Marriage Counseling And A Polyvagal Approach To Grief

In marriage counseling at Take Charge, Inc., we utilize a Polyvagal approach to processing grief. It is important to recognize that grief is so profoundly overwhelming that it affects our relationships and ability to be connected even if only one partner is grieving. Polyvagal Theory explains how the nervous system responds adaptively to threats, what makes us feel safe again, how past experiences might slow recovery, and how a safe environment is necessary for healing.

Modern society undervalues the importance of emotions and emphasizes happiness while discouraging suffering. But Polyvagal Theory tells us that safe, supportive relationships in which we are allowed to experience our responses to grief without judgment are necessary for healing. In this first blog of a two-part series on grief, we will discuss what Polyvagal Theory is and how we can apply it to processing grief in marriage counseling.

In this first blog of a two-part series on grief, we will discuss what Polyvagal Theory is and how we can apply it to processing grief in marriage counseling.

What Is Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal Theory highlights the evolutionary development of two branches and three pathways: the two branches are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system which is overseen by the vagus nerve. Each has an important role in how the body reacts before, during, and after a stressful or traumatic event. The three pathways are the sympathetic, dorsal vagal and ventral vagal. 

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the fight, flight, or freeze response. In the fight or flight response, it speeds up the heartbeat and blood pressure and redirects blood from the brain to prepare the muscles to run toward or away. When there is no way to escape, the dorsal vagal pathway of the parasympathetic nervous system causes the person to freeze or collapse, feel numb or “not here” which can be forms of dissociation. 

The role of the parasympathetic nervous system is to lower the heart rate and blood pressure, calming the body down after a traumatic event. The vagus nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system and plays a role in the control of mood, immune response, digestion, and heart rate.  When we are experiencing the sympathetic (mobilization) or dorsal vagal (immobilization) we are unable to be in ventral vagal which brings cues of safety and supports feelings of being safely engaged and socially connected with our partner. 

The Attachment Emergency of Grief

Our culture pushes us to evaluate our grief as though there were one singular, normative grief response with a checklist and timetable for recovery. This is not the case, however. Different people respond to grief in different ways, and Polyvagal Theory teaches us that we must be understood in order to heal. Our grief is not being understood if we are being encouraged only to move past it as quickly as possible.

The loss of a loved one creates an “attachment emergency” in which the contrast between the drive to connect and the reality of that connection no longer being available threatens our security on a primal level. We have reactions to grief that are not just emotional, but physiological. Losing an attachment figure causes “somatic disarray”, disrupting cardiovascular function, hormone levels, sleep rhythms, and immune processes. Insomnia, headaches, anxiety, tension, and fatigue are common symptoms.

Because these responses feel unfamiliar and chaotic, we develop narratives to explain them. When these reactions are distressing and they happen in a society that evaluates grief, these stories often become self-evaluative. We begin to tell ourselves things like “something is wrong with me” and “I should be okay by now.”

A Polyvagal Approach In Marriage Counseling

A Polyvagal approach to grief offers a healthier narrative, in which all of our reactions to grief are appropriate and make sense under the circumstances. When we apply this approach in marriage counseling, we learn about our nervous system, understand without judgment and learn how to create two safe, supportive spaces for healing – both with the partner and with the counselor. When both partners experience grief together, it is even more critical that they have the support and security that marriage counseling provides. 

For more information about marriage counseling in Johnson County, KS, call Take Charge, Inc. at (913) 239-8255. To schedule an appointment, click here.


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