Polyvagal Theory: Coregulation

coregulation

Coregulation lies at the heart of all human relationships. According to Polyvagal theory, it is the reciprocal sending and receiving of signals of safety. It is not merely the absence of danger but connection between two nervous systems; each nourishing and regulating the other in the process.

Because it is baked into our evolutionary past, it is not a desire, but a need – one developed to facilitate survival. As humans, we therefore are programmed to seek interpersonal connection: it is a biological imperative.

 

Neuroplasticity and Tone

 

Today, modern society places a premium on resilience and independence; the mastering of ones’ self.  Yet just as neuroception precedes the brain, self-regulation finds its root in coregulation. The former simply cannot happen without the latter. It is why a baby or child looks to a parent for safety, and in turn they are reassured through a signal of safety such as an embrace[1]. That process of mutual reinforcement shapes the autonomic nervous system, affording the investment of trust in others[2]. And it is why healthy relationships formed in early development generally breeds a flexibility that assists the navigation of later life challenges.

On the other hand, a mistuned autonomic nervous system bears the imprint of neglect. Without connection, we may remain fixed in defensive states (mobilised or immobilised). Signals are indiscriminately received as dangerous; patterns of connections are replaced with patterns of protection[3]. Because coregulation is what we bring to our relationships, their emergence becomes difficult in its absence.

Fortunately, just as nervous systems have been shaped, so too can they be reshaped. Insights from neuroplasticity – how neural networks rewire themselves – continues to provide more detail on how this takes place. Coregulation is at its core. From this privileged position, atop the ladder, new vistas open. The entire system is regulated, tuning it to deal appropriately with the challenges ahead. It can be thought of as toning, as with any healthy muscle.

 

Trauma

 

In highly traumatic situations, the autonomic nervous system can overload with stress and shut down. Subsequent stressful events can trigger may trigger a full shut down or a modification of immobilization such as freezing with dissociation.  The shutdown is mediated through the parasympathetic reaction, while the freeze is a hybrid state requiring sympathetic tone in addition to the parasympathetic reaction. A common example may be the sounds of fireworks for those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder following military service. The nervous system is recognising a familiar and lethal cue from the past and intuiting from it what is happening in the present. It takes a protective action: a perfectly rational move within the logic of autonomic nervous system[4].

However, the system is mistuned. Yet through revisiting these painful memories whilst resisting disassociation via cues of safety and trust, powerful new patterns can be rewired. Spending time in coregulation, or ventral vagal, allows for the reshaping – or regulation – of the autonomic nervous system.

Rape victims may dissociate when reencountering their initial trauma, mirroring their protective response at the time. Dr Stephen Porges states that survivors are mistakenly shamed because they didn’t mobilise and fight[5]. But once the victim understands that this was a physiological response – hardwired into human body as evolutionary inheritance – it can rid those feelings of shame (‘why did I freeze?’) that can prevent resolution of the initial traumatic episode.

Clearing the mist of shame may also unleash anger. This is a good thing: it is a mobilising response away from numbness and disconnection. The victim is climbing the ladder. They are closer to the ventral vagal state in which unresolved issues surrounding the episode can be explored. This can also be concluded from the fact small movements whilst exploring the original trauma can also help to temper a slide to dissociation[6].

 

Polyvagal for Everyone

 

All individuals’ nervous system brings past experience to bear in interpreting situations. It is the shape of the autonomic nervous system – that accumulation of past experience – that affects how everyone digests stimuli. So understanding polyvagal theory can help all to better navigate everyday life.

Grasping how the nervous system shapes lived experience is key. Simply being able to interpret which state you are in offers a path to a different one. A systematic questioning is useful. It may go as follows.

First you must know where you are (“I am angry so I must be in a mobilised state”). How did I get here? Is it something in the environment or the way somebody talks to me that chimes with past experience? How can I get out of here? Is it a removal of the triggers? Or are there conscious mechanisms I can use to activate a ventral vagal response?

Furthermore, it may not always be a shift that is sought. Ventral vagal is where we naturally want to be. Bringing awareness to the situation helps us to savour it in its fullness. The question may arise: how can I stay here?

 

Sources:

[1] https://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/Co-RegulationFromBirthThroughYoungAdulthood.pdf

[2] Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

[3] Dana, D. 2018. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation. W W Norton & Co.

[4] ibid.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/02/stephen-porges-interview-survivors-are-blamed-polyvagal-theory-fight-flight-psychiatry-ace

[6] van der Kolk, B. 2014. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin

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