The Significance of Feeling Safe - The Polyvagal Theory ~By Kim Brandt Registered Massage Therapist~
Without Feeling Safe, We Struggle To Heal
Before treating someone, I often inquire about their stress level, and in response, I usually hear, “it’s high.” The burden of chronic stress feels restrictive; across the chest, shallow breathing, short hip flexors (psoas-low back pain), upper body/neck pain, headaches, and more. This tightness you feel may stem from overactive sympathetic nerve stimulation, one autonomic nervous system response to danger. I will explain more below.
As you can see in this diagram, the autonomic nervous system is extensive. It serves only one purpose, your safety. Perhaps you recognize these autonomic responses: Fight, Flight, Rest, Rejuvenate. “The autonomic nervous system is at the heart of daily living powerfully shaping our sense of safety and influencing the capacity for connection.” (Deb Dana) An unbalanced autonomic system can leave you dysregulated, wreaking havoc on inter-personal relationships and multiple body-systems.
Clinical researcher Dr. Stephen Porges introduced the Polyvagal Theory in 1995, demonstrating an expansive and more nuanced picture of the autonomic system. This intricate safety network is essential because the system directs how you interact with life.
I’ll share a personal example of the autonomic system at work. On a sunny Saturday afternoon in 1964, I was walking home from choir practice when four boys lured me into a vacant lot under the guise of helping them find a lost dog. Within minutes they pounced on me, fists flying. I froze! Slack armed and motionless, I began crying. It wasn’t long before they sent me packing. This freeze response was not my plan, nor did I consider all the options at hand, then decide immobilization was my best strategy. My autonomic system sized up the situation instantaneously, choosing an adaptive response to ensure my survival. All things considered, it worked well. Physically I was pretty unhurt.
However, afterward I felt ashamed of my reaction. Why didn’t I run or fight? How could I just stand there? I was too embarrassed to even tell my parents.
Turns out my physiological reaction is common. In response to an overwhelming threat, some people freeze. The polyvagal theory helped me understand this was not a defect but rather an adaptive solution directed by my autonomic system. When I learned my “freeze” reaction was dictated by my autonomic system, years of held shame dropped away.
But how do these autonomic responses to danger create stress? Fight, flight, freeze, dissociate are effective short-term strategies, not healthy long-term solutions. In addition to our regular life-stress the added chronic level of threat during COVID means these short-term strategies may linger, and our bodies can bear the brunt of this legacy.
The autonomic system regulates other systems too; digestion, immune, cardio-pulmonary, respiration, liver, kidney, and more. A dysregulated autonomic system has far-reaching impacts. See research below*.
In the grip of chronic fight/flight or freeze/dissociation, we can experience physical pain. This is not psychological but physiological. The pain is not in your head but in your body, and therein lies the answer. The polyvagal theory reveals an embodied solution.
I have developed a webinar that offers an understandable overview of:
How your Autonomic System works.
The Polyvagal Theory and its significance.
Successful strategies to self-regulate your autonomic system leading to a calm mind and settled body.
If you are just curious to learn more about how your body works or are experiencing pain related to chronic stress, this webinar may help. Link here to register
Six key takeaways from the webinar
· Discover simple strategies to self-regulate your autonomic nervous system.
· Learn how to operate your Vagal Brake.
· When a threat is perceived, and before the brain makes meaning of it, the autonomic system has assessed the environment and initiated an adaptive survival response.
· During Sympathetic: fight/flight, or Dorsal Vagal: freeze/collapse – we are not connected to higher rational thought.
· Your autonomic state becomes your story.
· The neural circuits regulating social interaction and social engagement behaviors are the same neural circuits that support health, growth, and restoration.
Discover your anchor in a calm mind and settled body.
We will cover this and more during our interactive webinar, which includes plenty of time for Q&A. Join us to access the healing power of feeling safe.
Presenter: Kim Brandt
Date: May 26
Time: 7:30-9 pm (Pacific Daylight Time)
Format: Zoom webinar
Curious? Link here to register
*Research on Overactive Sympathetic Nervous System Activation.
An overactive sympathetic nervous system has become an identified characteristic of several cardiovascular diseases including, ischemic heart disease (Graham et al., 2004), chronic heart failure (Leimbach et al., 1986), and hypertension (Grassi, 1998).
However, this is not isolated to diseases of the cardiovascular system and has also been reported in kidney disease (Converse et al., 1992), type II diabetes mellitus (Huggett et al., 2003), obesity (Grassi et al., 2007), metabolic syndrome (Grassi et al., 2005), obstructive sleep apnea (Narkiewicz and Somers, 1997), pre-eclampsia (Greenwood et al., 2003), depression (Barton et al., 2007), and ulcerative colitis (Furlan et al., 2006).
Significantly, sympathetic overactivity is associated with poor prognosis in patients with chronic heart failure (Barretto et al., 2008; Cohn et al., 1984) and end-stage renal disease (Zoccali et al., 2002) as well as in community-dwelling elderly individuals (Reuben et al., 2000).
The scale and potential pathological significance of excessive sympathetic nerve activity become apparent when one considers the prevalence and mortality rates of conditions with which it is associated. These diseases represent some of the significant causes of death in industrialized nations (Lloyd-Jones et al., 2008).
Kim Brandt practices as a Registered Massage Therapist and is in the final term of his Masters degree. As a body therapist his mission is to help clients re-connect with their bodies in a meaningful way. In part, this includes befriending their forgotten body-parts and re-membering the embodied wisdom that has been passed down through the millennia.