In this interview, Professor Stephen Porges of (polyvagal theory) unpacks some of his work in a chat with Dr. Gunther Schmidt. Prof Porges eloquently outlines the interplays of nervous system responses in relation to stressors or trauma.
In automatic defence systems or “stress” response systems of our bodies have been with us for thousands of years and to a large degree are responsible for our survival as a species.
We often land up in chats about the activation and deactivation of stressed states that stem from key events that trigger responses from our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
In summary of the many processes in play.
The sympathetic nervous system‘s core function is to activate the body into fight-flight-or-freeze responses or to confront, run away from or freeze from danger.
Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system stores energy by slowing down the heart rate, managing intestinal and gland activity, and relaxes muscles and the gastrointestinal tract and allows for sleep and rest states.
Porges unpacks these interplays a little further by outlining the role of the autonomic nervous system which also plays a part of the nervous system that is responsible for the control of more subconscious bodily functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and digestive processes.
The nervous system is designed to go back to a state of coherence or homeostasis. This is an equilibrium between these different systems that returns the body back into a natural state, able to respond if needed but is not necessarily activated.
One of the highlights in the conversation is his outline of the hierarchy that exists between these nervous systems and the evolutionary development of the freeze or faun response.
In trauma, the more complex development of the “freeze” response can also be the the “please” or “appease” response. This iteration adds another layer to these distinctive interactions under stress. In many cases, the mind may remain connected to higher social brain functions but still be emotionally dysfunctional or threatened.
Unlike fight or flight. The more complex freeze responses may seek to mediate the threat or diffuse the situation rather than to fight or run away. The submission can be completely dissociative or it can remain fully cognitive depending on the individual’s context and severity.
Under stress, your fight and flight autonomic nervous system also works to de-escalate a triggered sympathetic nervous system before the parasympathetic nervous system is able to fully restore the homeostasis.
With a dysregulated, nervous system will continue to create issues in the mind, digestive and immune system. This radiates further into behaviours that compound stressing issues in external relationships be they personal, work, food, substances etc.
Symptoms such as depression, fatigue and issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and longer-term conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, multiple sclerosis and fibromyalgia, the list goes on…. the bottom line is that you are not designed to live in a constantly high alert state.
With a regulated nervous system, you are better able to access balance or sleep and digestion that in turn build on the immune system functions, stabilise thought patterns and be who you are meant to be.
Porges beautifully encapsulates these responses in that they are still so very base and automatic responses and not higher cognitive behaviours.
The connection he makes to not internalising your response as behaviours give us a sense of comfort in that if you have suffered trauma, you are most likely not as responsible for your behaviours as you think you are, most were automatic.
The analogy of the switch from “trauma victim” to “trauma survivor” is a powerful association in your mind. We are responsible for how we react to life’s challenges but if we have not learned how to respond, how much ownership is appropriate?
By shifting your personal narrative away from the internalisation can be an important step towards learning, understanding and accepting that these nervous systems is in a lot of ways beautifully designed to protect a human being under threat.
Of course, that internalisation is a hellava nut to crack when your embedded belief system is telling you other stuff, but hey we all just doing the best we can at the time, so go ahead and be a bit kinder to yourself.
If you found this interesting and want to learn a bit more about getting in command of your nervous system responses check out the article on setting your intentions for the day and dip into the healthy food and sleep guides.