Polyvagal Theory & Bioenergetics

I’m often asked about Polyvagal Theory (PVT) and how it relates to Bioenergetics. So, let’s do it!

Introduction

Polyvagal Theory is an attempt to create a neuroscientific foundation for a connection-centred approach to treating Trauma. It was developed by a Professor of Psychiatry called Stephen Porges back in the 80s and 90s and has escalated in popularity amongst therapists over the last couple of decades.

Essentially, Polyvagal Theory asserts that there are 3 branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that are highly concerned with regulating our emotional state and that may have been affected by prior trauma.

The first is the Dorsal vagus nerve, which when activated can cause us to dissociate to protect ourselves from a potential threat.

The second is the Sympathetic nervous system, which when activated sends us into “fight of flight” mode to deal with a potential threat.

The third is the Ventral vagus nerve, which diminishes our level of arousal or dissociation when the ANS detects that we are safe.

Therapists trained in Polyvagal Theory teach their clients how to become aware of when they are getting triggered in daily life, and when they later begin to feel safe.

The Ventral vagus nerve is associated with feeling safe to connect with others and is clearly equivalent to what alternative therapists usually refer to as having one’s “heart open.”

The underlying principle of Polyvagal Theory is that learning to activate your Ventral vagus nerve, or open your heart, will allow you to slowly overcome trauma by feeling safe to talk about your inner world, and through being able to progressively risk being more open in life.

Scientific Criticism of Polyvagal Theory

As of Autumn 2020, I think it’s fair to say that most neuroscientists and related scientific fields which study the ANS, are not really down with Polyvagal Theory. It is often regarded as pseudo-science.

It does rather seem to be the case that Porges has simply mapped a useful psychological treatment model onto the ANS and that there may not really be much hard, empiric evidence of its validity.

This does not mean that PVT doesn’t work. Rather, that it seems speculative to say that it maps directly to the ANS in the way proposed.

Polyvagal Theory & Bioenergetics

What I noticed very quickly when reading more deeply about PVT recently was the correspondence to the way I work with Bioenergetics.

I often speak of there being 3 energetic channel in the body that we need to open to heal from the past, create psychological health and have a successful life.

These are:

  • the Grounding channel (belly to soles of the feet)
  • the Belly-Throat channel
  • the Heart-Mind channel

All 3 of these do map pretty well to the 3 branches of the ANS proposed by Porges, though with a slightly differing significance.

The Grounding channel would be the Dorsal vagus nerve in PVT. When not active it will leave us ungrounded and dissociated. (Note also the Schizoid / Dreamer character, aka Leaving Pattern).

The Belly-Throat channel would be the Sympathetic nervous system in PVT. When active it gives us an aroused animal intensity and an ability to easily hold our boundaries.

Finally, the Heart-Mind channel would be the Ventral vagus nerve in PVT. When it is active we feel open and connected to the world, and ready to connect with others.

Where I differ from the proponents of PVT, is that I see that all 3 channels actually need to be functioning well to have psychological health. I don’t agree that we can simply use Ventral vagus (Heart Mind) activation to heal ourselves from the past and keep us emotionally well.

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