Christian Stress Release

What is Stress Really – Polyvagal Theory (2 of 2) (Part 9)

Neuron's in the brain firing

Polyvagal Theory gives a deeper understanding of why your stress (including anxiety, trauma and depression) includes such strong emotions and physical reactions.

Today we’re continuing our deeper dive into the science of your mental health struggles, with Polyvagal Theory. It’s the emerging science of stress, and gives a deeper understanding into how stress works in your brain and body.

 

If you missed the previous posts on the science of stress, you can catch up on those here: Good Stress; Bad Stress; Fight, Flight, Freeze; Your Brain, Your Nervous System, and Polyvagal Theory (1 of 2).

Polyvagal Theory

To recap, Polyvagal Theory is the new emerging science in the mental health industry in regards to stress. It helps explain how your Brain and Nervous System move through the different states of stress (described here). It’s also the science that brings in the understanding of your vagus nerve, the main nerve responsible for your stress (talked about here).

 

In this post we’re only going to cover the very basics of Polyvagal Theory. If you’re curious and want to know more, you can learn more here.

The Stages of Stress

As we discussed in the last post, Polyvagal Theory breaks down your stress into 3 main stages. (It actually breaks it down into 6, but when talking about stress, we’re looking at these 3 stages):

 

Social Engagement, Fight or Flight, and Freeze.

 

Here’s their chart on the 3 different stages. It shows the order you move them, as well as what you feel emotionally and physiologically when you’re in them. Notice the emotions and physical changes to your body. Have you ever lived these yourself? Most of us have at some point.

Chart of the 3 stages of stress in the Polyvagal Theory

SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT (CALLED VENTRAL VAGAL)

Social Engagement is the equivalent to the No Stress state, also called Rest & Digest. This is the state where you’re calm, at peace and resting. Your brain knows that you’re safe, so it has you in an open, social state, with your defenses (walls) down.

 

When you’re in Social Engagement, you’ll physically be in a state of rest. (You can be connected with others while moving (like if you’re standing up and talking, or exercising), but you’re most engaged with others when sitting still. This is that state.)

 

In this state, you’re truly connecting with others in the way that God designed you to: open, curious, compassionate. It’s where love exists and moves through you to those around you. Oxytocin, combined with your brain’s determination that you’re safe, gives you the ability to bond with others. To relate and connect with the people God has put in front of you (ie. to socially engage with them). 

 

When we look at stress with Polyvagal Theory, we start with Social Engagement because it’s the baseline of peace. We want to see how your body and mind are supposed to be functioning when at peace. Then we use that as the benchmark of where to get you back to from your stress states.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT (CALLED SYMPATHETIC)

When your brain senses danger (whether real or perceived), it will flip you into the state of Fight or Flight. Your brain will do the work for you to determine whether Fight or Flight is the proper reaction to the danger. (And if neither are, then and only then, will it flip you into the state of Freeze).

 

Fight or Flight are your brain and body’s way of protecting yourself against danger. They’re the action that saves your life. You can think of this like your brain saying “I can” (fight or flee the danger and win). In the state of Fight, you’re moving towards the danger to fight and beat it. In the state of Flight, you’re moving away from the danger, to get out harms way.

 

Notice the emotions you’ll feel in these 2 states. They’re helpful and purposeful when you’re actually in danger. They’re challenging and harmful when you’re safe but in these states (like with anxiety, depression or trauma).

 

Physiologically, in these 2 states, you’re going to experience a ramping up of your body to fight or flee. This gives you the proper energy to fight or run away from the danger and survive. I call this hulk or beast mode, because you can do unthinkable things in these states. 

 

You’ll also notice a reduction in your ability to relate to others. This is because you’re trying to survive danger, which might be at the hands of other humans. God designed you to be wary of people in this state so you don’t get hurt worse. Unfortunately, when you’re not in danger but triggered with trauma or anxiety, it creates barriers in your socialization. In both of these states, you’ll lose the Oxytocin (helping you bond with others), and your openness to connect. Your emotional hearts puts walls up to protect yourself, and you fight or push others away. If you struggle with anxiety or trauma, and have a hard time socializing with people, this can be why.

FREEZE (CALLED DORSAL VAGAL)

If you’re brain has sensed danger, but determined that it’s not safe to fight or run away from the danger, it will flip you into the state of Freeze.

 

Freeze is the state of shutdown, both physically and emotionally. God designed you with this state to help protect you from feeling pain when in danger. If you can’t fight or run away, you’ll have to endure whatever is about to happen. And God didn’t want you to have to feel that. So He gifted you with the state of Freeze to numb you out, to protect you.

