Understanding Chronic Stress and Anxiety from Polyvagal Theory

March 12th, 2024
In: Anxiety

In recent years, the Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, has provided valuable insights into understanding the connection between chronic stress, anxiety, and our body's innate response system. This theory suggests that our autonomic nervous system plays a crucial role in our emotional well-being. The theory is based on the notion that this system is dynamically regulated by our experiences and can greatly impact our mental health.

The autonomic nervous system consists of three components: the ventral vagal nerve, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), and the dorsal vagal nerve. The ventral vagal nerve represents the state of safety, social engagement, and relaxation. The sympathetic nervous ventral vagal nerve is responsible for the fight-or-flight response during times of perceived danger, and the ventral vagal nerve controls the freeze response that is activated when the situation is perceived as life-threatening.

When we experience stress or anxiety, our body's natural response is to activate the sympathetic nervous system, preparing us for fight or flight. During acute stress, this response can be helpful in dealing with immediate threats. Under normal circumstances, once the threat is over, the stress response system returns to baseline. However, chronic stress can lead to prolonged activation of the stress response system, which can have a negative impact on body and mind.

Prolonged activation of the stress response system can lead to chronically elevated levels of hormones like cortisol, which can disrupt the body's natural processes and increase the risk of many health problems, ranging from anxiety, depression, and sleep problems, to cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders

People with chronic stress and anxiety may struggle with an overactive sympathetic nervous system, constantly perceiving threats even in non-threatening situations. This heightened state of arousal can lead to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and muscle tension. These individuals may experience difficulties in relaxation and social engagement, which can further exacerbate their anxiety.

Moreover, the Polyvagal Theory suggests that chronic stress and anxiety can also be linked to an underactive ventral vagal nerve. This part of the autonomic nervous system is involved in social connection, emotional regulation, and self-soothing. When the ventral vagal nerve is weakened, individuals may find it challenging to engage in social interactions, feel safe, or experience relaxation. This can create a cycle of isolation and further perpetuate chronic stress and anxiety.

Understanding the intricacies of the autonomic nervous system can offer valuable insights for managing chronic stress and anxiety. By prioritizing self-care activities that activate the ventral vagal nerve, such as deep breathing exercises, guided meditation, and connecting with loved ones, individuals can help regulate their autonomic nervous system and reduce their chronic stress and anxiety levels.

Furthermore, seeking professional help such as psychotherapy or counselling can also be beneficial. Therapists trained in the Polyvagal Theory can assist individuals in understanding and managing their autonomic nervous system responses, providing tools and strategies to promote emotional well-being.

Remember, chronic stress and anxiety are complex issues influenced by various factors, including the functioning of our autonomic nervous system. Understanding the implications of the Polyvagal Theory provides us with a valuable framework for developing effective strategies for managing and overcoming these challenges.

Author: Heidi Kwok, M.A., RCC

Heidi Kwok
Innerverse Therapy
212-179 Davie Street, Vancouver, V6Z2V4

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