Toxic relationships create ripples throughout our mind and our body. In a toxic relationship, our mind reads cues and our body responds in ways that are effective coping mechanisms for that relationship. However, these responses to social cues are often not effective or helpful in a new relationship or when trying to heal from a dysfunctional and toxic partner.
Our body responses, emotional regulation, and even the fear response to social cues are controlled by the vagal nerve. Depending on our experiences and the specific situation, we may have different responses than others around us, which is important to understand in healing after the trauma of experiencing a toxic relationship.
Polyvagal Theory In Simple Language
The relationship between the autonomic nervous system, or the instinctual reactions we use in a given situation, and our social behavior is explained through polyvagal theory.
The heart of polyvagal theory is that we have different reactions based on the safety and the connection we feel in a given situation. These are divided into three systems.
When we feel safe and connected to those around us, we can explore, consider options, and even try new things and still feel calm and comfortable. Our body responds to new situations and takes them in stride. Our heart rate, voice, breathing, and facial expressions, in the social engagement system (ventral vagal) stay consistent. This is sometimes called the rest and digest state. We communicate with our words to correct any irregularities we sense in the environment. We are also connected to ourselves.
The next level of response is the sympathetic nervous system. This is the fight or flight response when communication fails or when the body senses immediate danger.
The third system includes the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the freeze response, which can include feeling immobilized or even fainting. This is potentially a dangerous response if the toxic relationship includes physical violence.
Recovery After Trauma and Toxic Relationships
Polyvagal theory provides a framework or an understanding of why we automatically read social cues and have an immediate body response. In understanding the three systems and their responses, individuals can learn to re-engage the connection of the mind and body. This allows you to move from simply responding automatically to social cues or environmental cues to calm down the nervous system to avoid flight, flight, or freeze and stay in the social engagement system to talk through the problem or issue.
Unfortunately, in a toxic or abusive relationship, individuals become hypersensitivity to any social cues. It is also not uncommon for these individuals to spend more of the time with the partner being triggered outside of the “rest and digestive” social engagement state into the fight or flight or even the freeze states.
The fight and flight state, or the sympathetic nervous system, is associated with emotions such as rage, anger, frustration, fear, anxiety, and panic. The parasympathetic nervous system, or the dorsal vagal, is associated with emotions such as hopelessness, shame, numbness, feeling trapped, or feeling depressed and helplessness.
Learning to relax the body in response to a negative state or social cue allows you to determine your most effective response. In changing your response, you move to a more positive emotional state and avoid getting stuck in the negative emotions.
It also helps to build confidence in not simply reacting, but in learning to control the way our autonomic nervous system reads and creates meaning in situations. It allows us to see reality and not an interpretation of the reality from our past.
Exercises that map your responses using polyvagal theory can help individuals to identify what state they are in and how that impacts their response. This also allows people to begin to identify their triggers and to understand why those triggers produce automatic responses. This information, combined with relaxation techniques and visualization, provides a control mechanism for the individual to regulate their responses. It is letting go of the negativity and destruction of the toxic relationship and taking back control of your responses through greater understanding and a better mind-body connection.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW and Transformation Coach