Trauma, Sensory Differences and The Polyvagal Theory… If you ever see any of our Sunshine Support workers together then they probably are talking about one of those things if not all of them. The Polyvagal Theory is something we LOVE to talk about, we are HUGE endorsers of it in all of its complexities. There’s always something new to learn, which is one of the reasons it can be so difficult to comprehend.
In layman’s terms, it is a theory that explains how a trauma response can be induced causing all manner of overlapping problems. In knowing how this happens we can start connecting potential and active triggers with physical and mental responses.
Through interpreting all of our behaviours we can begin to form healthier connections, reducing anxiety and creating positive reinforcements.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is (usually) the longest cranial nerve in the body, connecting from our brain down to our colon. It plays a large part in our Automatic Nervous System (ANS), which contributes the control of our breathing, heart rate, digestion and reflex actions. These are everyday things we experience unconsciously; they regulate us.
Our Automatic Nervous System is constantly scanning our environment, observing if it is safe or if there is any perceived danger. This is where the Polyvagal Theory comes in.
According to the theory, we have three different states of nervous system activation or states of stress:
· Ventra Vagal Social Engagement
· Sympathetic Activation
· Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
We change between these states (which I will explain fully later on) depending on whether we feel safe or endangered in our connections with our environments and people around us. They are normal functions, however, when traumas are left unresolved this process can become dysregulated. This not only affects us mentally, but also affects our physical selves as the vagus nerve connects so many of our internal organs.
States of the Nervous System
Ventra Vagal Social Engagement is the state where we feel safe and open/able to connect with other people. In this state we are able to:
· Relate to others
· Interoperate body language and facial expressions.
· Feel present with ourselves
· Be relaxed
· Communicate concisely
· Feel safe and secure
Sympathetic Activation is a state of alertness. This is sometimes referred to as the Fight or Flight response. We detect danger and are given the motivation to react accordingly. In this state we often:
· Experience Anxiety/Feel Anxious
· Feel tense emotionally and physically
· Become hyperactive
· Experience elevated heart rate
· Begin to breath faster/rapidly
Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is our freeze response. Our brain is alerted of danger or what it perceives as danger and our body compensates by shutting down to conserve metabolic resources. Our blood flow rapidly increases to the internal organs, our breathing and heart rate slows, and our digestive system stops functioning. Social engagement and awareness of our surroundings ceases. During this state we can also feel:
Why do we change between these states?
It’s normal really. It’s just how we automatically regulate on a daily basis and navigate through different environments. When our Automatic Nervous System is functioning correctly it should switch between states with ease and response appropriately to its surroundings. However, when this becomes dysregulated or if we have not been shown how to regulate it, that’s when it becomes a problem.
But what causes this? More than often it’s down to unresolved or long-term trauma.
Trauma can live in the body, not just in the memory affecting our mental health, but in our physical selves too affecting our physical health. Through comprehending the Polyvagal Theory, we can start to understand this overlap.
As an example, if we take anxiety and how emotionally makes us feel dread and fearful, but physically it often makes us feel sick or unable to sit still. That is our nervous system entering Sympathetic Activation, making our physical and mental selves respond accordingly.
Trauma and Neurodivergence
Trauma can look like anything; it quite often wears a disguise. It’s a bit of a buzz word but we shouldn’t be afraid to say it. It won’t disparage its meaning but actually does the opposite an opens up the conversation. Take PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) for instance, many confuse it as being a form of autism but in actuality it is a condition as a response to complex trauma.
Believe me in saying that I have heard so many cases of professionals thinking that Autism itself is caused by trauma… I can understand the confusion, some trauma responses can often look like autism, but… it ISN’T. Any professions who are confused by this, I politely recommend you go educate yourselves and stop perpetuating these false truths. We have some fantastic resources and workshops to help with this…
The point is, with neurodivergence usually comes a trauma profile of some sort. When left unresolved we can expose ourselves to prolonged states of anxiety and high levels of stress. We allow the vagus never to become hyperarousal, entering that state of Sympathetic Activation. However, our bodies cannot survive in that state for long as it would eventually kill us. There is a limit of what we can take which sends us into Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.
It is a huge amount of stress on our bodies, it’s a trauma in itself.
Strain on the mind and body, what does this result in?
We are becoming increasingly enlightened in this day and age into what trauma is doing to us. Some long-term problems and illnesses include:
· Anxiety Disorders
· Selective or Situational Mutism
· Disorders of the digestive system
· Chronic Fatigue
· Dissociation, depersonalisation and derealisation
· Emotional Dysregulation
· Executive Function Difficulties
· Physical Pains
· Dramatic weight loss or weight gain
How can we appease the vagus nerve?
When considering how to use the knowledge of The Polyvagal Theory to reduce anxiety and resolve trauma it is paramount to take a holistic approach that is tailored to the individual.
We must take into account, environment, physical and mental health in order to identify triggers and work on rebuilding healthy connections.
· Talk Therapy
· Exercises for Vagus Nerve Reset (There are many great ones online!)
· Breathing exercises, mediation, mindfulness
· Considering diet to improve the gut-brain connection
· Singing, music, humming (all proven to help relax the vagus nerve)
· Allowing yourself to take time to rest and relax by doing what you enjoy