Chrysalis and the Polyvagal Theory
I am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor certified in the treatment of trauma and anxiety. I use the polyvagal theory as explained by Stephen Porges, Ph.D to understand the emotional states of my clients.
Polyvagal theory describes three autonomic nervous system states. The most primitive is the dorsal vagal system which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. In simple terms it is the freeze state. The organism when presented with danger goes into a shutdown state to prepare for death. With our clients this looks like depression, dissociation, numbness, shame, helplessness, trapped and hopelessness.
In evolutionary terms, the next part of the autonomic nervous system to develop was the sympathetic nervous system. We commonly call this “fight or flight”. The organism is activated for survival. In our clients we see this as rage, anger, irritation, frustration, panic, fear and worry.
The last part of the autonomic nervous system to develop was the second branch of the parasympathetic nervous system, the ventral vagal system. This is referred to as “safe and connected”. In our clients it looks like curiosity, openness, calm, connected, grounded, settled, mindful in the present and compassionate.
As therapists we are always seeking ways to bring our clients out of the sympathetic and dorsal vagal states into the ventral vagal state. It has been my experience that the Chrysalis is a valuable tool to help my clients make this journey through the autonomic states to ventral vagal.
Chrysalis employs modern technology to provide temperature biofeedback employing temperature sensors, microprocessors and computer software to measure and evaluate skin temperature. Sensors at the skin measure the temperature and deliver the feedback based upon the body’s own temperature changes. The amount of feedback provided varies by client.
The old way of providing temperature biofeedback was to utilize operant conditioning by having the client hold small thermometers in his/her hands and use relaxation techniques to raise their body temperature. As relaxation increased, body temperature increased. The thermometers provided the feedback. Temperature biofeedback was used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, migraines, insomnia, digestive disorders, and pain. The drawback to traditional temperature biofeedback is the time and patience it takes to produce results.
The theory behind Chrysalis feedback is that the matrix around the microvasculature softens. The softening enables blood flow to increase, improving oxygen and nutrients in the body. These improvements signal the autonomic nervous system that the individual is safe.
Observations of Chrysalis clinicians are that the impact on the client is more than relaxation. The feedback appears to move clients from dorsal vagal and sympathetic states into a ventral vagal state. This is usually a very smooth change, many times below conscious awareness. The clinicians often observe a softening of the muscles around the eyes and mouth of the client. Clients will often sigh. They come into session the next week and make comments such as: “I’m kinder”, “I didn’t react like I usually do”, “I feel good…like I can do this”, “things just don’t bother me like they did”.
An interesting characteristic of Chrysalis is the “Blooming Effect”. Often the impact of Chrysalis is not immediate, but “blooms” over time. This blooming effect can take anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour. Clients describe it as an awareness of warmth, relaxation, lessening of pain and/or increased mental clarity. It starts in one location and is perceived as permeating outward. This seems to be indicative of a change in the autonomic state. This effect is reported as lasting from several hours to several days after treatment. The duration of the effects appears to increase with more Chrysalis use.
Chrysalis appears to disrupt the autonomic nervous system from perceiving patterns of danger when there is no danger, thus allowing individuals to feel safe. One of the first discoveries of those using Chrysalis is its impact on pain. Clients consistently report their perception of pain decreases and often disappears. In theory, calming the autonomic nervous system causes the experience of pain to decrease.
Stephen Porges in an interview for Nexus, Colorado’s Holistic Health and Spirituality Journal said:
“Let’s say you’re a therapist or a parent or a teacher, and one of your clients, students or children’s faces is flat, with no facial expression. The face has no muscle tone, the eyelids droop and gaze averts. It is highly likely that individual will also have auditory hypersensitivities and difficulty regulating his or her bodily state. These are common features of several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, borderline personality, bipolar, autism and hyperactivity. The neural system that regulates both bodily state and the muscles of the face goes off-line. Thus, people with these disorders often lack affect in their faces and are jittery, because their nervous system is not providing information to calm them down.
Once we understand the mechanisms mediating the disorder, there will be ways to treat it. For example, you would no longer say “sit still” or punish a person because they can’t sit still. You would never say, “Why aren’t you smiling?” or “Try to listen better” or “Look in my eyes,” when these behaviors are absent. Often treatment programs attempt to teach clients to make eye contact. But teaching someone to make eye contact is often virtually impossible when the individual has a disorder, such as autism or bipolar disorder, because the neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social engagement system can only be expressed when the nervous system detects the environment as safe.”
Porges’ quote above suggests that Chrysalis may have a very important place in the treatment of psychiatric disorders. If his hypothesis is correct, many mental disorders are the result of the autonomic nervous system’s inability to provide information to calm the nervous system. The ACE Study conducted by the US Center for Disease Control & Kaiser Permanente correlated early trauma with developing conditions such as obesity, diabetes, depression, suicide attempts, heart disease, cancer, stroke, COPD and broken bones. Feelings of safety may contribute to improving health outcomes.
In my practice, I have found Chrysalis to be an important adjunct to my more traditional therapies of EMDR and IFS. If a client arrives upset for their session, I may initially provide Chrysalis feedback. Otherwise I have come to prefer to use Chrysalis at the end of my sessions. It is a good way to ground my clients before they leave. It also seems to consolidate the progress made in session. Those changes seem to continue to grow between sessions. I find my clients are moving more quickly into the thought that it is OK to feel safe, when they are safe. Safety opens the door to growth.
Clients Shifting into the Ventral Vagal State
There’s a change in the quality of their eye contact, their eyes become more vibrant, the muscles around them become more relaxed, muscle tension around the mouth eases, smiles become bigger and richer in their expressiveness, the tension in the face as a whole eases, their face becomes more expressive, voices become more resonant, ROM increases, their overall posture relaxes, their breathing changes (whether deeper or with those who hold their breath, they begin to breath and recognize doing so), verbally they become more expressive and articulate, talkative people quiet and become more appropriate. Sometimes they sigh with an aaaah of relief. If they had pain, they generally notice it diminishes.
They return with news about something that went better or felt better than in the past, such as getting along with people at home or at work or about something they did that they had been procrastinating over (or didn’t feel inclined to do), something that had previously been habitual eased away and stresses that normally upset them, didn’t hold the charge.
People often experience feeling that they’ve gotten their life back. Their self awareness increases and it enables them to make better decisions. Overall, they have an easier time with what they had been challenged with. For some, the people in their lives notice these shifts before they themselves do.
Some people respond quickly while others are more defended. It can take time for the system to let go of what’s stuck, or it can happen from one second of feedback. It depends on the person’s state of readiness and their level of consciousness. Consciousness increases, so those tougher to reach, eventually come around.