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Navigating Sleep: Using The Polyvagal Approach for Insomnia


In the fast-paced rhythm of modern life, sleep disorders, particularly insomnia, have become increasingly prevalent.  As people seek holistic approaches to address their sleep challenges, polyvagal therapy emerges as a fascintating and effective therapy.  The polyvagal approach is rooted in the intricate workings of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), offering a unique perspective on promoting relaxation and improving sleep quality using neuroscience and regulation of the ANS.

Understanding Polyvagal Theory:

Polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, delves into the interplay of the vagus nerve and its branches, shedding light on how our nervous system responds to stressors. The vagus nerve, a key player in the autonomic nervous system, influences our ability to connect, engage, and relax. The polyvagal approach recognizes three states of the autonomic nervous system: ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal, each associated with distinct physiological and psychological responses.  The ‘fight or flight’ response is associated with the sympathetic branch of the ANS, being a primal reaction to perceived threats.  Stress, fear and not feeling safe can trigger this response, resulting in an inability to switch off, relax or sleep.

The Polyvagal Approach to Sleep:

While polyvagal therapy may not be a direct cure for insomnia, its emphasis on techniques for regulating the nervous system can offer valuable tools for those grappling with sleep issues. Practices such as mindful breathing or gentle movements, rooted in the ventral vagal state, promote a sense of safety and relaxation. These practices can be incorporated into bedtime routines to create a conducive environment for restful sleep.

Breathing Techniques:

One cornerstone of polyvagal therapy involves intentional and mindful breathing. Deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, activating the parasympathetic nervous system and fostering a shift towards the restorative ventral vagal state. Incorporating breathwork exercises into pre-sleep rituals can serve as a powerful tool to unwind and prepare the body for a restful night.

Gentle Movements and Body Awareness:

Polyvagal therapy also encourages gentle movements that enhance body awareness. Simple practices like yoga or tai chi can promote relaxation and release tension, signalling to the nervous system that it is safe to enter a state of calm. These activities, when integrated into a bedtime routine, can contribute to a smoother transition into sleep.

Drawing on Polyvagal therapy in counselling:

As we navigate the complexities of sleep disorders like insomnia, exploring holistic approaches such as polyvagal therapy opens up new possibilities for improving sleep. By drawing upon polyvagal theory and practice in sessions, understanding and harnessing the power of the autonomic nervous system, we can help individuals to incorporate practical techniques into their daily lives, creating a foundation for enhanced relaxation and, ultimately, better sleep. While it’s essential to consult your GP for guidance if you are experiencing signs of a sleep disorder, at the Sleep Support Project we can offer counselling and CBT therapy whilst also having the option to utilise polyvagal theory.  We offer an integrative avenue for those seeking personalised support for their sleep challenges.