The Science and Practice of Polyvagal Theory and Somatic Literacy for Healing and Growth

Somatic literacy is the ability to access and make meaning from the knowledge encoded in your body, especially in your kinesthetic and nonverbal sensations¹. Somatic literacy supports the authoritative knowing grounded in embodied experience, which is often overlooked or dismissed in our culture that values rationality and objectivity over intuition and subjectivity¹.

Somatic literacy is not just about understanding your body objectively, such as knowing its anatomy or physiology. It is about being aware of your body subjectively, such as feeling its emotions, sensations, impulses, and needs. It is about being able to communicate with your body, listen to its messages, and respond appropriately. It is about being able to express yourself through your body, using movement, gesture, posture, and voice.

Somatic literacy is essential for healing from trauma and dysfunction, because trauma and dysfunction are often stored in the body as patterns of tension, pain, numbness, or dissociation². Trauma and dysfunction can affect your nervous system, immune system, endocrine system, and digestive system, leading to various physical and mental health issues². Trauma and dysfunction can also affect your sense of self, identity, agency, and belonging².

Polyvagal theory is a framework that can help you understand how your nervous system responds to trauma and dysfunction, and how you can use somatic literacy to regulate your nervous system and heal yourself³. Polyvagal theory was introduced by Stephen Porges in 1994 as an evolutionary perspective on the role of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation, social connection, and fear response³.

Polyvagal theory proposes that there are three types of nervous system responses: the ventral vagal response, the sympathetic response, and the dorsal vagal response³. The ventral vagal response is associated with social engagement, safety, connection, communication, and well-being. The sympathetic response is associated with fight or flight, mobilization, arousal, energy, and action. The dorsal vagal response is associated with freeze or collapse, immobilization, shutdown, numbness, and dissociation³.

Polyvagal theory also suggests that these responses are activated in a hierarchical order depending on the level of perceived threat or safety in the environment³. When we feel safe enough, we activate our ventral vagal response and engage socially with others. When we feel threatened or stressed, we activate our sympathetic response and prepare to fight or flee. When we feel overwhelmed or hopeless, we activate our dorsal vagal response and shut down or dissociate³.

Polyvagal theory also explains how our nervous system constantly scans the environment for cues of safety or danger through a process called neuroception³. Neuroception is a subconscious perception that happens below our awareness. It listens to signals from inside our body (such as heart rate or breathing), outside our environment (such as sounds or smells), and between us and others (such as facial expressions or tone of voice)³. Neuroception determines whether we feel safe enough to stay in ventral vagal mode or need to switch to sympathetic or dorsal vagal mode.

Polyvagal theory also emphasizes the importance of co-regulation for healing from trauma and dysfunction³. Co-regulation is the biological need to connect with others who can provide us with cues of safety and support. Co-regulation helps us calm our nervous system and return to ventral vagal mode. Co-regulation can happen through eye contact, touch, voice, breathing, movement, or any other form of social interaction that conveys care and empathy³.

By understanding polyvagal theory and developing somatic literacy, you can learn to recognize and regulate your nervous system responses to trauma and dysfunction. You can learn to notice when you are in ventral vagal mode (feeling safe), sympathetic mode (feeling stressed), or dorsal vagal mode (feeling numb). You can learn to use somatic practices such as mindfulness , meditation , yoga , tai chi , qigong , dance , martial arts , or any other form of somatic movement that brings awareness and intention to your body. You can also seek professional guidance from somatic therapists , counselors , coaches , or educators who can help you explore your body’s wisdom and healing potential.

If you are interested in developing your own somatic literacy, you should start by paying attention to your body’s signals and sensations. Somatic literacy may offer a unique opportunity to heal from trauma and dysfunction by enhancing your body’s ability to change and learn. By accessing and making meaning from the knowledge encoded in your body, you can transform your life in various ways.

References

(1) Polyvagal Theory: An Approach to Understanding Trauma. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/202206/polyvagal-theory-approach-understanding-trauma.

(2) Polyvagal theory – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyvagal_theory.

(3) National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/.

Published by Ashley Ryan, M.S.

Ashley is an educator and coach who earned her M.S. from Colorado State University.

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