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5 Key Concepts in Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory (created by Stephen Porges and written extensively about by Deb Dana) is a framework for our mental and physical health that describes nervous system states and their impact on our emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing. Through getting to know these states, our triggers, and our resources we can heal a traumatized or dysregulated nervous system - a key to feeling less anxious, fearful, angry, shutdown, dissociated and/or depressed on a regular basis. Let's break down the key concepts to this critical theory:

1. Our nervous system is a complex system of cells and neurons that take in sensory information, regulate the body's homeostasis through internal physical responses and outward movement, and affect memory and learning.

The part of the nervous system we'll be talking about is the Autonomic Nervous System. Check out the image below of the organs and other components involved in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). These include the cardiac system, esophagus, stomach, lungs, colon, liver, kidneys, spleen, larynx, pharynx, and most importantly of all, the vagus nerve.

Because the Vagus nerve is connected to all of the organs pictured, when we shift into a different nervous system state, all of these organs are affected. This is why your heart rate accelerates and your breathing becomes more shallow when you're anxious, or why you lose your appetite when you feel shut down or hopeless.

2. The Autonomic Ladder is a concept of that lays out the three nervous system states. These three states are

1) ventral vagal

2) sympathetic arousal

3) dorsal vagal

Ventral vagal is our nervous system state when we feel, safe, connected, social, happy, and/or regulated. Ventral vagal is our most evolutionarily advanced state.

In Sympathetic arousal we feel anxious, fearful, in a fight or flight response. We are mobilized to respond to threats of danger and are less able to perceive any cues of safety.

Our Dorsal Vagal response is also known as shutdown or collapse. While we perceive danger like we do in Sympathetic, the dorsal response is immobilization. This may look like dissociation, shock, depression, hopelessness. Evolutionarily, we "play dead" to avoid detection from predators. This is also our oldest evolutionary response.

When our nervous system has been traumatized, we are predisposed to stay in both or either of the two dysregualted states (Dorsal or Sympathetic), even when the "threat" is not what our nervous system was designed to protect us against - a lion ready to tear us apart, for example.

In fact, we climb the autonomic ladder all day. Whether we're stuck in traffic, didn't know how to read the tone of a text received, or simply feel a fresh breeze on our skin, it often doesn't take much to change our state. And yet, we need our nervous systems to be responsive to these cues when the threat is real.

3. This brings us to our next concept: Neuroception. This is our embodied sense of safety or unsafety, operating below the conscious level. Our neuroception is based on the world around us as well as the sensations felt in our body. Human beings are always neurocepting, with the nervous system asking the body "is this a safe place/person/decision?" and acting accordingly to ensure our survival. When we've been traumatized, our neuroception of unsafety is more likely to be triggered more frequently, often without any real threat of danger present. When we work with polyvagal theory and heal our nervous system, one benefit is that we can more accurately neurocept and take in cues of safety.

4.Our individual Triggers and Glimmers help guide how we neurocept safety and unsafety. You've likely heard the term "triggers" before - both in and outside of mental health language. In mental health, we generally tend to talk about triggers as acts, sensory information, language, and so forth that brings about dysregulation, usually related to trauma. In Polyvagal Theory, we mean even more specifically that triggers send our nervous system into dysregulation - namely, into Sympathetic or Dorsal Vagal dysregulation. Glimmers, on the other hand, may be a term less familiar to you. A glimmer is something that moves us up the ladder into ventral vagal (i.e. safe, social, and connected). When we're in ventral vagal neurocept safety. In this way, glimmers can beget more glimmers! What do you notice makes you feel safe? Is it a walk in nature, petting an animal, calling a dear friend, a hug from a loved one, self-massage, noticing your feet on the ground, loving eye contact, or savoring a pleasant sensory experience?

5. The Vagal Brake is our fifth and final concept for understanding Polyvagal Theory (in this blog post, that is!). The ventral vagal (safe/social/connected) pathway in our nervous system connects with the heart's pacemaker (sinoatrial node), which regulates the heart's rhythms. This connection, the vagal brake, allows your heart to speed up or slow down, depending on the circumstances you find yourself in. We want our vagal brake to be flexible and well-tuned so that we can engage and disengage it as needed and make those transitions smoothly. This allows us to reflect and respond rather than react. Some ways to exercise and tone the vagal brake:

🫀 humming

❤️ singing

🫀 gargling

❤️ laughing

🫀 meditation

❤️ slow, deep breath like Ocean's Breath

What did you learn from this blog post? What do have questions or comments about?

If you want to know more about Polyvagal Theory and using it to heal your own nervous system or help your clients' in healing their nervous systems, I highly recommend reading The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy by Deb Dana, LCSW (not an affiliate link; just for ease of access).


Rachel Harlich, LMSW


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