E059 - Polyvagal Theory and Communication

communication fawn self-regulation trauma patterns vocal liberation Nov 30, 2023

In this blog post I discuss polyvagal theory for voice, for communication, and for speaking.

“Polly who?” you may be thinking.

Read on below or watch the video to learn about polyvagal theory and how it can help you improve your communication and public speaking.

Polyvagal theory was developed by Dr. Steven Porges, director of the Brain-Body Canter at the University of Illinois. It's a modern nervous system theory that looks at adaptive human strategies we use to deal with, for example, threats. Adaptive strategies are running away, fighting, freezing, or befriending and connecting.

Within trauma communities and somatic therapy communities, polyvagal theory is viewed as extremely important and able to very accurately describe the states we move into as human beings—around each other, but also in response to trauma. Some neuroscience disputes the nervous system branches described in polyvagal theory, but it is highly respected and super useful from a clinical point of view.

I'm describing polyvagal theory from a communication perspective, and I don’t know whether this has been done before. It's a very powerful tool for looking at “What am I doing? Why am I doing it? And what can I do to shift that?”

So if you're a habitual fighter, which is one of the adaptive strategies, how can you regulate your nervous system to react from a place that is connected and regulated and more suitable to the circumstance—in other words, more useful than just going straight to the fight?

I use this perspective in my clinical practice around communication, literacy issues, and when I'm working with groups. It is a very powerful tool for working with whatever your default patterns are in response to life, in response to communicating with other people, and for being able to shift and regulate those responses—and especially to be able to choose where you come from when you communicate with other human beings.

So essentially, we learn to move out of anxiety or fighty patterns or ones where we freeze, and into ones that are much more connected and grounded and stable, and that really create positive outcomes wherever we go.

It’s important to identify what your nervous system patterns are when communicating with others. Like what happens inside your nervous system when you're standing in front of 100 people? If you move into fight or flight, you can look at regulating your nervous system back into a state of calm groundedness so that you can communicate accurately, but also with warmth and a sense of panache, even as you feel comfortable inside your own skin.

So really, the first part of the why is to identify your patterns. The second part is to learn to regulate them. In other words, if I tend to be a bit fighty, or if I tend to freeze when I get up in front of a bunch of people, or if I want to run out of the room or I become incredibly anxious, then I want to be able to regulate my nervous system back to a state of calm, connectedness, and ease and then carry on speaking.

You can do this in real time, especially if you recognize what state of mind you want to be in, where you want to come from.

One of the most beautiful things that emerges from polyvagal theory is the notion of the ventral vagal nervous system. This is this feeling of “I feel at home in myself. I feel warm, connected, mindful, present, loving, just at home in my being.” It's like your feeling of total safety.

We should strive to carry this as our North Star, our guiding light for the nervous system state we want to be in when we're around other human beings.

But can you be like that in front of 50 or 100 people when you need to speak, or you’re with that family member and you have to address something difficult? Our ability to find and navigate towards the ventral vagal, towards safety, is one of the most incredible gifts we can give ourselves.

If you’re feeling disregulated and weird and everything is too much and you feel like you want to run or fight or whatever—that’s fine. That’s your chance to recognize it. But then ask yourself whether it’s useful in those circumstances. Is it useful for you to be in that state? If not, you want to get into the ventral vagal, to be so at home inside yourself that you can express exactly what you want to and trust that the words will come out perfectly each time.

Practically, we can start by looking at these default threat responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. We all know “fight.” It's when we get angry, irritated, or however else it might manifest for you. It's an important state. We need to be able to fight, we really do. It's not useful all the time, but it is important. It's just not useful to be stuck there.

Second is our flight response, our impulse to flee, to run away. This is also important, of course. There are times when we should run away from people or leave an argument, because it's not useful or safe to speak in that moment.

Thirdly, our freeze response helps because there may be a time when it's important that we don't speak, and so we have a system that freezes in conflict. That can be useful, and it may have been very important to our survival at some point.

But many people I work with are stuck in their freeze response—they freeze when they need to speak or they freeze in front of people. Another example of the freeze response is becoming tired and dizzy and dissociated, unable to speak coherently.

The fourth threat response is the fawn or pleaser response, also called tend-and-befriend. That's where you look after everybody else and make everything nice to de-escalate a conflict and make it safe. But this often involves self-betrayal, or even lying and saying everything's fine when it's not, and looking after everybody else but not looking after yourself.

So do you tend to fight, flee, freeze, or fawn—or a combination? Many of us have hybrid versions of this or do different things in different situations. I myself have been a bit of a freezer, a bit of a fawn, a bit of a flee-er—a bit of a fighter, but not so much. We all use parts of these defensive strategies, but many of us default to just a few.

When you're public speaking, do you go into anxiety or can you find your way into a settled body, an open heart and a clear mind to speak with authority, clarity, and a kind of magnetic warmth? I go into more detail about strategies for regulating out of the states in other blog posts (see the links at the bottom of this page), but the first step is to note when you go into a threat response. If it's not serving you, find you way back to ventral vagal, back to safety.

Whether you're speaking to 1,000 people at a giant conference or doing a TV interview or YouTube or podcast episode, or talking with a family member—the promise and the objective of this work is the ability to choose to move into a settled nervous system, where you feel deeply comfortable in your own skin and you can totally trust that the right words will come out.

You don't need a filter, because you're in you and settled and grounded—sharply present, but warm and heart-centered.

That is the promise of this work. If I could grant you—and me—one wish, it would be for infinite safety in our bodies as we interact with other human beings for all time!

Read my blogs to learn more about the fawn response, the fight response (part 1 and part 2), the freeze response (losing your words and shutting down), speaking from presence, and self-regulation and the ventral vagal system.