Stephen Porges - Polyvagal Theory: how your body makes the decision
Stephen W. Porges, PhD
Distinguished University Scientist, Indiana University
A member of the Everyday Health Wellness Advisory Board, Stephen W. Porges,PhD, is a Distinguished University Scientist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University in Bloomington and a member of the Kinsey Institute Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. Dr. Porges's research is focused on how the autonomic nervous system controls the reactions and behaviors of individuals affected by a wide range of traumatic experiences, including sexual assault, partner violence, and bullying.
What are you working on now?
My current efforts are focused on developing new technology devices that can target, detect, and document the effect of new therapies on the unconscious neural circuits responsible for our “defense-danger” and “safety” responses to the world around us.
These responses are key to what I call the polyvagal theory, which provides a new and, I believe, more comprehensive understanding of how humans, in their ongoing quest for safety and survival, monitor and mediate their reactions to the world: The theory posits that the nervous system, without any conscious thought on our part, efficiently and effectively decides whether the environment is dangerous or safe. That determination, in turn, leads to a cascade of metabolic reactions and a range of behaviors.
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I have patent applications being reviewed that describe technologies to accurately document shifts in the neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system. These new devices will enable the efficient evaluation of therapies that we believe can retune, normalize, or optimize autonomic function. I’m always looking for new and creative ways to advance this work by identifying objective measures of the neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system to validate — or not — the assumed effectiveness of therapies.
From your own research or that of others, what have you learned about stress that you didn’t know or that surprised you?
Polyvagal theory identified our body’slittle understooddefense system that’s associated with immobilization, as against the well-known mobilization “stress” response of fight-or-flight. Immobilization is a defensive reaction in which, responding to danger signals, we may freeze in space and time or, feigning death, lose awareness, even consciousness, become numb, and dissociate. Looking at chronic stress and human behavior from this perspective, I was surprised that the immobilization defense response is a primary shared experience of many trauma survivors. I was also surprised to discover that it oftenretunedsurvivors’ autonomic nervous systems to increase their risk of medical and mental health conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraine, and depression.
What stresses you out, and how do you manage the stressors in your life?
What makes me feel most uncomfortable is a violation of social interaction. If people turn their heads away from me, lose emotion in their voices, drop intonation during an interaction, it just doesn’t feel right. When this occurs, you feel it in your gut; I feel it in my gut.
I call it biological rudeness. And, of course, it’s been worsening over the last century as we’ve gone from face-to-face contact, to voice-only telephones, to text-only online messaging. When we lose the nuanced cues of “safety” that come from direct conversation, interactions become more difficult and, ultimately, more stress-inducing. Context is gone. People naturally end up constructing their own script or personal narrative to explain why they don’t like a particular someone. But these feelings may simply be the result of a shift in people’s neurophysiological state because they could neither see nor hear the other person, who could neither see nor hear them. A more formal way of saying this is that their interaction lacked synergistic and reciprocal facial expressions and vocalizations.
We all need to be better informed about stress. In a sentence, what should we know to increase our stress IQ?
We need to develop skills to monitor and respect our body’s responses to environmental triggers, including low-frequency sounds and background noises (low-frequency sounds, for example, are evolutionarily associated with predators), and disruptions in face-to-face interactions, which shift our physiological state and bias our reflexive, “no think” detection of risk or danger, even when there is no valid risk or source of danger in the environment.
What’s the one recommendation you would make to help people 1) lower their daily stress levels, and 2) function better in the midst of a stressful situation, incident, or moment?
1) Learn to appreciate and respect that it’s natural to respond defensively to specific cues in our environment (again, for example, the low-frequency sounds and vibrations associated throughout our evolution with predators).
2) Learn that it may be necessary to physically move out of specific contexts that may be overwhelming (that is, where you’re experiencing sensory overload). Learn methods to recruit specific calming neural pathways through shifts in breathing patterns and social interactions with individuals who use soothing voices and reciprocal expressions of safety, or through listening to rhythmic, melodic vocalizations — therapeutic music engineered to mimic the rhythms and sounds of mothers; for example, singing a lullaby — that send profound signals of safety to the body.
We need to develop skills to monitor and respect our body’s responses to environmental triggers, including low-frequency sounds and background noises and disruptions in face-to-face interactions.
— Stephen Porges, PhD
Why did you become involved in research related to stress?
I did not start with an interest in stress or stress physiology. I was interested in neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system and the capacity of the nervous system to support homeostatic processes — these are the processes used to maintain our internal stability. I rapidly learned that disruption of homeostasis was the consequence of what my colleagues called chronic stress.
Stress entered my own vocabulary after I developed the polyvagal theory, which provided an evolutionary-based explanation of the neurophysiological shifts that occur in response to challenges in the body or the environment. The theory provided an opportunity to further explain the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying our defense strategies by elaborating on the mobilization defense system that supports fight-or-flight behaviors, and a very ancient immobilization defense system shared with almost all vertebrates that automatically shuts us down when our nervous system — without us engaging in conscious thought — determines that fight-or-flight isn’t a viable response.
Have you ever experienced a meltdown? If so, where and why?
Like anyone reading this, I have vulnerabilities. When there is no opportunity to “co-regulate” with another — to communicate face-to-face with someone so that we calm down, feel safe, and generate a cooperative narrative, then we are all vulnerable to survival reactions of fight-or-flight, such as a meltdown, and potentially to immobility and shutting down, as in a panic attack.
Video: Dr. Stephen Porges: What is the Polyvagal Theory
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