A panic attack is terrifying, memory loss can be bewildering, and passing out can leave you frightened about a serious illness. The worst part about all of this is the unknown.
When my clients start to understand certain theories about how their brain and body is working, this can take a great deal of fear out of their symptoms. They can also start to understand why we do certain things in the therapy session, and why these make them feel better.
One such theory is the Polyvagal Theory, as explained by psychiatrist Dr Stephen Porges. In short, this theory helps us to understand how we manage to regulate our mind and body using the following three systems -
1. Social engagement system (for example, we communicate through facial expression and voice)
2. Sympathetic nervous system - We use our torso and limbs to mobilize
3. Parasympathetic nervous system - We become immobilized
How we use each system depends upon if we are safe or unsafe. For example -
1. If we are unsafe then we will use the social engagement system to use appeasement or denial or negotiation. If we feel safe, we will use this to play, experience sensuality, and experience sexuality.
2. If we are unsafe and we cannot use our social engagement system, we will use our torso and limbs to mobilize (fight or flight). If we feel safe, we will enjoy work, sport, dance, yoga, sex and art (not all at the same time!).
3. Finally, if we are unsafe and we cannot mobilize ourselves, then we become immobilized and freeze or dissociate (for example, if we believe our life is in danger). If we feel safe, we will sleep or meditate.
The Polygvagal Theory is further explained in this fantastic video by Mattias Schwenteck. I also included an infographic to help you conceptualize this. Check it out and let me know if any of this resonates with you.
Chris Warren-Dickins LLB MA LPC
Psychotherapist in Ridgewood, New Jersey