Agree with most of this, thank you for writing it.
Bato Kannon
11

Thanks for engaging in this conversation. I enjoy clarifying Porges’ work for lay people, so conversations like this give me a chance to say more. (I don’t know if you’re a lay person or not, so please don’t take offense if that’s not the case. I just mean that your engagement gives me the chance to say more on this forum where lay people might read it.)

Porges’ polyvagal theory (PVT) is actually not ONLY related to trauma. PVT is a theory that describes mammalian nervous system responses when we perceive ANYTHING that enters our environment that seems potentially threatening. The reason most people know about PVT is because the theory brilliantly describes trauma responses, and the trauma applications are where Porges’ work was introduced to a large lay audience beyond academia. So PVT definitely applies to loss, whether the loss is traumatic or in the natural order of things.

For example when a loved one dies, the nervous system naturally and unconsciously expects to find that loved one in the social settings we are familiar with seeing them in. When we turn toward them and find them missing, the nervous system experiences what Porges calls a “violation of social expectation,” and that kind of violation of expectation for — almost all humans — generates a perceived sense (neuroception) of danger, thus evoking the common fight/flight (sympathetic nervous system) symptoms, OR the more downward-moving/”collapsing” (dorsal vagal) symptoms related to loss.

The science shows that any intensely overwhelming emotional experience has the potential to be perceived by the polyvagal system as “dangerous,” and thus evoke a physiological fear response. And that when people have safe social supports around them that encourage the understanding of and healthy expression of these emotions (including grief responses), the emotions move through the body and nervous system and then do NOT cause ongoing trauma responses. That is, when we are in social safety, the ventral vagus is engaged, thus recruiting the sympathetic nervous system and dorsal vagal responses for growth and restoration.That is, allowing “dangerous” emotions to be held and welcomed for as long as needed in social safety prevents even traumatic life experiences from becoming permanently lodged in the body, thus preventing traumatic life experiences from causing PTSD and other difficulties. So understanding grief from a PVT perspective can cause either natural-order grief or traumatic grief to be expressed, and not become a lifelong trauma lodged in the body.

You might enjoy reading the chapter I wrote for Stephen Porges’ latest book, Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies. The chapter is entitled “Grief Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory: Humanizing Our Clinical Response to Loss.” Porges invited me to write that chapter for the book because he appreciated the conceptualization of grief through the PVT lens. You can read that chapter here: http://bit.ly/CORPorges2018Chp18