• Amy Hertle Counseling Polyvagal / Mindfulness Therapy

Polyvagal / Mindfulness

Polyvagal Theory and Mindfulness Techniques

Life can feel uncertain, stressful and out of control. Coping with an rapidly-changing world and adverse experiences can make life feel more and more challenging. These challenges in turn activate our stress response, and in time can dysregulate our nervous system. This  impacts us physically, emotionally, energetically, socially and in relationships. When our nervous system is dysregulated, symptoms may show up as hypersensitivity, cognitive and attention difficulties, or other physical or emotional conditions.

While traditional clinical interventions and treatments are helpful, many individuals with a history of adverse or traumatic experiences continue to struggle and experience dysregulation. This affects quality of life, impacting thoughts, feelings, physical well-being and connections with others and the world.

Understanding the impact of a dysregulated nervous system, my work is grounded and guided by Polyvagal Theory.

What is Polyvagal Theory?

Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory focuses on what is happening in the nervous system. Neuroception, a term coined by Dr. Porges, describes our autonomic nervous system’s response to cues of safety, danger, and life-threat from within our bodies  and in the world around us. These responses happen at a level below conscious thought, meaning that our reactions and actions are automatic based on our sense of safety, threat or danger. Our turning toward, backing away, connecting or isolating – choosing connection or protection – is guided by our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

Polyvagal Theory identifies how the mind and body are connected through the vagus nerve.
The longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system, sometimes referred to as the “wandering nerve,” stretches from the brainstem all the way to the colon.  The vagus nerve plays a role in many aspects of our functioning including our heart rate, blood pressure, digestion and speaking. It also processes incoming information and experiences from the world around us and determines how we will react through three states:

  • Parasympathetic / Ventral Vagal state — our safe/centered “true self” state, where all social interaction, connection and cognition occurs
  • Sympathetic state — feeling the need to either “fight” or “flee” from a situation to seek safety from threat or danger.  Your higher brain is not making cognitive choices, rather your actions are automatic and adaptive, generated at a level below conscious awareness.
  • Dorsal Vagal state — our “freeze” state, when we feel our lives are so immediately threatened that we become immobilized.

Uncovering how your unique autonomic nervous system has been impacted by adverse and traumatic life experiences, we can use the neuropsychological framework of Polyvagal Theory to bring a compassionate understanding to why you act and feel the way you do.

This framework also brings hope for changing our automatic responses. While our early experiences shaped our nervous system, it is possible to reshape it. Our brain has plasticity which allows the brain to change, creating and forming new neural connections in response to new experiences.  This can be intentionally influenced.

Our nervous system reaches out, seeking contact, connection and co-regulation. Simply put, our nervous systems communicate. Therefore, a safe therapeutic setting, cues of safety, rapport and respect will allow regulation and opportunities for changes in the ANS.

Interventions such as Polyvagal Theory Exercises. meditation, breathwork and body mapping support the restructuring of mind-body reactions. Learning and practicing these exercises, self-care and self-compassion along with a co-regulating therapeutic relationship will guide the strengthening of the Vagus nerve and reshaping of the ANS.

Working together you can feel lighter and more present, feel safe in your body and the world around you.

“Balance is the core of health. We feel and function best when our body’s systems are in balance, and when we’re in balance with friends, family, community, and nature.”
– Bruce D. Perry “What Happened to You.”

Want to learn more? Let’s talk!

Polyvagal Theory Videos

These videos may help you to understand Polyvagal Theory better.