Wholeness Healing Today

Reducing Stigma and Shame in Mental Health in 2023

Over the course of 2023, Wholeness Healing Center will explore the nervous system and treatment of the nervous system using psychotherapy. The WHC Clinical Team recently completed training in Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Barry Koch. We learned about ways in which the nervous system is adaptive. Below are a few of the ‘cliff notes’ of his talk.

Historically, mental health has been an ethereal hypothesis and the treatment of something that no one could identify. This resulted in shame and stigma in accessing mental health treatment. Neuroscientific research in the emerging field of neuropsychology affirms that psychotherapy and psychotherapeutic interventions treat the nervous system. Akin to the doctor’s visit, psychotherapists treat the nervous system and the brain, including specific nerves and nerve functions that often lead to various mental health symptoms. Therapy treats parts of the nervous system that may be under or over-engaged.

The nervous system, specifically its response to stressful events, will impact and shape how the nervous system operates (adapts) and, without treatment, can lead to lifelong psychological and physiological damage, especially after experiencing trauma. The nervous system influences and is influenced by our interactions with others, including facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice.

Stephen Porges established the pioneering theory of nervous system adaptability. His research explores the Vagus nerve specifically, which is the bridge between the brain and body. This nerve provides a missing link between the brain and the nervous system. This nerve is located all over the body, but the largest part of it is found in the back of the neck running between the brain to your large intestine. It is the longest cranial nerve and travels down both sides of the body. This is primarily a sensory nerve, with approximately 80% of its fibers sending information about viscera (organs of the body) to the brain. 20% of this nerve are motor fibers and impact the brain’s dynamic regulation of these pathways. This is where our own physiology can be impacted by the stress response.

The Vagus nerve’s function is like a ’brake.’ When the brake is removed, the lower vagal tone enables the heart to beat faster. Perception of threat (stress) removes the brake. The Vagus nerve is an inhibitory nerve that slows the heart down and enables us to calm down. The Vagus nerve helps us regulate. With that, there are two nervous system states: sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic refers to a ‘fight or flight’ state that is often experienced during trauma or stressful life events. Parasympathetic is the resting state, the down-regulating state.

Signs and symptoms of mental illness are, in all actuality, the nervous system providing adaptation to responses to stress. Interventions like breathing and mindfulness downregulate the nervous system by activating the Vagus nerve. Interventions are tailored based on how your nervous system has adapted to survive the stress. There are options for feeling better, and therapy is a proven way to regulate the nervous system.

Works Cited:

Porges, S.W. (1997). Emotion: An evolutionary byproduct of the neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 807, 62-77.

Porges, S.W. (2009). Reciprocal influences between body and brain in the perception and expression of affect: A polyvagal perspective. In D. Siegel, D. Fosha, & M. Solomon (Eds.), The healing power of emotion: Affective neuroscience, development, and clinical practice. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Porges, S.W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Porges, S.W. (2016). The neurophysiology of trauma, attachment, self-regulation and emotions: Clinical applications of the polyvagal theory. PESI eCourse presentation.


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