 

In this state, you will experience a shutdown of yourself, as your brain has determined “I can’t” (fight or flee the danger and win). You become so overwhelmed by the fact that you can’t protect yourself, that everything collapses in on itself. 

 

You will notice your physical body collapsing and becoming immobile (unable to move). This is to ensure you don’t keep trying to fight or run away from the danger, and get hurt worse. You might feel trapped in your own body, as you can’t move it like normal. Overall, your body is going to continue shutting you down more and more to prepare for death. Again, this is God’s gift to you to not feel the pain.

 

Physiologically, you’ll have an increase in Endorphins. This is how your brain and body numb you out physically and emotionally, so you don’t feel everything. 

 

God designed you this way to help protect you from 2 things. First, from moving your body. This would cause a predator to think that you’re trying to fight or run away. Which would lead them to try and stop you (making the attack worse). Second, from being aware of what the other person is doing to you. The thoughts and emotions you’d feel in that moment are too much for humans to bear. God designed you to numb out in this state, to shut down those thoughts and feeling and avoid the pain. Both of these things help you survive it, and come out alive.

HOW YOU MOVE THROUGH THEM

On the chart you’ll notice an arrow on the left, along with a black bell curve in the middle. 

 

The arrow on the left says “Arousal Increases”. This means that when your brain senses danger, it will “arouse” (or ramp up) your nervous system into these states. High Stress states are a highly aroused (or agitated) nervous system.

 

The bell curve in the middle says “Deactivation”. This how your nervous system comes out of these states once the danger is gone. To do this, you must come back down the way you came. Your nervous system must deactivate the arousal states to bring you back down to the state of peace (Social Engagement).

 

If you’re in Freeze, you’ll come back through Fight or Flight before entering back into Social Engagement. It’s not safe to be calm and at peace if danger is still present. So you can’t move straight into Social Engagement without first fighting or running away from any lingering danger. If any is still there, you’ll be prepped and ready to fight or run to survive.

What This Means for Your Life

If you’ve ever struggled with a panic or anxiety attack, or felt the numbness of depression, you’ve lived these states. You don’t need to have a diagnosis of Anxiety or Depression to suffer from them. Your nervous system is going to move you through these states as it sees fit, to protect you from danger. 

 

This could physical, mental, emotional or spiritual danger. Your brain will do it’s job to protect all of the parts of you, not just your body. This chart shows how God designed you to stay safe, through whatever danger satan has brought into your life.

 

When you’re in danger (any type), these states truly protect you. Even if it’s just walking away from someone trying to manipulate you. Your brain will protect you from all types of abuse and harm.

 

Where these states wreak havoc on your life is when you’re safe, but your brain doesn’t know that. This is the case with anxiety, depression, trauma (and many other mental health dysfunctions and disorders). Your brain can have “glitches”, as I call them, where it reacts irrationally. It puts you into these high stress states to survive, but there’s nothing to survive from. So you live in the extremes of these states of stress, and often stay stuck there. Not only is this detrimental to your physical body, but it can wreck your relationships as well. The emotions and defensiveness one is in during these states can borderline on abuse. And when we look at our behaviors when we’re anxious, triggered or depressed, they often line up with this.

 

If you’ve ever felt like God messed up in His design of you, because of your struggles – He didn’t. He created these states to protect you from satan’s evil in this fallen world. Danger exists, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve lived it. The states of Fight or Flight, or Freeze might have actually kept you alive (and not feeling all the pain). 

 

It’s the pain of mental health dysfunction you’re suffering with, when you’re safe and still living in these states.

Resources

God doesn’t want you to stay stuck in these states. He designed you to live and thrive in the healthy states of Social Engagement (and the others we didn’t talk about).

 

If you’re struggling with these kinds of stress, and need help coming out of them, here are some resources for you:

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Stress Release for Christian Women Membership – An on-demand library of mental health techniques designed to pull you out of these states of stress. It’s here to help you turn off your stress in the present moment (bring you back to Social Engagement).

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Practitioner Directories – Lists of therapists and trauma coaches to work with 1-on-1, to heal your mental health struggles. These sessions are for healing the pains of your past (like trauma, anxiety, depression, etc.), so you stop getting triggered.

I’m praying for you ♥︎

   – L aura

Want Laura On Your Blog?

Hey Beautiful Lady,

I’m currently moving across the country and unable to give the weekly podcast, blog and newsletter emails the attention they need and deserve. As such, I’m postponing them until Tuesday (6/4). If you need help healing, you can find links for Practitioners here. I’m praying for you 🤍

Laura