BCST, Shame & The Polyvagal System

As a follow up to the last Stillpoint blogpost on understanding the Polyvagal System, which is so important to BCST work, I thought it would be helpful to discuss one of the main scenarios in which the Polyvagal System loses its healthy functioning.


The Polyvagal System mediates social engagement through its neural pathways to the face, jaw, throat, and viscera. When there is a failure in human relationship, or a rupture in connection, we are encountering the roots of shame. This rapidly drains life force from the face, jaw, throat, and viscera. Everyone has experienced the draining away of energy, constricted breathing, and discomfort in the stomach when there is a breach in relationship. We disconnect from our bodies because the body is the source of our uncomfortable feelings of shame. It is a healthy polyvagal system that allows us to communicate our heartfelt feelings and to initiate a repair and return to embodiment.

Shame only occurs in relationship. It is at the root of addictions and difficulty with impulse control. As we know in BCST, the first rupture in relationship can happen if the mother and newborn baby are not able to bond adequately at birth. This can set up the scenario for a shame-based personality if it is not resolved. Fortunately we have the “wiring” for healthy attachment with our Polyvagal System and that gives us a very special opportunity in our work. Shame is not meant to be a permanent condition, but when its roots are planted so early in life, a person may not know how to find their way out of it alone. Here is where we can help. 

Starting with practitioner presence and a non-judgmental stance, our clients with a dysregulated Polyvagal System can begin to explore what it feels like to trust another being at deeper and deeper levels. Over time, as they feel supported and can rest in this trust and safety, neuronal pathways back to relational safety can open up. We help them develop their “felt sense” of safety while they are connected with us. This may be the very first time they have experienced safety in relationship!

The potency of a healthy life force may be frozen in the client’s face, throat, heart, lungs, and viscera. This is noticeable in their posture and often an expressionless face. They may be seeking treatment because they are dealing with depression, low energy or social anxiety. When a BCST therapist uses their knowledge and skill, following the inherent treatment plan and using the various gentle holds, the client’s face slowly warms up, their color returns, their breathing comes into a natural flow of inhalation and exhalation, and their stomach distress resolves. The client can slowly experiment with this new-found safety through eye contact with us. The session may even end with laughter and unforced conversation as the Polyvagal System has arrived at a healthier state of regulation.

Eventually outside relationships become easier and, if they go awry, can be brought back into balance through development of relational repair skills.

In this age of technology, human face-to-face relationships are becoming less frequent. Social anxiety seems to be on the rise, especially among our younger clients. A dysregulated Polyvagal System and its accompanying shame and social anxiety seem to be increasing these days. We are sitting on a treasure trove of ideas and ways to meet shame based distress thanks to the many leaders in the fields of Neurobiology, Attachment, Trauma, and Cranial work (there are too many to mention them all, but Franklyn Sills, Peter, Levine, Diane Poole Heller, and Katherine Ukleja were particularly helpful to me). As Biodynamic Craniosacral therapists, we are grateful to have such wonderful, and effective, ways to help.