Ryan Armstrong
Change management. Learning. Maps.

Explaining a lack of well-being with Polyvagal Theory

23 June 2019

This week I was exploring mechanisms related to a lack of well-being in early-career researchers as part of a research project on the drivers of a well-being crisis. My father, a psychiatrist, was in town from Somalia where a huge portion of the population is affected by PTSD. He suggested I look at Polyvagal Theory as a way to explain the neuropsychological drivers at play and sent me this article.

Basically, Polyvagal Theory sees emotions as a response to stimuli that may be outside of our awareness. But our body is always aware of them, and, since it wants to stay alive, it (and specifically the nervous system) will react depending on how we perceive the stimuli.

These perceived stressors can take us out of a positive and healthy “connection mode” where we are calm, happy, and healthy, to a flight or fight mode or even to total shut down (think possums).

The article is full of tips on how to get back to glorious connection mode, but one stuck out to me:

Practicing assertiveness. Emotional shutdown can occur within relationships where one person feels they cannot communicate with the other person well. One therapist, John Gottman, describes this practice as stonewalling. Practicing assertiveness can help the patient feel more in control of their emotional state, and feel safe to move into healthy relationship patterns.

Ph.D. researchers especially often tell me that they do not feel like they can communicate openly with their supervisors and others in their research community, situations that are frequently interpreted as threatening.

Practicing assertiveness seems like a great strategy to me for creating a harmonious Ph.D. environment, and one within any researcher’s grasp. A good starting exercise for practicing assertiveness with your supervisor that comes to mind is the Expectations of Research Supervision from the wonderful and fabulous Hugh Kearns, who has also written a book which includes practical strategies for being assertive with your supervisor.

So Polyvagal Theory seems to be a fantastically simple means of appreciating the link between biological systems and the social systems operating in research communities.