I was getting ready to leave work late one evening when a colleague buttonholed me on my way out of the office with a request. It was a small request really – to deliver something to another mutual colleague. But her voice tone and sense of entitlement triggered an outsized emotional reaction in me – without really meaning to, she “got my back up.” Thinking about my reaction on the drive home, after I curtly declined her request, several things became clear. One was … Polyvagal Theory!
Struggling in My Understanding
The very first time I heard about it, Polyvagal Theory seemed important and vital to understand, only I couldn’t. No matter who I asked to explain it, or anywhere else I encountered it, even with a medical dictionary in hand, or some reason Stephen Porges’ theory remained locked in a shell of impenetrability. Even after spending a delightful morning listening to Steve lecture to a standing ovation in Berkeley one Fall morning, only small bits of Polyvagal Theory seemed to fall into place.
At first I assigned my difficulty in understanding to a lack of in-depth knowledge of human anatomy – my training is primarily in clinical psychology. But then, on that Friday afternoon, as my “blood began to boil,” my heart began to race, and my stomach began to churn at my colleague’s simple request, I suddenly understood Polyvagal Theory … in my body. So now I’m going to do my best to attempt to explain it to you in yours and in your children’s.
The Life We Save
The first thing to understand about Polyvagal Theory is that it primarily pertains to your (my) own reactive neurophysiology, how our Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis gets activated in the face of threats that mostly aren’t real, even though our brain makes us think and act as if they are. If we take the example of the colleague whose request hijacked my limbic system as our working example, Polyvagal Theory might posit that it is a useless distraction to think of all the social and emotional intelligence my colleague lacks, and all the ways she really needs to grow and change (even though, were she to do so, it would be marvelous for her own reactive neurophysiology). No, the best and most useful place for my focus to be is on me and my own reactivity.
The Protective Function
The next thing to understand is what Polyvagal Theory is actually attempting to explain – why and how we, or our children, often get upset about inconsequential things that matter little in the greater scheme of things. According to Polygvagal Theory, this upset is part of the neurophysiological process that has only our best interests at heart – the Polyvagal nervous system is designed to reliably operate to save our lives in the face of perceived or actual threats to life or limb. When Ralph Waldo Emerson talked about being afraid of things his whole life, most of which never happened, he was essentially talking about the protective elements of our Polyvagal nervous system.
The dorsal and ventral vagus nerves emerge from the base of the brain and connect up to our major organs. 80% of these fibers transmit information from the body to the brain. Parts of these nerve collections are sheathed in myelin. Myelin acts as an insulator and insulated nerves transmit impulses much faster than uninsulated nerves. Any time a threat appears in our internal or external environment, the myelin-sheathed vagus nerves are the first to spread the word.
The central problem with the vagus’s speed, is that it often sends false positives – news about things it thinks are threats – usually based upon prior memories of earlier experiences that may have been actually painful or threatening at the time. Remember – it’s primarily concerned with saving our lives. So a few false positives are a small price to pay to the vagus. Better to be safe than sorry.
There’s a wisdom teaching that speaks to the vagus’s propensity for rapid response: “I am never upset for the reason I think” (Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles). Essentially, what this teaching is suggesting is that upsets we experience in the present are most always connected to something that remains unresolved and unintegrated from our past. So these upsets are clues to “healing longing to happen.” In the incident I described above, the colleague who made the request of me, “coincidently” has the same look and feel of my older sister. She has the same voice inflections and the same shaped face. She also has a very bossy way of being that apparently feels overly threatening to my myelinated vagus nerves.
So, what remedy does Polyvagal Theory provide for this kind of over-reactivity? Simply this: it is possible to train ourselves to rapidly override false-positive vagus responses. Some of the ways to actually accomplish this extremely useful bit of bio-self-regulation, you already know from previous pieces I’ve written. I’ll discuss others in future columns.