If you have ever engaged in your own therapy, enrolled a child in wilderness therapy, or have accessed Open Sky’s blog or SKYlights podcast, you have likely been introduced to the process of recognizing, naming, and feeling your emotions. The nervous system actually informs your emotional response before you are consciously aware of it. Understanding your nervous system—and how it reacts automatically to social and environmental factors—gives you the power to detect reflexive shifts and respond in a way that is safe and supportive in relationship with yourself and others. Polyvagal Theory looks at the ways our nervous system, physiological responses, and emotional responses intertwine. Let’s look more closely at Polyvagal Theory, how I integrate it into family therapy at Open Sky, and how you can use it to improve and deepen connection with yourself and your family.
Dr. Stephen Porges is a scientist who became well-regarded in the mental health world for his research into neurophysiological science. Dr. Porges unveiled Polyvagal Theory to the scientific community in 1994. This theory originally focused on the evolved ability in mammals to survive and adapt to hostile environments through regulating their defense responses. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this theory would become a powerful tool for therapists to apply in the healing process for humans.
The human nervous system has evolved to support three different responses integral to survival: fight/flight, freeze/shut down, and social engagement/connection. There are several important terms to know in the Polyvagal Theory related to the human nervous system and these responses:
There are two more important concepts that connect individual experience to interpersonal relationship:
As families engage in the work alongside their child in therapy at Open Sky, for instance, they often discover that the underlying hurt, chaos, and desperation at home came from a loss of trust or lack of understanding. As avoidance or confrontation persist, the nervous system adapts—often in unhealthy ways—to protect against emotional pain or discomfort.
Much of family healing involves rewiring maladaptive (or lacking) defenses to recover connection and trust. Though early and persistent childhood experiences shape autonomic reactivity, people can rewire their response patterns and repair relationships through practicing healthy communication and coping skills. This is good news for all of us! Families at Open Sky are well-equipped to re-cultivate connection because of the immersive nature of the student and family experience.
(As I describe my practice, remember to refer back to the terms I’ve described above to build your understanding.)
Bridging the gap between disconnection and understanding goes deeper than words and explanations—it extends all the way to the nervous system. This is why I bring the Polyvagal Theory into my practice on Family Quests™, parent coaching calls, and wellness weekend sessions at Open Sky.
Before opening a therapeutic group, I take a moment to notice the apparent autonomic state from which each member is operating. I consider each person as a nervous system: here to connect, but not necessarily in a regulated state to do so. For example…
Circled up beneath the shade of a juniper under the bright Utah sky, a student may be absorbed in their notebook while one parent is leaned in with anticipation and the other sits with arms and legs crossed. The shuffling of papers in the notebook indicates a sympathetic response (searching for a way to avoid confrontation). Seeking eye contact and leaning forward indicates ventral activation (openness to share and receive). Arms crossed may indicate a sympathetic response (defense) or dorsal shut down (overwhelm, disengagement).
My focus in this common scenario is to create a space of co-regulation between nervous systems so that the family can come together as a whole, united in their ability to express pain, sadness, anger, and resentment; and connect more deeply as a result.
To foster co-regulation, I start with the breath. I lead the group (and myself!) into ventral activation by guiding a three-fold breath: breathing deep into the belly, filling up the lungs, feeling the air rise up to lift the collarbones, followed by a slow release of air. Deep breathing promotes SNS attunement by applying pressure to the ventral nerve, which gives a gentle reminder to the heart, lungs, and gut to relax. The slow, controlled exhale notifies the ANS that the body is safe because the mind is in control, making decisions to respond rather than react.
Deep breathing is proven to decrease symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety. This is partly because on a neurophysiological level, the nervous system shifts from sympathetic activation (defense, retreat) to ventral vagal engagement (connection). In essence, by pausing to participate in a round of deep breathing, the group is literally calming the nerves and managing anxiety, stress, and depression all at the same time!
Without entering a state of regulation, it is nearly impossible to share vulnerably, much less tune in to what someone else has to say. Body posture, facial expression, and tone significantly impact neuroception and the ability to co-regulate. Defensiveness and misunderstanding are more likely to occur in communication if the person speaking is faced away from the other person, has a flat or strained facial expression, and lacks warmth or inflection in their tone of voice.
In these moments, we pause and I ask that each person notice emotions and physical sensations, breathe, and try again with an open posture, soft facial expression, and a prosaic voice. When each family member finds a regulated state, neuroception can occur, inviting both the conscious and unconscious to cue into safety.
All of these tools are helpful in session, and with practice and attention, can be accomplished outside of therapy as well.
Remember that each ANS state is part of the body’s biological response to protect. maladaptive behavior is, at its core, not a pathological deficit. Rather, it is an evolutionary function we employ as humans to survive. So, have compassion for yourself and others in this process! You will get frustrated, make mistakes, become overwhelmed…and then, try again. With breath, awareness, and practice, you will find yourself embracing the sensational experience of sharing connection (literally) from the core of your being.
Porges, S.W. (n.d.). The Polyvagal theory for treating trauma [Webinar]. Retrieved from http://stephenporges.com/images/stephen%20porges%20nicabm.pdf
Dana, D. (2018) The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.
Porges, S.W. (2017). Vagal Pathways: Portals to compassion. In E.M. Seppala, E. Simon-Thomas, S.L. Brown, M.C. Worline, C.D. Cameron, & J.R. Doty (Eds.), Oxford handbook of compassion science. (pp. 189-202). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Justin Sunseri (2019). Intro to the polyvagal theory: episode 1 show notes. https://www.justinlmft.com/post/episode1