Can a glass half-empty become half-full? Sophrology: Polyvagal theory in practice
Updated: Nov 10, 2021
I have often been asked : what happens in a sophrology session? To better respond to this question, I am grateful to be able to relate to Dr. Stephen Porges' lifework on the Polyvagal theory. As a therapy, Sophrology helps us align the body and the brain according to the individual's goal, may it be ridding an addiction such as workaholism or substance abuse (the autonamic nervous system clicking into mobilization to keep moving due to a fear of stillness / biological reaction of flight) or chronic illnesses such as migraine headaches which might be caused by shallow breathing thus resulting in a low oxygen level in the blood cells (the body clicking into immobilization/freeze mode in order to preserve energy and concentrates on surviving in anticipation of any possible catastrophe or doom). The Polyvagal theory suggests that these biological reactions are our body's natural but primitive survival mechanisms to help us survive. But how do we get our body to feel safe enough to introduce changes and new patterns? How to thrive instead of just survive?
According to the Polyvagal theory, the mammalian evolution has developed intricate myelinated pathways as a function of the vagus nerve which carries bi-directional messages between different organs and the brain. One of its super powers is in helping us better communicate socially both in reading and expressing social cues verbally and non-verbally. The interpretation/reading of a smile formed by the muscles around the upper facial area near the eyes also control the middle ear function, which helps us filter out other noises and focus on the intonation of another human's voice. And in doing so, the improved social engagement (a feeling of closeness to another and being understood and heard) calms our nervous system thus inviting us to feel safe, and allows us to lead a thriving lifestyle in exploring the unknown, and be a healthier version of ourselves. When a traumatic event (or a long term developmental trauma) takes place, this natural ability in social engagement and the feeling of safety is compromised, our body and mind become unsynchronized and we feel misaligned but we may not necessarily understand why. Untreated or undetected long term, our body may begin to develop a chronic illness as a way to protect or warn us that something is wrong and should be addressed.
Here is a brief explanation to help clarify how a Sophrologist may work with a client using the above theory with the following 3 components:
A friendly chat from the therapist's point of view includes generous attunement and empathetic listening without judgement. Generous attunement invites intuition and wisdom by tuning into each individual's unique voice and story; it is clothed in curiosity about the self with open-ended questions for further reflection. In addition to listening to the content and the intonation of the client's voice, the therapist is also reading non-verbal cues such as physical gestures and facial expressions to detect if there is any misalignment between the client's words, emotions, and actions.
Relaxations Dynamiques / "active" relaxation exercises:
A typical week's work includes 2-3 different exercises that are gentle and adapted to the client's specific physical capacity. With a clear intention tied to this exercise, which was developed and inspired by movements from yoga, Tai-chi, and various other martial arts such as Karate, when repeated daily, the body "practices"/ re-programs itself towards an intended objective.
For instance: the body-scan exercise (Perception Verticale) may carry the objective "I observe and trust my body to self regulate under any circumstance" or the kicking exercise (le Kick), "I propel away any old thought pattern that may hold me hostage". These exercises are practiced with an open mind and heart, and invite the body and the mind to integrate under the same intention. By triggering different parts of the body, the vagal system improves the bi-directional connection between the brain and the body towards a positive objective. This alignment will facilitate a more integrated, decipherable body language or posture for an improved social engagement, which will help the client's body feel more empowered and thus safer, to achieve their individual goal.
Sophronisation/the "static" relaxation : the power of breathing and the threshold consciousness
With the client's permission, the therapist uses a prosodic and compassionate voice to guide the client into a state of threshold consciousness where the body is most relaxed and open on a molecular level. In this state, the therapist is able to introduce any new information which now can be absorbed efficiently and directly into the subconscious, bypassing the thought process. If this is done successfully, the client has now welcomed a safe space provided by the therapist both physically and mentally, and is more likely to welcome any changes that might otherwise be difficult to achieve through a persistent thought pattern or a physical habit.
To rewire a thought pattern or teach ourselves new habits take time and practice. Imagine the amount of time it took to form a habit, whether it's a bad posture, or a chronic illness, it isn't surprising that the antidote will require patience, practice and conviction. Two of our biggest strengths that have often been overlooked in the conventional mental health treatment are our deep seated wisdom of self knowledge (when allowed to flourish), and our own power to heal. Over a period of 2-3 months (9-12 sessions), the client is guided to practice the "active" relaxation techniques (Relaxations Dynamiques) mentioned above as a harbinger of change and awareness to invite the body for new experiences while feeling safe(r). The sophrologist employs the trust bestowed by the client to provide a safe relationship and space; by example, using a conscientious voice and intonation, and realizing choice actions in the day-to-day life to improve social engagement. The clients are aware of their own body's unique language, so when stress level increases, an immediate awareness will lead to self-regulation according to their own unbiased understanding of what their body is conveying. After 9-11 sessions, the client has learned to navigate through most stressful situations in order to avoid spiraling down to self-harming habits such as addiction, or developing a chronic disease. In the end of each protocol, the clients are able to better listen and understand their own body's unique language, and its intimate connection to the brain; they are able to communicate with the world openly with clarity, free of fear. Sophrology helps us feel more empowered from within, thus actualizing a more integrated and joyful life that aligns our potential with our purpose.