The Mind Zone

Polyvagal Theory – the real root cause of Addiction

“Trauma is chronic disruption of connectedness’ – Dr. Stephen Porges

In a psychological experiment conducted by Dr Bruce Alexander named ‘Rat Park’, rats were offered addictive drugs freely available at the touch of a button. Rats in group A were put into solitary confinement, whilst rats in group B were put into cages with plenty of rat friends. It soon became clear that the consumption of drugs by the rats in group A was significantly higher than the rats in group B – but why?

What does the nervous system have to do with relationships?

Dr Stephen Porges is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and is the founder of Polyvagal Theory. To understand the theory, it’s important to be aware of the body’s two main autonomic nervous systems:

  • The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for initiating the rest-and-digest state
  • Whilst the sympathetic nervous system initiates the fight-or-flight (or freeze) response.

The physical sensations of these states when activated are shown in the image below:

Image courtesy of onthegophysicaltherapy.com

As babies, we have an innate longing to be met with a safe energy, from somebody who sends cues of welcomeness and positivity. The person to provide this should ideally be the child’s main caregiver, who has the capacity to provide a safe space in order to co-regulate the child’s emotions. This state of co-regulation and safety can only be achieved when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated in both the child and adult, and it is essential part of developing of a healthy autonomic nervous system in the child. 

For children with care-givers who are not capable of providing a safe environment, it will not be possible for the child to co-regulate with the adult. As a result, the child will have to learn how to self-soothe earlier than is healthy. This often causes children to become introverted and shut down and this is likely to continue into adulthood. For these children, they are more likely to find it difficult to connect with other humans as adults, as their brains assume that the level of connection provided by their parents is echoed by other people. 

For those children with care-givers who provided a safe environment with plenty of opportunity for co-regulation, they are more likely to view other humans as safe connections and develop healthier relationships in later life. 

How does my nervous system know whether I can co-regulate with somebody?

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for sending and searching for cues of safety and danger. When we receive cues of safety, we feel an autonomic welcome and feel safe to move into connection and co-regulation. When we receive cues of danger, reactivity increases and adoptive survival responses are reinforced. These cues are detected by our sub-conscious, and most people are not actively aware of these two systems being activated in daily life. In our interactions, we sub-consciously search for safety in another person by looking at their:

  • Eyes – are they warm and engaging?
  • Ears – are their middle ear muscles activated?
  • Tone of voice – is their voice engaging, soothing and not monotone? 
  • Face movements – are their facial muscles activated?
  • Head movements – do they move their head?

As demonstrated in this image of Barack Obama, for most people, an interaction with him is likely to trigger their parasympathetic nervous system:

Image courtesy of Daniel Quintana’s slides

It is worth having a think about the people that were responsible for your upbringing, and considering how often they approached you in this manner. Did you grow up in an environment where you felt safe and connected to those around you? If not, what impact did this have on how you felt about yourself and expressed your feelings? 

So how does this relate to addiction?

Human beings are innately social creatures. In primal times, connection was essential to our survival, and being exiled from a society was effectively a death sentence. Although this reality is far different in today’s society, our human need for connection is still paramount to our wellbeing. 

Without connection, we seek alternative ways to fill the void. In terms of addiction, this is not limited to drug-users and alcoholics; it also applies to those addicted to screens, shopping, eating, television, gambling, exercise, social media or any habit that is done in excess. You can therefore see how widespread loss of connection is in our society. 

I didn’t grow up in a safe space, is there anything I can do to improve my connections?

The vagus nerve is a key component to improving connections and reducing addictions. By activating the vagus nerve, you automatically activate your parasympathetic nervous system and put yourself into a rest-and-digest state. The more you do this, the more natural it becomes to your body in day-to-day life, but it does take regular practice. Some ways to do this are by:

  • Gargling
  • Singing
  • Chanting 
  • Deep breathing with long exhales
  • Yoga
  • Laughter
  • Touch from a loved one  

By spending more time in a rest-and-digest state and spending time with others, you should find yourself more able to connect and co-regulate in your relationships. A therapist may also be a good starting point as somebody to begin safely co-regulating with, as they are trained in how to do this.

Back to the rats, so why did the lonely ones consume more drugs?

The only differing factor between the rats that consumed lots of drugs, and those that consumed very little, was the level of isolation. For the rats that were left alone, they needed the drugs to fill the void left by the loss of connection. And for those that had lots of rat friends, they were able to seek the connection they needed to function, and the drugs became less appealing.

So if you are finding yourself doing anything in excess that feels a bit addictive; you may recognise this as an activity that feels good at the time, but feeling worse afterwards, it may be worth looking closely at your connections, and what you can do to facilitate a safe space with loved ones around you.

To find out more, Stephen Porges and Deb Dana have both written multiple books on the subject and there are several interviews available on youtube.

4 thoughts on “Polyvagal Theory – the real root cause of Addiction”

    1. I am so sorry to hear this. I can only imagine the amount of questions and challenges that has given you. You write about some really interesting topics on your blog, hopefully your pursuit for self-understanding is a positive outcome from that difficult situation?

      Liked by 1 person

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