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What Is the PolyVagal Theory?

The Polyvagal Theory is a theory that explains how our autonomic nervous system (ANS) works.

  • It explains how our ANS reacts to experiences and manages responses.

  • It describes how our ANS processes information and sets responses in motion to support us in safely navigating the demands of our day-to-day lives.

  • It introduces a hierarchy of three biological response states that demonstrates how we navigate states of engagement, mobilization, and collapse in response to our daily lives.

Ventral Vagal State

The Ventral Vagal state is a state of safety, social engagement, and connection. In this state, we feel safe, connected to the world around us, and are open to social engagement with others.

When we are in Ventral Vagal, we are able to stay in a state of calm and balance, manage our challenges without emotional outbursts, ask for and receive help if needed, and are able to problem-solve effectively. This is our desired "home base". In body-oriented therapy, we aim to identify when we are in this state, what helps us stay in this state, and what helps us find out way back into this state.

Sympathetic State

The Sympathetic state is one of mobilization, agitation, and frantic response. In this state, we feel unsafe, overwhelmed, agitated, and disconnected from the world around us.

When we are in a Sympathetic State, we have an urge to take action and mobilize to avert real or perceived danger. We often feel a rush of energy in our bodies propelling us into action. This response is most commonly associated with a state of anxiety and irritation. Without effective strategies to find our way back into Ventral, we will either take action to discharge the activated energy through fight or flight response or drop into the Dorsal Vagal State.

Dorsal Vagal State

The Dorsal Vagal state is one of numbness, hopelessness, and collapse. In this state, we feel unsafe, alone, despaired, and empty.

When we are in Dorsal Vegal State, we have given up hope and feel empty inside. We feel isolated from others, and believe that no resolution can be found and there is no hope for us. We often feel like we'd like to hide from the world and don't reach out for support. This response is most commonly associated with a state of depression and collapse.

Sometimes we arrive here from a Sympathetic State after our efforts do not help us resolve the challenge to our safety through mobility and agitation. Other times, we arrive here directly from Ventral Vagal often due to learned hopelessness related to a recurring challenge to our sense of safety. For example, after years of having explosive arguments with a spouse, one is likely to drop into a Dorsal state at the first sign of a disagreement because their past experience of Sympathetic activation has not helped them resolve the challenge, therefore their learned response is to bypass Sympathetic and move into a state of Dorsal disengagement and collapse.

Polyvagal Informed Care

In polyvagal-informed care, we focus on the following:

  • Normalizing states of dysregulation (moving out of Ventral)

  • Practicing how to anchor in Ventral even when presented with a challenge to our sense of safety that inevitably sends us out of Ventral

  • Practicing how to find our way back into a state of Ventral when we move out of our "home base"

  • Develop a toolkit that helps us move in and out of these states on our own (self-regulation) and with others (co-regulation).

It is important to note that each of these states has an evolutionary purpose that helps us improve our chances of survival. The goal is not to stay in Ventral at all times but rather learn how to return to Ventral when the other states have served their purpose.

Our physical, emotional, and mental health as well as the health of our relationships are dependent on our ability to find our way back into a state of Ventral more readily and more fluidly.

The Polyvagal Theory was proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges who I've had the pleasure of studying with, he is also the founder of the Safe & Sound Protocol.


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