By Pamela Mueggenberg, MA, LMHP
I have been deep diving into neurobiology podcasts lately. Listening to neuroscientists, neurologists, and neuropsychiatrists talking about the squishy stuff between our ears has been a fascinating distraction from more concrete endeavors (should I tackle insurance billing or have scientists explain glial cells to me? Hmmm!). I am also learning more about just how entangled our brains are, how infinitely complex these systems are, and how little I know about how our beautiful, transcendent machine of a body experiences and navigates the world.
You may have heard of Polyvagal Theory, popularized by Bessel Van Der Kolk in his breakout book The Body Keeps the Score. The idea explores our vagus nerve, one of our cranial nerves that begins in the base of the brain and then goes basically everywhere in our body. It traces along our digestive tract, encircles our kidneys and stomach, tells our heart to slow down or speed up, even travels up our neck through our jaw and over our ears.
Polyvagal theorists believe that as we navigate the world different bands in our vagus nerve are activated to provide connection, protection, or shutting us down when things get to be too much. If we can exercise or activate the vagus nerve and heal our relationship with it, then perhaps we are better able to heal from trauma, stress, and disconnection.
Polyvagal Theory has fundamentally transformed how people think about trauma. Being able to embody security, focus on connection, and regain a sense of safety through the lens of this theory can make my work as a therapist be much more effective. However, clinicians are ethically obligated to follow the science and since the theory has been in practice, research has shown that there is much, much more to the story.
Working with the vagus nerve, we have systems upon systems that are providing a fuller picture of how we feel, how we think, and how we believe the world to be. The cannabinoidal system. The serotinergic system. The HPA axis. The gut-brain axis. The vestibular system. The limbic system.
All these systems talk to themselves and each other, and all of them can be pushed off-kilter when we have difficult experiences. We can begin the journey of healing through this major pathway of the vagus nerve, but we need to understand how our thoughts, our medication, our diet, our sleep-wake cycles, our hormones and loads of other variables have to be addressed.
We can think of ourselves in discrete parts: the brain, the heart, the gut, the soul. To do so would be turning away from the more complicated, messier, and far more interesting idea that we are music. There are so many instruments, contributing their song to create a vast orchestral piece. We cannot focus on, say, just the violins and declare us treated. Rather, we need to find a harmony within them, make sure they’re all in tune, and thus find peace in ourselves.
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