Part of the human nervous system functions without voluntary regulation. Such as blood circulation, digestion, thermal regulation and respiration. They happen without a conscious effort. The same applies to defense response, in life-threatening situations. The biological basis for this kind of defense is the autonomic nervous system.
In the face of danger – before any conscious effort – automatic defense turns on, and the body prepares itself for fight or flight. However, if this kind of active response doesn’t work, the autonomic nervous system launches the passive alternative, to save energy. The autonomic nervous system responds to threat of death by total submission and paralysis.
This, is the core of the Polyvagal theory.
Emotional damage leaves such a mark, that even in situations which are not threatening, can result in aggression, fear, or paralysis. Paralysis can show in varying degrees, like exhaustion, muscle weakness or twitches. It can also show, in the social level, as problems with personal boundaries or standing up for oneself.
One may as well suffer from problems caused by hyperarousal: anxiety for example, or panic, or constant alertness. These are very energy-consuming effects of trauma. All this activity, originally aimed at defending against threat, is also regulated by the autonomic nervous system. It all happens unconsciously, although the threat itself may be long gone!
Polyvagal theory also allows us to consider, depressive states in a whole new way – they can be seen as states of trauma-related hypoarousal. If you are prone to hypoarousal, your ability to defend yourself is weakened, and it makes you vulnerable to further trauma.
“It is quite curious, that there is more research on threat-related emotions than tranquility! Considering all psychiatric treatment, the importance of safety, cannot be overstated.”
Understanding of the autonomic nervous system has been inspiring me for a whole decade already. The polyvagal theory plays an important role in my daily work. It also explains the biology of tranquility and safety, the experience that is generally the basis for successful treatment. It is quite curious, that there is more research on threat-related emotions than tranquility!
Considering all psychiatric treatment, the importance of safety, cannot be overstated.
Lyhyt dokumentti traumasta ja dissosiaatiosta
We have produced a short documentary that explains clearly and comprehensively what emotional trauma, structural dissociation and polyvagal theories are and how they effect human life. Psychiatrist Anssi Leikola also explains how understanding these subjects help us in creating sustainable psychiatry also called as trauma informed treatment.
The documentary has six episodes. We recommend to watch them in the order they are released:
Link to the whole documentary:
1. The Sustainable Psychiatry
2. Emotional Trauma
3. Structural Dissociation, part 1 & 2
4. Polyvagal Theory
5. Traumainformed treatment, part 1 & 2
6. Speaking from experience