The research of Stephen Porges, PhD has re-envisioned the conventional notion of the two branch ANS (“fight/flight” vs. “rest/rebuild” nervous system) and replaced it with a new concept, the “Polyvagal Theory”. Base on his findings, he discovered a new branch of the ANS (hence the term ‘poly’-vagal), which he has called the Social Nervous system, made up of a bunch of cranial nerves: nerves than innervate the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, face and hands.
These nerves bring us information about our experience and the world around us. They facilitate our sight, hearing, sensory recognition and experience of taste, touch and smell and are hugely impacted by sensory and social interaction. All of the Cranial Nerves play roles in the Social NS, but the primary nerves of the Social NS are the Vagus, Trigeminal, Facial and Glossopharyngeal nerves. These nerves are oriented to and influenced by social interaction and can regulate and control the ANS. The meaning of this is that the social nervous system largely trumps the ANS, and therefore offers the quickest pathway back to well being through safe, attuned social engagement.
This new understanding has profound implications for healthcare, as well as relationships, sports, yoga and meditation, education, the workplace, social and environmental justice movements, and other areas of life.
To contextualise this theory and its implications further, I will use a brief summary from John Chitty, director of CSES and an advocate of Steven Porges’ work:
“ 1. The autonomic nervous system is the foundation of health and wellness, regulating neurochemistry, the immune system and most behavior. As osteopathic teacher Dr. James Jealous has stated, “80% or more of all medical conditions are ANS events.”
2. Unlike the 100-year-old model that is taught in today’s textbooks and classrooms, the ANS has three branches instead of two, and the branches are sequential instead of purely reciprocal. Today’s prevailing idea also perpetuates a significant logic/differentiation error that negatively affects therapeutic theories and applications.
3. The newly-discovered third branch is the Social Nervous System, which regulates the evolutionarily older Sympathetic (properly called “Orthosympathetic”) and oldest Parasympathetic branches. The Social branch meets the technical criteria for inclusion in the ANS.
4. Understanding the ANS fully is a true revolution in health care, with enormous implications for medicine, psychology, birthing practices, early childhood care and education of all ages. In addition, the Polyvagal Theory provides important anatomical and physiological information for much more effective treatment of trauma.” (John Chitty, 2015).
Much of this new information is very intuitive – common sense really – people have been using their Social Nervous Systems to regulate self, other and community for as long as we have been on the planet. Everyone instinctually knows the healing power of feeling listened to, a warm smile, kind touch, laughing with a friend, synchronised movement such as dancing, playing sports or physical intimacy, compassionate acknowledgement and so on. Yet it has only been in the last 10-15 years that science has identified the importance of this group of nerves that help us feel acknowledged, loved, contacted, met, bonded, regulated and secure.
So…how does this research impact you and your community? This more accurate understanding of the nervous system is key in many ways – the more that we can understand and know someone or something, the better positioned we are to relate well with it and treat it in a way to help it thrive –whether that is our garden, our friend or child, our mind or our nervous systems!
And this is true both on an individual level, but also in our communities and societal structures. For instance, this research can be supportive to changes in the health care system with more attention paid to relationship and the health and healing of the nervous system in physical and mental health conditions, in the educational system, inspiring programs such as roots of empathy which is showing great results: http://www.rootsofempathy.org ; and so on.
Dr. Stephen Porges and some other researchers have recognised that the social nervous system helps us regulate our autonomic (or automatic) nervous system, especially to assist the ANS to discharge any sense of threat, danger or stress that we feel. “In fact, this Social Nervous System is probably our most elegant and efficient means of relieving stress” (Gary Peterson, 2012). So stress free living – calls for relationality – something that we have lost in our fast paced culture with a disconnect from nature, our bodies and experience (tired- have a coffee, sad –have a drink, lonely –go buy something), friends and family and the community we live in. Its hard to relate when you are driving by at 60 miles an hour – or rushing somewhere–or worrying about work – and so on. Even though this is relatively clear, scientific fact backing common sense can be supportive to help activate responses! Relationship, relationship, relationship!
Still interested about poly vagal theory and nervous system regulation? Find out more here:
John and Anna Chitty are huge advocates of this work and provide resources on their website: http://energyschool.com. I have included some of their links below:
-The Autonomic Nervous System & Polyvagal Theory (Chapter 6 in Dancing with Yin and Yang)
The 2-page summary offers a basic overview of the theory and Chapter 6 of John Chitty’s Dancing with Yin and Yang tells the story in popular language. We offer the entire chapter here for free. Of course, more info can be acquired by reading the whole book, which includes numerous applications in other chapters : http://energyschool.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Dancing-with-Yin-Yang-Autonomic-Chapter6.pdf
Several versions have been created, short summaries for beginners and longer versions for advanced students.
Autonomic Insights for Babies and Mothers (Webinar for APPAH)
Babies & The Polyvagal Theory Video Interview with Diane Heller
Stephen Porges and the Polyvagal Theory (Webinar for Diane Heller’s Attachment Mastery program)
So now you have learnt some about the nervous system! –now what?
Knowing this information, you can perhaps support yourself and others better as you navigate the world. Planning enough time so you can relate with the scenery and people you pass through on your day where possible. Knowing that giving or receiving a kind word, eye contact or gesture can restore someone to a sense of well being can give a different focus to standing in line at the grocery store. How many others ways can you integrate this?
Here are some more starting points:
Nervous System First Aid: Body-Low-Slow-Loop (for Clients)
Developed by John and Anna Chitty – and based in the work of Steven Levine and other trauma research -The Body-Low-Slow-Loop is a safe and effective way to gently reduce autonomic nervous system dysfunction, particularly the sympathetic stress response known as fight or flight. A complete description of the whole practice can be found on page A complete description of the whole practice can be found on page 187 in the new book, Dancing with Yin and Yang
Service oriented work and relational focus on others –listening to them, attending to their needs, supporting them, developing relationship.
Mindfulness based somatic practices –relating to your body and sensations with kindness and appreciation
Laughing with friends
Safe physical contact
Making warm eye contact
Offering kind words spoken in a soothing tone
Slowing down to feel relationship
Dropping in and becoming present for yourself and for others
Relating with animals and nature
Looking at people and animals sharing smiles, hugs, and nurturing touch.
Giving a hug or asking for a hug from a loved one when one of you is having a tough day
Watching funny movies that also display healthy relational situations
Make it a point to identify some favourites and practice them daily if you are not already doing so! This is a nice list to get started but build on it in your own unique way and practice it in your daily life –sharing warmth and connectivity in the world –restoring health and balance.