UNDERSTANDING POLYVAGAL THEORY

What is Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal theory was developed by Dr Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist and psychologist, in 1994.

In simple terms, it helps us understand how our body and brain work together to respond to stressors that are a part of everyday life as well as more significant experiences, such as trauma. Dr Porges states that the connection from the brain to the body is made through the vagus nerve, a large nerve that goes from the base of the brain to the gut. The vagus nerve plays a key role in regulating our heart rate, breathing, and digestion, as well as our emotional state.

The Autonomic Ladder

Dr Porges described our nervous system as having three main response states, to stress. Often this is depicted as the autonomic ladder.

Ventral Vagal state

At the top of the ladder is the Ventral Vagal state i.e., calm. When we are in this state, we can perform at an optimum capacity. We readily explore social engagement options, feel safe and connected to others, and feel like we can surmount life’s challenges. In this state, we can fully experience the flexibility of our nervous system by entering both fight/flight and freeze responses but also moving out of them, back to calm, once the stressful or dangerous situation has passed.

Sympathetic Activation

Our second nervous system response, the “fight or flight” response, is activated if our nervous system detects cues of danger. This is a protective response that prepares our body to react in the face of danger. When our nervous system enters this state, it is saying ‘I can DO something about this danger’ i.e. I can protect myself by fighting the danger or I can run away.

Dorsal Activation

When our nervous system assesses the danger as overwhelming and potentially life-threatening if we ‘do something’, a third option of defence is available as the ‘freeze’ response. Depending on the assessed danger level, our nervous system has two options.

Firstly, the nervous system may choose to activate a freeze response with high muscle tension, a response that straddles the fight/flight response. 

However if our nervous system assesses that there is no hope for a safe escape from the danger, it enters a state of ‘freeze collapse’. This response indicates that our nervous system is overwhelmed and powerless and consequently our body shuts down and we may feel numb or disconnected from our surroundings.  In Polyvagal Theory, this is called ‘immobilization.’  

These three states (Ventral Vagal, Sympathetic Activation & Dorsal Activation) are employed by our nervous system as a hierarchical response to assessed stress and are all directly managed by the vagus nerve.

Sensory Psychology aligns with interventions that are informed by Polyvagal Theory. Sensory Psychology hopes to teach you how to understand how your nervous system presents in each of these response states.

It is hoped that by understanding how your nervous system moves between these protective states, you will be more skilled in understanding what your nervous system needs to operate within a state of health and wellness. Polyvagal theory also provides a framework for understanding the actions of others.

For more information about Polyvagal Theory, visit https://www.polyvagalinstitute.org/

How can I apply Polyvagal Theory to my daily life and how can Sensory Psychology help?

The aim of Sensory Psychology is to provide you with an opportunity to:

1

Recognise and understand how your nervous system responds to stress by learning how to map your nervous system

2

Provide opportunities to identify what types of self-regulation techniques you will find most useful when in different states of nervous system response (fight, flight, freeze or collapse).

3

To provide the opportunity for you to practice different types of techniques for self-regulation that work in ways to activate the vagus nerve including opportunities to explore novel ways of breathing, mindfulness, and physical activity.