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  • Victoria Giles-Vazquez

Understanding Polyvagal Theory: A Guide to Anxiety Management

Why am I always stressin’? Why can’t I just chill and relax? What is wrong with me? 


For those of us living with anxiety, these thoughts are often very familiar. The realness is that, according to research, an estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. And yet, anxiety has a way of making us feel out of control and alone in our experience. 


I often share the Polyvagal Theory in my clinical work in order to begin to externalize and understand the function of anxiety from a body based perspective. Through a trauma informed lens, we can begin to connect with our nervous system by learning the language of the body. I think of the Polyvagal Theory as the “Rosetta Stone” of somatics and my hope for this post is to explore what Polyvagal Theory is and how it can be applied to anxiety management.


What is Polyvagal Theory?


Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, is a neurobiological theory that helps us understand how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulates our responses to stress and threat. The theory proposes that the ANS consists of three distinct subsystems, each associated with different physiological and behavioral responses.


The Three Levels of the Autonomic Nervous System:

The Social Engagement System (SES): This system is responsible for promoting feelings of safety and connection. When activated, it allows us to engage socially with others, express emotions, and build relationships.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): Often associated with the "fight or flight" response, the SNS mobilizes the body's resources to respond to perceived threats. It increases heart rate, blood pressure, and prepares the body for action.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): The PNS is further divided into two branches: the ventral vagal complex and the dorsal vagal complex.

The Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) is involved in calming the body and promoting relaxation. It helps regulate functions such as digestion, breathing, and heart rate variability.

The Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC) is associated with immobilization and shutdown responses. It can lead to feelings of dissociation, numbness, and disconnection from the environment.


How Does Polyvagal Theory Relate to Anxiety?


Anxiety often involves dysregulation in the autonomic nervous system, with individuals experiencing heightened sympathetic arousal and difficulty accessing the social engagement system and ventral vagal complex. This can result in a chronic state of hyperarousal, characterized by feelings of tension, fear, and hypervigilance.


In its essence, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) response is alerting us that there is danger in our environment and that our bodies believe that we can ultimately DO something about this threat. So the tension in your shoulders, indigestion, irritability towards a co-worker, or the thought “I do not have time to relax” are all cues that your nervous system is giving to communicate that “there is danger and we will do something about it!”


Our nervous system is a very complex and brilliant mechanism that has ultimately evolved to keep us alive. However, it is also primitive in the sense that it has not always adapted to the rapid changes in modern society and cannot distinguish whether threats are imminent or perceived. For example, your NS may activate when you are being chased by an angry bear or if you get a message notification from your boss. This inability to differentiate is ultimately anxiety becomes maladaptive. 


Using Polyvagal Theory for Anxiety Management:


Regulating Breathing: Breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing can help activate the ventral vagal complex, promoting feelings of calm and relaxation.

Engaging the Social Engagement System: Cultivating supportive relationships and engaging in activities that foster feelings of safety and connection can help activate the social engagement system, counteracting feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Grounding Techniques: Practices such as mindfulness, body scans, and grounding exercises can help individuals reconnect with the present moment and regulate physiological arousal.

Self-compassion: Offer yourself words of kindness and encouragement, as you would to a dear friend or loved one. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love and acceptance just as you are. Recognize that feelings of shame are universal and part of the human experience. You are not alone in your struggles, and many others share similar feelings and experiences. Validate your own experiences and emotions, honoring the validity of your thoughts and feelings without judgment or criticism.


Conclusion:

Polyvagal Theory provides valuable insights into the underlying mechanisms of anxiety and offers practical strategies for promoting regulation and resilience. By understanding how the autonomic nervous system responds to stress and threat, we can develop greater self-awareness and agency in managing anxiety symptoms. Through education, practice, and support, it is possible to cultivate a sense of safety, connection, and calm even in the face of adversity. 


Hope this helps, 

Victoria 


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