Polyvagal Theory in Healing Trauma

by Clara Favale

The greatest thing then, in all education,
is to make our nervous system our ally as opposed to our enemy.  
—William James


Craniosacral therapists commonly work with clients who have experienced trauma. As practitioners, we do not separate the physical, mental, emotional, psychological or spiritual issues affecting our clients, instead we meet what arises holding all of an individual’s system with holistic awareness. The work of Steven Porges, a neurobiologist, has revolutionized our understanding of the autonomic nervous system and how it relates to trauma with his Polyvagal Theory which was brought to life in the early 1990’s. According to Polyvagal Theory, evolution provides us with neural circuits that promote social behavior as well as the fight or flight and immobilization strategies used to defend and protect. The most recent understanding of this social nervous system circuitry is defined by cranial nerves that provide neural regulation of the of the striated muscles of our face and head which link to neural regulation of our heart. In Porges’ The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory “The face-heart connection provides humans and other mammals with an integrated social engagement system that detects and projects features of ‘safety’ to co-specifics through facial expressions and vocalizations that are covariates of autonomic state. Within this model, how we look, listen, and vocalize conveys information about whether we are safe to approach. From a Polyvagal perspective, deficits in feeling safe form the core bio-behavioral feature that leads to mental and physical illness.”

In her recent book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Deb Dana, an LCSW, writes about the importance of how co-regulation can enhance our sense of safety. This can help us become more resilient and can influence and reshape the autonomic nervous system by an understanding of the Social Nervous System and how it relates to healing.

Through touch, verbal, and trauma skills, as well as a comprehensive understanding of anatomy, physiology, neurobiology, and how Polyvagal Theory relates to trauma and early attachment, craniosacral therapists play an integral part in addressing these crucial issues in the form of co regulation and by supporting healing intentions in the body.