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Polyvagal Theory Basics

Updated: Jul 24, 2022

The Polyvagal theory presents us with the “science of safety- the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living” (Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation). The Polyvagal theory explains three different parts of our autonomic (automatic) nervous system and their responses to stressful situations. Once we understand these three parts, we can see why and how we react to stressful situations. If polyvagal theory sounds as exciting as watching paint dry, stick around, trust me. It’s a fascinating explanation of how our mind and body handle emotional stress, and how we can heal from trauma.

Why is Polyvagal theory important?

Understanding polyvagal theory can help with:

  • Understanding trauma and PTSD

  • Understanding the dance of attack and withdrawal in relationships

  • Understanding how extreme stress leads to dissociation or shutting down

  • Understanding how to read body language

We like to think of our emotions as ethereal, complex, and difficult to categorize and identify. The truth is that emotions are responses to a stimulus (internal or external). Often they happen out of our awareness, especially if we are out of touch, or incongruent, with our inner emotional life.

Understanding Polyvagal Theory

Staying alive is our number one primal desire. Above all else, our mind and body’s primary focus is to stay alive. (It’s interesting to think about how Staying Alive by the BeeGees is often used in CPR training classes.) Staying alive is where polyvagal theory comes into play. The body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS) is always running in the background, scanning our environment for any threats to our safety, for any danger. The ANS works without needing our input. It’s similar to how we don’t need to do anything for our heart to beat or our stomach to digest. It doesn’t it on its own. The entire autonomic nervous system works in tandem with the brain and can take over our emotional experience, even if we don’t want it to.

A Story About a Gazelle...

Animals are a great example of how we handle stress, because they react primally, without awareness. They do what we would if we weren't so well tamed. If you have ever watched a National Geographic Africa special, you’ve probably seen a lioness chase a gazelle. A group of gazelles is grazing together as a herd, and suddenly one looks up, hyper-aware of what is happening around him. The whole group notices and pays attention. After a moment, the lioness starts her chase. The gazelle she’s singled out runs as fast as he can (sympathetic nervous system) until he is caught. When he is caught, he instantly goes limp (parasympathetic nervous system). The lioness drags the gazelle back to her cubs, where they begin to play with it before they go in for the kill. If the lioness gets distracted, and the gazelle sees a moment of opportunity, he’s up and sprinting off again, looking like he suddenly came back to life (back into sympathetic nervous system response). When the gazelle was caught, with fangs around his neck, his shutdown response kicked in—he froze. When he saw the opportunity to run, his fight or flight kicked in, and he ran.

The Polyvagal theory covers those three states—connection, flight or fight, and shutdown. Here's how they work...

Ventral Vegus or the myelinated vagus nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system coming from the nucleus ambiguus response (for the nerds in the crowd)… or better known as the “safe and social state”

During non-stressful or perceived safe situations, our bodies stay in a social engagement state of connection. The ventral vagal state is the neurobiological foundation for health, growth, and restoration. When we are in the ventral vagal state, we feel calm, happy, engaged, attentive, active, interested, passionate, relaxed, and joyful. We feel connected to ourselves, others, and our world. In this state, we feel good to move around in our world, feel unafraid, and enjoy our day. We can feel gratitude, appreciate our life, and imagine our future. It’s like a green light for a normal life.

How does this look and feel?

  • Our immune system is healthy.

  • We feel normal happiness, openness, peace, and curiosity about life.

  • We are sleeping well and eating normally.

  • Our face is expressive.

  • We emotionally relate to others.

  • We more easily understand and listen to others.

  • Our body feels calm and grounded.

Flight or Fight ...or the sympathetic nervous system response… or hyperaroused/activated mobilization…or the “danger state.

The sympathetic nervous system is our immediate reaction to perceived danger or stress that affects nearly every organ in the body. The sympathetic nervous system causes that “flight or fight” state we have all heard of. It gives us those cues so that it can keep us alive.

How does this happen? How does this look and feel?

  • We sense a threat and focus to scan the surroundings for danger.

  • We release cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine to help us accomplish what we need to—get away, or fight our enemy.

  • Our heartbeat spikes, we sweat, and we feel more mobilized.

  • We feel anxious, afraid, or angry.

  • There may be flashes of facial expressions of fear and anger, with the background of more of a still face. If positive emotions are present, they usually look forced.

  • Our digestion slows down as blood rushes to the muscles.

  • Our blood vessels constrict to the intestines and dilate to the muscles needed to run or fight.

  • We may want to run away, punch someone, react physically in some way, or just puff up and look scary.

  • Our muscles may feel tense, electric, tight, vibrating, aching, trembling, and hard.

  • Our hands may be clammy.

  • Our stomach may be painfully knotted.

  • All our senses focus.

  • Our gestures may show guarding of our vital organs, fists clenched or puffing ourselves up to look bigger or stronger.

In fight or flight, at some level, we believe we can still survive whatever threat we think is dangerous.

Dorsal Vegus... or the Unmyelinated Vagus of the Parasympathetic Nervous System coming from the Dorsal Motor Nucleus …or hypoaroused/immobilization or life-threat/shut down

When our sympathetic nervous system has kicked into overdrive, and we still can’t escape and feel impending death the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system takes control. It causes shutdown, as a form of self-preservation. (Think of someone who passes out under extreme stress.)

How does this look and feel?

  • Emotionally, it feels like dissociation, numbness, dizziness, hopelessness, shame, a sense of feeling trapped, out of body, disconnected from the world, depression

  • Our eyes may look fixed and spaced out

  • Decrease in heart rate and blood pressure

  • Flat facial expressions

  • Decrease in sexual and immune response systems

  • We may be triggered to feel nauseated, throw up, defecate, spontaneously urinate

  • We may feel low or no pain

  • Our lungs (bronchi) constrict and we breathe slower

  • We may have difficulty getting words out or feel constriction around our throat

  • Our brain has decreased metabolism and this causes a loss of body awareness, limp limbs, decreased ability to think clearly, and decreased ability to create and/or process narrative memories

  • Our body posture may collapse, feel limp, or we may curl up in a ball

In shutdown mode, at some level, our nervous system believes we are in a life-threatening situation, and it tries to keep us alive by keeping our body still. Some people who have had both attachment trauma and subsequent trauma can have chronic suicidality and dissociation episodes that last days to months. These are examples of being in the dorsal vagal state.

If we are unable to co-regulate (more on that later) and move into the ventral vagal state of safe and social then we can experience ongoing dysregulation which results in chronic illnesses, distressed relationships, and altered cognitive capacities. Therapy can provide safe opportunities to experiment with co-regulation, add skills for individual regulation, and experience positive social connection. These can all help the autonomic system move back towards regulation. Our team of caring, licensed professionals trained in trauma treatment can help. Take the first step by giving us a call today, and let’s set up a time to talk.


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