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  • Writer's pictureAli Astrid Moto

Polyvagal Theory: Explained

Updated: Jan 21, 2023

"The science of safety - the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take risks of living." - Deb Dana

Polyvagal Theory provides a physiological and psychological understanding of being regulated and dis-regulated and how we can get caught in cycles of engage and disconnect. Through the lens of Polyvagal Theory we can see the role of the autonomic nervous system and how it effects our thinking and behavior patterns.

Polyvagal explains Fight or Flight and Flop. It also explains what it's like to have access to our frontal lobe. Basically, it allows us too see into our systems, normalizing our emotional pain, anxieties and depression. Knowledge empowers us, and the Polyvagal Theory gives us knowledge that empowers us to heal and be at peace.

Developed by world-renowned researcher and Chief Scientific Advisor, Dr. Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory focuses on what is happening in the body and the nervous system, and explains how our sense of safety, or danger or threat, can impact our behavior. Understanding Polyvagal Theory gives us a scientific framework that can be applied through physiological, or “bottom-up” therapies, to help change and improve how we feel, think and connect with others.

Internal Control Center

The mind and body are connected through the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve in the autonomic nervous system, stretching from the brainstem to the colon. It is our internal control center, allowing the brain to monitor and receive information about many of our bodily functions. The vagus nerve helps to regulate many critical aspects of human physiology, including the heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion, and even speaking. As the body takes in information automatically through neuroception, the vagus nerve processes the signals and cues from the world around us and, in turn, determines how we react through three physiological states:

  • Parasympathetic / Ventral Vagal state — our centered “true self” state, where all social interaction, connection and cognition occurs

  • Sympathetic state — feeling of threat or danger, and feeling the need to either “fight” or “flee” from a situation to seek safety

  • Dorsal Vagal state — our “freeze” state, when we feel our lives are so immediately threatened that we become immobilized

Three Organizing Principles at the heart of PolyVagal Theory

  • Hierarchy: The autonomic nervous system responds to sensations in the body and signals from the environment through three pathways of response. These pathways work in specified order and respond to challenges in predictable ways. These pathways are from the bottom up in the brain.

  • Neuroception: This term coined by Dr. Porges describes the ways our autonomic system responds to cues of safety, to danger, and life threat from within our bodies, the world around us, and from the connection we have to others. These responses are "undetected" to us until we know how to notice them.

  • Co-regulation: According to Polyvagal Theory is a biological imperative: it must be met to sustain life. It is through this co-regualtion that we can feel safe and connect with other humans and build trust.

So, what if we feel dis-regulated, have childhood trauma that keeps us from feeling safe? What if we have a difficult time co-regulating? These are all wonderful questions. Fortunately we know more about the brain now then we ever have. We know we can change our brains and how they process the input thanks to neuroplasticity. These evidenced based therapies for neuroplasticity will reprocess these inputs and allow our system to regulate, giving us the ability to connect, use our frontal lobes for empathy and critical thinking, and feel calm and at peace in our system. Thus, peace and safety in our lives. This means less emotional pain (threat responses), less disconnect, and shut down, and the ability to make decisions and choices from a healthy, happy place.

Co-regulation: According to Polyvagal Theory is a biological imperative: it must be met to sustain life. It is through this co-regulation that we can feel safe and connect with other humans and build trust.

If you are feeling disregulation in your life, you can learn how to reprocess feelings of irritation, anger, sadness or anxiety. Let me show you how. CONTACT me for a free 15 minute consultation. You don't have to go through life feeling old hurts or distressing thoughts. I'm here to support and give you space to heal.


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