as self-regulation skills develop, it remains a useful principle to leverage in situations such as therapy and counselling.

In therapy and counselling, the principle of Co-Regulation can be used to help clients regulate their emotions and feel more connected to their therapist or counsellor. By modelling calm and empathetic behaviour, therapists can help clients feel safe and secure, which can in turn help to reduce their physiological arousal and emotional distress.

Therapists can also use Co-Regulation techniques to help clients develop their own self-regulation skills. For example, a therapist might use deep breathing exercises or guided imagery to help a client learn to regulate their own breathing and calm their ANS.

Understanding the three organizing principles of Polyvagal Theory can help us to better understand our own physiological responses to stress and anxiety. By recognizing the Hierarchy principle, we can understand how our body moves through different physiological states in response to stress. By understanding the Neuroception principle, we can recognize when our ANS is being triggered by cues in our environment. And by utilizing the Co-Regulation principle, we can learn to regulate our own emotions and develop greater self-awareness.

Overall, Polyvagal Theory provides a powerful framework for understanding the complex interplay between our physiological responses and our emotional experiences. By utilizing the principles of Hierarchy, Neuroception, and Co-Regulation, we can develop greater insight into our own emotional experiences and learn to regulate our emotions more effectively.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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