Polyvagal Theory is a theory of the autonomic nervous system. The Autonomic Nervous System, or ANS, is considered the foundation of our lived experience. Polyvagal Theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges and has revolutionized how we view the body’s response to stress.
Originally, we viewed the body’s reaction to stress as a binary: either we are in a sympathetic or parasympathetic state. Polyvagal Theory shows that there are multiple states of the nervous system in response to real or perceived stress.
In layman’s terms, Polyvagal Theory helps us understand how we move through the world.
To better understand Polyvagal Theory and how we can use it to foster physiological feelings of safety, we must first understand the Vagus Nerve.
The Vagus Nerve
The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves; it connects the mind and body, with 80% of its fibers communicating information from our internal organs to the brain. The Vagus nerve controls the —the parasympathetic nervous system, playing a role in social connection, stress responses, and emotional regulation.
Origin of Polyvagal Theory: The Vagal Paradox in a Nutshell
Before we discuss the The Vagal Paradox, first let’s look at vagal tone.
Vagal tone, according to Jordan Fallis, is “an internal biological process that represents the activity of the vagus nerve. Increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.”
In essence, the vagus nerve communicates information about our safety. The more adept our nervous system is at returning to a parasympathetic state after an acute stress, the higher our vagal tone.
So, what then, is the Vagal Paradox? Basically, cardiac vagal tone can be a positive indicator of health when monitored with heart rate variability and a negative indicator of health when it manifests as bradycardia (a heart rate that’s too slow).
The Organizing Principles of Polyvagal Theory
Download the full infographic here.
Principle #1: Hierarchy or the PVT Ladder
Hierarchy, or the PVT ladder, is the first organizing principle of PVT. Hierarchy explains the different physiological states the vagus nerve can lead us to, depending on our feelings of safety, or danger. As laid out by Deb Dana, LCSW, and co-founder of the Polyvagal Institute, the PVT ladder works thusly:
Ventral Vagal or Social Connection: The state in which we can connect and relate to other people, experienced through regulation of the nervous system / nervous system regulation, when we’re in the now, feeling safe and secure, “the happy place”.
Sympathetic or Mobilization: The need to take action or rid yourself of the perceived threat. Best known as fight or flight response. Chaos, tension, anxiety and other hyperactive states are common to SA.
Dorsal Vagal or Disconnection & Collapse: 500 M years old, 100 M years old than the sympathetic nervous system. A very primal part of the human experience. DVS is a place of immobilization. 1. State of collapse 2. Freeze response – feelings of terror take over. Lethargy, despondency, hopelessness: heavy, sedated emotions
We move through these states in a predictable order. PVT tells us how the nervous system will move through states of connection and protection and back again. This is done through Neuroception—PVTs second organizing principle.
Principle #2: Neuroception
Neural circuits are a group of neurons interconnected by synapses. The groups’ main role is to execute specific functions, but only when activated.
Neuroception is how neural circuits decide in the moment if a person or situation is safe, dangerous or a major threat. Neuroception listens to three streams of information: Inside (the body), Outside (the environment), Between (nervous systems).
Principle #3: Co-Regulation
Our nervous systems long to be connected to other nervous systems. PVT helps us work with the nervous system in order to develop safe connections with other people. Essentially, coregulation is the sending and receiving of safety signals. Co-regulation means the connecting nervous systems support and nourish each other, continuing the ongoing feelings of safety. This is why Polyvagal Theory is also known as the science of feeling safe.
Download the full infographic here.
The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP): A Practical Application of PVT
The Safe and Sound Protocol, or SSP, is a non-invasive application of the Polyvagal Theory as laid out through decades of research by Dr. Stephen Porges, who also developed the SSP.
The SSP uses a bottom-up approach to help people regulate their nervous system more consistently and independently. The SSP can help improve emotional control, hearing sensitivity, listening and behavioural organization. Over 2,000 providers use the SSP as an adjunct therapy to help support the children, adults and families they work with.
To learn more about the SSP as a practical application of Polyvagal Theory talk to a consultant today.
Fallis, J. (2021, March 25). How to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve for Better Mental Health. Optimal Living Dynamics. https://www.optimallivingdynamics.com/blog/how-to-stimulate-your-vagus-nerve-for-better-mental-health-brain-vns-ways-treatment-activate-natural-foods-depression-anxiety-stress-heart-rate-variability-yoga-massage-vagal-tone-dysfunction
Norton Mental Health. (2020, March 12). Deb Dana describes the Polyvagal Theory. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JXGy7M4kvaY&feature=youtu.be
Winter, M. (2016). Polyvagal Theory. SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-16999-6_2311-1?error=cookies_not_supported&code=de644095-e90f-40fb-be70-bd4503caefb4#:%7E:text=The%20paradox%20is%20such%20that,low%20RSA%20(Porges%201995).