Why Polyvagal Theory Is as Amazing as It Seems

Why Polyvagal Theory? What’s so amazing about it? How does it help my EMDR practice?

Here’s the simplest way I can answer this. PVT offers insights into the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and helps to describe why we feel, think and behave the way we do. This model describes the autonomic nervous system and the role the vagus nerve plays in moderating responses of the autonomic nervous system as we move throughout out day.

As an EMDR therapist, you have learned the model of adaptive information processing (AIP). AIP is the conceptual framework of EMDR theory. AIP speaks to the storage of memory, and how the storage of memory contributes to present-day beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and experiences. 

However, AIP is only a part of it. Why? Because you don’t remember your memories. You feel your memories. 

When a memory network fires off there’s an array of fireworks that happen between neurons and synapses in the brain. However, those electrical impulses also trigger responses of the autonomic nervous system, via influencing the vagus nerve, which we feel and sense in our body. 

Polyvagal Theory describes three states of the autonomic nervous system. These are ventral vagal (i.e., the window of tolerance), the sympathetic nervous system (i.e., mobilization and hyperarousal) and dorsal vagal (i.e., immobilization and collapse). These three states or circuits are all needed and necessary for day-to-day functioning. However, these circuits also serve as adaptive defenses when recruited for survival and in response to stress or threat. 

When a memory is integrated, there is harmony in how we think about it and how we feel about it. For example, your client may say “I look back and think of how strong I was, and I feel strong too when I think about it”. This is adaptive memory integration.

When a memory has not integrated, or is maladaptively stored, we think about it and feel distress through the firing of the autonomic nervous system. Our clients may say things like “I think I’m loveable, but I don’t feel loveable”. Or “It was so terrible. I feel really anxious right now thinking about it.”. Or even, “I can’t really think about it. I feel numb”. In these presentations, we hear the memory and the autonomic nervous system are all out of whack. The memory hasn’t integrated so the autonomic nervous system fires off alarm bells or signals of distress. When this happens we re-experience our past in the present. Cue EMDR treatment planning and reprocessing targets.

When I began my deep dive into Polyvagal Theory a few years ago, a light bulb went off. EMDR already offered me huge insights into understanding my clients’ presenting complaints and trouble spots. However, with the added superpower of Polyvagal Theory, I could understand my clients and what was happening in their biology in an in-depth way. It’s like someone took my clinical conceptualization skills and supercharged them. 

You are a bundle of energy, that’s held together by your skin suit. All of this energy pulses through your neurons, your cells, your tissues, your organs. And the conductor of it all is the nervous system. Your nervous system is in love with you. It wants to protect you and keep you happy and healthy. Why? Because its number one job is your survival. The healthier and more resilient you are, the more adaptive you will be in this lifetime. Your nervous system always has your back.

Polyvagal Theory offers a road map for understanding how clever your nervous system is in its job of helping you survive. When we can grasp the power of the autonomic nervous system, and how even unhelpful symptoms are actually an attempt to adapt, we can befriend our nervous system. We can conceptualize what’s going on for clients through a neuro-informed approach, which focuses on the neurobiological correlates to symptoms and diagnoses. 

All of this is important because it contributes to your case conceptualization skills. We need case conceptualization to develop intentionality. Through intentionality we can identify and implement interventions. And through the implementation of successful interventions, clients experience integration and healing. 

I share a few of these insights with you here, so you can get a flavor for how powerful learning Polyvagal Theory can be in your EMDR practice. It is a model that supports EMDR and all therapies for that matter. For the more, we can understand the function of the dysfunction, the more skillful we are in helping people heal.

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