Polyvagal Theory: The New Wellness Buzzword Simplified
If you use your social media to follow wellness influencers, you may have recently come across a lot more posts tagged #polyvagaltheory. It may sound exotic and slightly scintillating but what does it really mean? In order to fully understand it, we have to dig into the nervous system a bit more.
The central nervous system can be separated into three sections: motor, sensory, and autonomic. Motor controls our muscles, so we can move. Sensory controls our senses. Autonomic is a bit like our auto-pilot: it controls everything that we don't have to think about in order to react to our environment, like sweating when it's hot out, salivating when we smell delicious food, and our heart rate in response to frightening or calming stimuli.
Until recently, the scientific consensus was that we could not actively control our autonomic functions. That they were so automatic that we couldn't even override the system. However, recent research using Heart Rate Variability has demonstrated that we can use breathing and mindfulness to change our visceral organ function. That means by controlling our breathing, we can change our heart rate. This is something most of us have done before: when stressed and your heart is beating out of your chest, if you take ten deep breaths, you start to calm down.
It turns out there may be a lot more nuance to this type of autonomic activity. The polyvagal theory comes from the way mammals evolved over time. Our nervous systems moved away from primitive reptilian function to a more connected, social state. Basically, as we became more social animals, our nervous system evolved to the point where our body language and facial expressions have an effect on our autonomic nervous system. The information flowing into the brain (afferent activity) impacted the actions flowing out of the brain (efferent activity). The intimate neurological link between the heart and face muscles means that the same nerves controlling the heart also control face and head muscles.
How does this affect us? We have two important assessments as we go through life: risk and environmental safety. How do we assess our surroundings? By looking at the behaviors and body language of the other humans around us. When we hear familiar voices and tones and see expressive faces, we can sense safety and our autonomic functions like heart rate and breathing can relax. Conversely, if we are unable to accurately hear and see our fellow humans, we will not get the information our autonomic nervous system needs to find calm.
This raises an important question about the impact of a masked society. If all humans are walking around with most of our faces covered, how are we able to ascertain whether or not we are in a safe environment? Although one may think we can use common sense to assess a situation, our nervous system relies on immediate cues and reacts faster than we can have conscious thought. So, the nerves controlling your heart rate don't get the information from someone's face to decide if the situation is chill or risky. Applying polyvagal theory, one may end up assessing a situation as high risk solely because there is a lack of good information coming from the masked faces around us. This results in a sympathetic, high stress response unnecessarily. Chronic stress is the cause of the major diseases that plague our population: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
On the flip side, when we can interact with one another without shielding our faces, we can create prolonged periods of ease and parasympathetic dominance, which will ultimately help put our body into a healing state, leading to a better quality of life on a daily basis.