Have you ever found yourself in an uncertain or dangerous situation without fully understanding why? Despite the fact that no one else appears to be concerned by it, something still seems odd to you. When it comes to trauma therapy and healing PTSD a lot of the focus gets put on the cognitive reprocessing aspect of trauma treatment. 

You may not be aware of it, but every day as you experience the world, you are taking in hundreds of social cues from your surroundings. We take up on other people’s body language, facial expressions, speech tones, and more. We are always actively observing and engaging with the world and other people as part of the human experience.  

If we have a trauma history, one of the challenges we face is being able to regulate our autonomic responses like fight, flight or freeze to feel safe within our bodies and with other people. The Polyvagal (or the Science of Safety) theory is an important scientific development in the way we can learn to overcome these challenges because trauma also interrupts our ability to regulate our nervous system responses and feel safe in relationships.  

The primary principle of Polyvagal theory for the treatment of trauma is that trauma gets stored as a reflexive habitual state of your neurological system, not merely in your mind or in your memory. In order to feel calmer, have better relationships, and make better decisions, people can learn to activate that comfortable sensation in their bodies with the help of the researchers and clinicians who created Polyvagal therapy.  

There are three states of your nervous system: the ventral vagal, which is safe and social; the sympathetic, which is fight or flight; and the dorsal vagal, which is shut down. Polyvagal theory talks about the system of the vagus nerve which runs between our brain and our organs. These nerves send messages to and from our organs (such as the stomach and lungs). It is set up very well to bypass the trauma responses to triggers that are not an immediate danger as it acts as a brake on these responses within our nervous system. 

It is possible to reduce your levels of stress hormones, slow down your heartbeat, and relax your body and mind by taking slow, deep breaths that last at least five seconds on each inhale and exhale. By pushing the organs up against the vagus nerve and expanding the lungs and diaphragm, deeps breaths send a signal to the brain that everything is fine.  

By calming the nervous system and stimulating the vagus nerve, we strengthen our ability to regulate our nervous system and raise our threshold for distress. We can also more easily distinguish between triggers that don’t pose a threat and ones that demand a fight-or-flight response when we are less on edge.  


About the Author Bianca Nappo

Bianca is in her final year of a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the University of Canberra.

Our speech pathology and psychology clinic is located in Braddon, ACT, in Canberra’s CBD. Call us on 5117 4890 or email reception@inpositivehealth.com to get in touch.

In Positive Health, Canberra. Nel MacBean Speech Pathologist Canberra. Campbell MacBean Psychologist Canberra.