As we see the growing body of research in the field of neurobiology, we can no longer assume that working with conscious processes alone can bring about well-being. Working only with thoughts and feelings, the traditional realm of therapeutic engagement, may not facilitate the healing we seek to offer. As helpers, we now face the challenge of integrating neuroscience and the language of the body. Bodyworkers, who traditionally work directly with the body, may also be curious about the ways in which nervous system states are expressed in bodily tissue.
Many of us in the helping professions are recognizing a revolution in the way we think of our work with clients. This "paradigm shift" (Schore, 2012) includes the change in focus from the central nervous system, i.e. the brain and spinal cord, to the autonomic nervous system, which takes care of automatic processes, including the regulation of arousal.
In our increasingly hectic modern world, we all at times feel harried and overwhelmed. We can benefit from supporting the calming branch of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic branch.
Two Branches of the Parasympathetic
However, what we now know is that there are actually two distinct branches of the parasympathetic. When we sit with patients or clients we want to support them in decreasing their anxiety and stress. But we should ask ourselves: which branch of the parasympathetic are we using here?
Stephen Porges' groundbreaking Polyvagal Theory informs us that there are two distinct branches of the parasympathetic system: the dorsal and vagal systems.
These two branches emerged in part to mobilize different responses to stress or threat. Prolonged stress, which we often see in our patients/clients in addition to trauma, disrupts the rhythmic oscillation between the various branches of the autonomic nervous system.
Our nervous system constantly monitors risk and threat. Beneath the threshold of awareness our body is constantly assessing threat, and attempting to respond in an adaptive fashion. These assessments, as well as our responses, often occur well before thoughts can form. Think of the way you pull your hand away from a hot stove you didn't realize was on- if your body had waited for conscious thought to interpret the situation and decide on a course of action, serious injury may have resulted!
Polyvagal = Multiple + Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve, as Dr. Porges has described it, is a "cranial nerve that exits the brainstem and travels through much of our body. It is primarily a sensory nerve with approximately eighty percent of its fibers sending information about the viscera to the brain. However, about twenty percent of the fibers are motor and the brain's dynamic regulation of these motor pathways can dramatically change our physiology. . . For example, the motor pathways can cause our hearts to go faster or they can cause our hearts to go slower."
Mouse and the Turtle
The two branches of the vagus nerve enervate different behaviors
Think of the difference between a mouse and a turtle. When you see a group of turtles sunning themselves on a log, they are very still. Their defense against threat is to withdraw inside their shell and hold very still. Mice, on the other hand, can be seen running around, grooming, and exhibiting other social engagement behaviors. Their defense against threat may include grouping together.
In working with trauma and stress, patients and clients can present with many issues indicating dorsal vagal over-activation, aka as depression. These patterns can include problems with digestion, depression, difficulty engaging with others, as well as lethargy and lack of "motivation."
Adaptive Biological Reactions vs. Pathology
When seen in light of the Polyvagal Theory, we can see that the nervous system is on a mission to create safety and preserve precious resources, which is an adaptive biological reaction. The capacity for the parasympathetic nervous system to calm overall arousal is critically important. However, prolonged inhibition by the dorsal vagal complex can wreak havoc with relationships, careers, and health. It can be a welcome relief to patients and clients to know that their "depression" has important neurobioligcal functions. They can find hope in realizing they are not broken, but have accumulated stress that can use our help to resolve and free them to live more confident, ease-filled lives.
The ventral vagal complex, on the other hand, enervates the muscles that control the face, eyes, turning of the head, tuning the eardrum to hear the human voice, and others; all muscles used to engage with others and keep track of our environment. Also called the orientation and social engagement system, our facial expressions, body language, and vocalization are the primary way we mammals create a sense of safety together.
With skilled observation and intervention, we can learn how to help clients feel safe and relaxed, engaging the calming branch of our nervous system to help them manage stress.
Working with trauma and distress in this way, we can support the Organic Intelligence™ of the body, by understanding the body's language as spoken by the dorsal and vagal branches in the parasympathetic nervous system. Understanding the movement of the sympathetic branch, the gas pedal to the parasympathetic's brake pedal, is also crucially important.
Restoring healthy, integrated nervous system functioning can occur when we understand and work with these biological patterns, which are automatic and not under direct conscious control. Much becomes possible when we work with the Organic Intelligence™ of the body to help our clients experience greater ease and resilience.
If you are interested in learning more about working with the nervous system, and how this can help you and your clients, please consider attending the workshop being offered by Joshua Sylvae, MFT, SEP, on Saturday May 31, 2014:
by Suzie Wolfer LCSW, SEP