Stephen Porges, Demystifying the Mechanisms of Trauma: Maladaptive Consequences of Adapative Bio-Behavioral Reactions to Life Threat 

Stephen Porges knows how to connect. I could listen to him talk all day.  I explain his Poly-vagal theory to every trauma client and every consultee. Today, after he answered a difficult question, in a most kind way, my friend Barbara said, "Now, I'm in love with him."

Here's a post from exactly 2 years ago on Porges and his work. It might help to read it first.

Here is the quick and dirty explanation of the Polyvagal (PV) Theory: "Neuroception of danger and safety or life threat trigger 3 neurological circuits." They developed at different evolutionary times. The newest one (Green Traffic light) occurs when we understand that we are in a safe environment. When it's on, we have the capacity to be socially engaged, to think, to hear and understand other humans, eat and to play. The second oldest (Yellow light) is engaged when we perceive danger, but we don't think it will kill us. In this mobilized state, we attend only to cues about danger and safety. We can't connect well, we can't even really hear people. We are scanning for danger and predators. The third state and evolutionarily oldest state (Red light) is immobilization in the face of life threat. We shut down completely, can't connect, feign death, and can't/don't have protective reflexes. (Can you say "dissociation?) 

Today, Porges said that "our nervous system reacts differently to the same stimulus, depending on our psychological state." The Polyvagal theory is about our biological quest for safety. He bemoans that these states aren't better recognized and then explained to clients, medical patients and all trauma survivors. Here are some but not all of the gems from his presentation:

People are different. The same stimuli can create different states in different people depending on a host of factors: genetics, attachment, and history. He talked about voodoo death–when people are literally scared to death, they aren't hyper-mobilized, but immobilized. Their hearts and respiration slow down to nothing and they just die, when cursed or after having broken an "unbreakable rule" and they have no ability to escape, no options, or are being held tightly.

"Immobilization with fear is a missing concept in psychology and psychiatry and medicine."

Vagal Paradox: Slow heart rate is mediated by the vagus. Sometimes too much (see voodoo death.) Heart rate variability (a good thing) is primarily mediated by the vagus and is a protective factor. "If the face is flat, the heart rate is flat. If the face is lit up, there's heart rate variability."

Singing, listening and chanting: when we feel safe and tuned into the tones we hear best, the human voice, we can't hear the low tones, the predator frequency. . . New brain circuits damp or control the old ones. We lose the adaptive urge in immobilization, pain threshholds are raised, we conserve metabolic resources and are prepared to die. (Imagine chronically abused people who live in this state, over and over.)

Yoga students with abuse history get a higherheart rate after mild exercise. No abuse hx, makes for a lower heart rate. Abuse supressed vagal regulation and lowered the threshold to be defensively reactive. Tell clients: "Your threshold to react changes and this is what happens."

Since "social behavior is a regulator of our physiology", use your self to help your clients regulate. Make the office safe. Make it quiet. Muffle the low traffic noises. Have face to face interactions that are safe.

"Face to face is play with reciprocity." What could be aggression without face to face contact becomes play. Puppies and kitties look at each other when playing. So do kids. So do people in consensual sex. People can be in a mobilized state, without fear, in play. They can be in an immobilized state without fear in play or rest. (Baby in mom's arms).

The nervous system continuously evaluates risk. Reactions to life threat is not easily reversed. These reactions can bring up rage if a client misreads the clues. (Think borderline or DID clients.)

Auditory pathways (music, voice, and song) invites proximity. It's the first route in to change the nervous system. Music therapy in the frequency of the human voice and social engagement help traumatized clients regulate themselves. So does Prana Yana breathing, with slow exhalation.

(Stephen, if you care to correct, edit, or add anything, I'd be honored. Links to articles or websites would be great, too.)

More tomorrow.