Polyvagal Theory Application in Bodywork

In this Guest Blog, Candy at Arras Healing explores the basics of Polyvagal Theory and how we can incorporate these teachings into bodywork, such as tantric massage.

What is Bodywork?

Bodywork is an important addition or alternative to more conventional interventions such as talking therapies and psychological work. We essentially adopt a ‘bottom-up’ approach to recovery. This means working body-to-mind — getting to know the body’s patterns and nervous system in order to influence our mental wellness.

This is instead of the traditional ‘top-down’ approach, which works mind-to-body by working to heal the mind first. The top-down approach has dominated mental health fields for most of the last century, but the body is now starting to receive the attention it deserves.

Bodywork therapists are part of this movement to work with the bottom-up approach, supporting the autonomic nervous system (and thus the body) to heal and feel safe again. Bodywork includes practices such as massage, dance, movement, somatic inquiry, de-armouring and craniosacral therapy.

Where does Polyvagal Theory come in?

Polyvagal Theory was first introduced by Stephen Porges in 1994 and has transformed our understanding of the human body’s nervous system by introducing us to the Vagus Nerve.

Understanding the vagus nerve has transformed trauma therapy, influencing the likes of Peter Levine, Deb Dana and Bessel van der Kolk. Deb Dana later produced the seminal work ‘Polyvagal Theory in Therapy,’ being one of the first therapists to apply the theory in everyday practice and bringing us the concept of the ‘polyvagal ladder’ — more on this below.

Deb Dana refers to polyvagal theory as “understanding the science of safety.” Poly- (meaning multi) refers to the two branches of the Vagus Nerve: the ventral vagal and the dorsal vagal. The vagus nerve is key in recovering our perceptions of safety and connection. This is what allows us to restore a state of equilibrium in the nervous system which influences the whole body’s health.

How is this helpful in bodywork?

Our bodies “keep the score” and are the living evidence of the stresses we have experienced in our lives. Our bodies hold our history, our past, and our stories about ourselves.

Polyvagal theory teaches that when our nervous systems become dysregulated, it means we have entered into our fight/flight (sympathetic) response, or we have entered into our freeze/collapse (parasympathetic) response. Both of these affect the way our bodies operate and respond to life.

It is working with the body that we can begin to make in-roads into our wounding, and begin getting to know the nervous system and any parts of our bodies that are holding stress and trauma. In this sense it means our bodies also hold the key to our healing. Part of this work is identifying any repressed emotions we are holding within us, and learning to feel and express them in a way that promotes healing.

Why does the Nervous System affect recovery?

Spending too much time throughout our lives in the sympathetic response (fight/flight), means we can go on to develop mental health difficulties such as anxiety and PTSD. Whereas spending too much time in the freeze/collapse response means we can go on to develop depression and chronic dissociation. We can also form self-harming patterns such as eating disorders and self-injury.

It’s important to remember that it’s never our fault if we are spending too much time in a dysregulated nervous system. We learn these patterns and develop these habits over time, usually beginning in childhood or because of traumatic experiences in our lives.

What is the Polyvagal Ladder?

The polyvagal ladder works with the three states of being in the world:

  • Ventral vagal system – the optimal state, characterised by social engagement and feelings of safety, joy, resilience and curiosity;
  • Sympathetic nervous system – the fight/flight response, characterised by anger, resistance, tension and hyper-vigilance;
  • Dorsal vagal system – the freeze/collapse response, characterised by ‘numbing out’ and shutting down or withdrawing.

We ideally want to spend as much time as we can in our ventral vagal system, as this helps to strengthen and tone it. That means we become more resilient to dysregulation in the future.

When we have good bodywork skills and familiarity with our nervous systems, we will naturally move in and out of the different states of being throughout the day. We won’t get stuck for too long in fight/flight, as we will have the resources to come back to our optimal state more quickly. Neither will we become fatigued for too long in the freeze/collapse response, as we will know how to energise ourselves back into the ventral vagal system.

This is known as moving up and down the polyvagal ladder, and we do this all throughout the day. It is a unique way of working with our bodies and understanding our reactions and responses to events and situations as we go about our lives and healing.

Summary

By utilising the principles of polyvagal theory, we can reframe the way we process stress and trauma in our lives and societies.

Working with the nervous system allows us to re-imagine our approach to mental and physical health, circumnavigate some of the blocks that come with top-down talking therapies, and attend to the tension patterns in our bodies with mindful curiosity and compassion.

Candy offers individual sessions can be contacted at Arras Healing

Tatiana offers one to one and couples’ sessions in London and the North East of England. For more information

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