By Maryssa Steffen, PHRC Berkeley
“It doesn’t matter how much you drive around, you will never get to where you want to go if you don’t have the right map.” – Stanley Rosenberg
During this unprecedented time to slow down, shelter at home, and physical distance, I have taken the opportunity to dive deeper into embodied practices. In other words, I am interested in an integrated and embodied approach to movement, the body and consciousness. There are many paths that guide this type of work, but my recent journey has led me to Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal Theory. Proposed in 1994, it connects the dots between our internal organs and our emotional states.
The vagus nerve links our autonomic nervous system to our emotions and behavior and this theory has provided a map for psychotherapists, doctors, physical therapists, and caregivers, to name a few. It is neurobiological evidence for the mind-body connection! I believe anyone may benefit from this knowledge, especially if they are experiencing chronic pelvic pain. Let me explain…
Before I get into what the Polyvagal Theory is, below is a picture of the vagus nerve so that you can appreciate how the longest cranial nerve travels from our brainstem to our pelvis:
Image courtesy of Flickr
Next, you need to visualize the autonomic nervous system, which is the regulatory force governing sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system states. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system functions are described next.
Image courtesy of Flickr
Ok, now that you see this mind-body network, I will introduce you to Porges’s theory, which explains how the autonomic nervous system is supported by the three vagus nerve subsystems. The communication between the vagus nerve and the autonomic nervous system influences our behaviors, emotions, and perceptions. Here are the three vagal subsystems:
- The dorsal-vagal system. This is the most primitive of these three systems, originating about 600 million years ago in evolutionary biology. It is designed to immobilize and conserve energy during a shutdown state. Think about a lizard when you startle it in its tracks; it freezes! During that process, the dorsal-vagal system targets the internal organs and slows them down. If threatened, our heart rate decreases, breathing slows, and, in trauma, we often also experience fear, a sense of numbness and shutting down. In contrast, without fear, this system allows us to enjoy low-arousal activities, such as relaxation, meditation, restorative yoga and low-arousal emotions such as peaceful, calm, and contemplative states.
- The sympathetic nervous system. After the dorsal-vagal system developed in the evolutionary timeline, the sympathetic nervous system was next and it evolved from the reptilian period of about 400 million years ago. When this system is activated, it arouses the individual to prepare for mobilization and action. Blood is shunted towards our limbs to prepare for fight or flight. When our environment is absent of fear, this system gets us ready to engage in highly stimulating activities such as sports, dance, invigorating debates, and feel high-arousal emotions such as joy and elation.
- Ventral-vagal system. This phylogenetically most recent system (deriving from about 200 million years ago) exists only in mammals. It manages complex social and attachment behaviors. This branch of the vagus nerve activates our parasympathetic nervous system state, or “rest and digest.” A fun fact is that this ventral system links the cranial nerves to sound perception, vocalization, and facial expressions. That is why music and singing can be therapeutic and why bonding with others is possible when we feel safe and comfortable. Curiosity and play are alive in this state. Porges has cleverly referred to this integrated function as the social engagement system.
Whew! Are you still with me? So what does all of this have to do with chronic pelvic pain? Next, I will define neuroception, a term coined by Stephen Porges, which describes how our nervous system determines if a situation is safe or not. Our autonomic nervous system is always gathering information from our senses about our environment and the state of our body. We are not always conscious of this nervous system activity, which is why it is called autonomic! It is the difference between being on high alert or numb when our survival is compromised or in a friendly conversation when we feel safe. These switches between vigilance and comfort are super fast as our autonomic nervous system appraises cues from the environment.
Now, consider when we are in pain for longer than a couple of months, have unresolved trauma, or are under stress for extended periods of time at work or at home. In these unfortunate circumstances, we may not be able to regulate our own autonomic nervous system effectively because we did not have the chance to run from the threat or to shake it off. Rather than mobilize away from the threat, fear, or stress, our body is stuck in a dorsal-vagal or sympathetic nervous system loop. In this case, we may suffer from recurring inappropriate behaviors and constant physical symptoms of stress or shutdown. Over time, the accumulation of stress leads to an increase in different signs and symptoms of an unregulated autonomic nervous system and may help to explain the mysteries of why some individuals can develop chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, migraines, and irritable bowel syndrome after months, or more, of these recurring triggers.
Alright! You made it this far, now what is the solution? We know that over 80% of the vagus nerve sends sensory information from various organs to our brain. Part of this intricate process involves the diaphragm, the breathing muscle. To learn more about the diaphragm and how it relates to pelvic floor function, check out this blog, https://pelvicpainrehab.com/low-tone-pelvic-floor-dysfunction/4427/diaphragmatic-deep-belly-breathing-pelvic-pain-pee-poop/.
Once you know the diaphragm’s function, you can use it to regulate your nervous system because the vagus nerve also plays a role in breathing. There are sensory nerve fibers in the vagus nerve that constantly detect the movements of breathing. When we perform diaphragmatic breathing patterns, our organs tell our brain that we are safe via the ventral-vagal branch. On the other hand, if we chest breathe, the muscles involved are activated by the sympathetic nervous system or dorsal-vagal branches. By chest breathing at rest, this sensation will communicate to our brain that we are in danger and we will probably experience pain.
One of the quickest ways to switch to a parasympathetic state is by elongating your out-breath and making it slower than your in-breath. Other techniques to mobilize your organs below your diaphragm include chants, sighs, and any vocalization that vibrates your belly. This practice offers new sensory signals to an otherwise shutdown or overstimulated nervous system. It is a tool to regulate your nervous system and improve your sensation of safety and pleasure. The brain will then send commands to initiate optimal digestive, sensory, and social functions. You should feel less pain, may hear rumbling sounds in your tummy, and should feel more ready to socialize.
If you feel like unresolved trauma is interfering with the processing of negative thoughts and triggers, I welcome you to seek out a mental health provider, and https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/trauma-and-ptsd is one potentially useful directory. Working with a compassionate psychotherapist can help you to process trauma while in a safe environment.
Also, if you have neuromusculoskeletal impairments that result from diseases, disorders, conditions, or injuries, and they are interfering with your function and quality of life, then I welcome you to consult with a physical therapist. If you are experiencing pelvic pain or pelvic floor dysfunction, then please visit https://pelvicpainrehab.com!
I encourage us to play, sing, dance, or go for a walk with someone. We can restoratively surrender to the moment when we meditate, practice tai chi, or yogic breathing. We can teach ourselves to overcome the impulse to fight or run when we sit still and breathe instead. Be present and avoid the tendency to withdraw and dissociate, especially during slow and mindful exercise. “Body-full” movements train us to embody a relaxed state. In this American landscape, I hope that one day we will not judge success by economic growth or wealth, but recognize success by how well an individual can regulate their own nervous system during prosocial behaviors.
Stephen Porges and Deb Dana, Editors. Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies. Norton, 2018.
Rosenberg, Stanley. Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve. North Atlantic Books, 2017.