The Live Well Blog

An Introduction to Polyvagal Theory

Jessica Downs, LCSW

In a world full of life hacks and shortcuts, it’s no surprise that the quick-fix approach has spilled over into the realm of self-help and healing. This is leading to lots of frustrated people, as the things they’re trying aren’t translating to a better, more fulfilling life. Often, the prescribed plans and remedies are having the opposite effect, adding to the problem and causing people to wonder “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why can’t I just…?”

The trouble with a quick-fix type of thinking is that it’s just that: thinking. And while thinking our way through some things can be productive, it’s an incomplete strategy and not entirely effective. I can certainly think my way through my feelings about the month of February. I don’t love it – by then, I’m ready for spring and tired of being cold – but I can reframe and rally with thoughts like, “We need this terrible weather to have a fire-free summer,” which soothes my feelings about the cold and gray. 

But that’s just February. Not the stuff that impacts life in a big, repetitive way, like sticky points in relationships; behaviors and responses we later regret; or ongoing, negative self-talk. These are the things we can’t just think our way through, but that we need to feel our way through.

We need a new, more complete conversation to help us help ourselves – one that normalizes the funky stuff we feel, and the sometimes unhelpful ways we try to solve for those feelings. This conversation can start with building understanding around the body, which houses the nervous system, and how we use the nervous system to self-regulate when we’re feeling off.

Polyvagal Theory gives us language for understanding the nervous system and  deciphering the cues the body is sending. It helps us deepen our understanding of ourselves so we can gently try something different. It provides a road map for making sense of why we feel the things we feel, what to do when we’re feeling stuck, and how to live a more present and engaging life. Ultimately, understanding the workings of the nervous system leads to greater self-compassion, and a new lens through which we can see how we got here and how we might change.

Over the next several months, we’ll unfold principles of Polyvagal Theory to help you expand your understanding of your nervous system and begin to harness its power. Rather than a quick-fix list or remedy, our goal is to give you tools and information that empower you to tune in differently to your body, then respond to your body’s cues in ways that have a lasting impact and allow you to experience life more fully.

Stay tuned!

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