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What the polyvagal theory is and how it works

The polyvagal theory, proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges in 1994, is a neurobiological theory that explains the autonomic nervous system’s role in regulating emotional states, social behavior, and responses to stress. Dr. Porges developed the polyvagal theory to help individuals struggling with trauma and stress-related emotional dysregulation reestablish emotional equilibrium. This restored balance is necessary for good mental health and interpersonal relationships.

The three states of the autonomic nervous system

The Polyvagal Theory posits that our autonomic nervous system consists of three states. Each state affects our emotional resilience (how we react to our experiences) and our capacity to interact with the world around us:

  • The ventral vagal state promotes social engagement and connection.
  • The sympathetic state activates the fight-or-flight response.
  • The dorsal vagal state is often associated with immobilization and shutdown, and is linked to trauma and extreme stress.

The role of the vagus nerve

The vagus nerve plays a central role in the polyvagal theory. The vagus nerve serves as the primary communication pathway between the body and the brain, influencing our physiological and emotional responses to everything that happens to us. Understanding the role of the vagus nerve can help therapists promote regulation and resilience in their clients.

Trauma can dysregulate the autonomic nervous system

Trauma can cause emotional and physiological challenges by dysregulating the autonomic nervous system, leading to:

  • Hyperarousal — where the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) remains constantly activated, resulting in a persistent feeling of being on edge, an exaggerated startle response, and difficulty relaxing or falling asleep.
  • Shutdown of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This can manifest as feelings of numbness, disconnection, and emotional detachment.

Polyvagal theory and trauma-informed care

The polyvagal theory is intended to help clients regulate their emotional responses to triggering events. Clients can learn to process their challenges in a healthy emotional way, without needing to “escape” or disengage from unpleasant experiences. 

Best-practice principles of the Polyvagal Theory include but are not limited to:

  • Creating a safe and nurturing environment.
  • Using mindfulness and grounding techniques.
  • Incorporating body-awareness techniques such as yoga or Tai Chi to promote somatic healing and release traumas trapped in the body.
  • Practicing breathwork and self-compassion.
  • Fostering healthy social engagement.

Techniques such as breathwork, mindfulness, and somatic experiencing can support clients in regulating their autonomic nervous system, reducing anxiety, and fostering a sense of safety.  By incorporating this knowledge into practice, therapists can help clients better regulate their physiological and emotional responses to challenges.

References

  1. Porges, S. W. (2009). The Polyvagal Theory: New Insights into Adaptive Reactions of the Autonomic Nervous System. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76 (Suppl_2), S86–S90.
  2. Porges, S. W. (2017). Vagal Pathways: Portals to Compassion, Heart Rate Variability, and Health. In J. Buczynski (Ed.), Polyvagal Safety and the Social Engagement System: Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory. W. W. Norton & Company.
  3. Dana, D. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. W. W. Norton & Company.
  4. Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. W. W. Norton & Company.