Some of you may have heard me talking excitedly about Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. The Polyvagal Theory is a new map of the human nervous system: its way of perceiving the world, what cues it looks for to communicate safety or danger, and what it longs for. This is the most recent update of the classical model of the nervous system (sympathetic and parasympathetic systems) that we learned in our Biodanza facilitator training – and its best teacher, the wise and grandmotherly Deb Dana, just gave a free webinar on the subject.
Key points of the Polyvagal Theory
- The Sympathetic nervous system (SNS – the Fight or Flight system) is well understood (t’s been studied since the 1920s), not so the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS – the so-called Rest and Relaxation system)
- The PNS communicates with the body via the Vagus (Wandering) nerve, which connects to every major organ, affecting our breathing, heartrate, digestion, immune system etc.
- There are actually two parts to the PNS, a “new” part and an “old” part: the “new” Ventral Vagal system or Social Engagement System, which enables mammals to communicate, groom one another and nurse their young, and the “old” Dorsal Vagal system or Immobility system, which “freezes” or shuts down the organism to protect against extreme danger
- This gives us a total of three subsystems: the Social Engagement system, the Fight/Flight system and the Freeze/Shutdown system
- The nervous system has its own way of perceiving the world (what Steven Porges calls “neuroception”): it is scanning for safety or danger below conscious awareness, and deciding what system to activate depending on the level of danger
- This “neuroception” of danger is immediate, not precise; it is affected by our life history and experiences
- The Social Engagment System is seriously underrated in our culture: we are wired for emotional communication, touch and bonding, and when we go into stress states we lose these abilities – that’s why the current crisis is so difficult
- Understanding all this gives us a whole new perspective on many mental health problems, especially autism and traumatic stress, it helps to explain why they are often accompanied by physical “co-morbidities” such as inflammation, digestive disorders and chronic fatigue, and it gives us new avenues to explore for treatment and wellbeing.
Deb Dana introduced many of these points in her webinar. She touched on what the nervous system needs to feel safe – especially Context, Choice and Connection; she urged us to bring awareness to our triggers and our reactive behaviours – as that is what will help us heal; she led a brief guided meditation exercise to help us contact our experience of the three systems; and she advised us on how to check in with our nervous system about the flood of well-meaning advice we receive nowadays – to help us discern what will work for us.
Specifically in relation to Covid-19: she said we don’t need to live in a state of continuous alarm about this nebulous threat, rather we should aspire to a state of “relaxed but alert”: this enables us to take action in the moment (e.g. if someone comes too close) but be at ease the rest of the time. The nervous system is designed for this, we’ve just forgotten about it.
She spent a good part of the webinar answering questions from the audience, including:
- the effect of stress on sleep patterns
- how to make best use of online “mindfulness” exercises
- working with adolescents who are used to being alone with their screens
- doing therapy online with a client (this is particularly useful in relation to online Biodanza)
- working together with psychiatrists, and
- her favourite things: Cats (she has adopted a rescue cat), Sunshine and the Ocean
In answer to the question about online therapy, she gave many suggestions which could be useful for us: e.g. inviting participants into our space with a guided tour, being extra attentive to participants’ body language, and paying extra attention to our use of words to evoke and invite. And in relation to touch: we cannot touch one another through the screen, but we can touch ourselves, we can mirror one another’s touch, and we can use gestures – e.g. the generative postures, or a simple Namaste or a hand on a heart – to evoke a sense of connection. It’s hard work for the facilitator (we’ve discovered this and she confirms it) but it works.
Towards the end she gave some specific book recommendations:
- Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism by Holly Bridges (I’ve got it, excellent and readable)
- Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David Treleaven
- and her own: The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy by Deb Dana LCSW (I’ve got that too, a gem).
She will be leading an online group study of her book starting in May (in the USA, so unfortunately it will be late night UK time), and she’s planning a four-day workshop in Cork, Ireland, in November.
Don’t miss her!
You can watch Deb Dana’s webinar here (may be time limited): https://www.facebook.com/pcpsirl/videos/686655405414357/
She also has an article on her website about the importance of touch, which should be recommended reading for all Biodanza teachers: https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/magazine/article/2345/the-touch-taboo
© Naropa Peter Burns, April 2020