Stephen Porges (1992) proposed Polyvagal Theory as a way to understand our autonomic nervous system and how it shapes our present-moment experiences in terms of two key functions; connection and protection.
Polyvagal theory includes 3 organising principles:
- Autonomic hierarchy
What are the three principles?
Three states of our nervous system, each with their own functions/purpose:
- Dorsal vagal system – immobilisation (blue zone, shut down /survival mode)
- Sympathetic system – fight / flight (red zone, activated / survival mode)
- Ventral vagal system – connection / social engagement (green zone, felt sense of safety)
The autonomic nervous system monitors internally (physiological responses) and externally (your environment), and relationships (people’s reactions) to evaluate risk and without our conscious effort shifts our autonomic state when a threat is detected (irrespective of whether there is a real or perceived threat). This can be helpful at times when it is needed, however can also be unhelpful when a threat is not present, only perceived.
A survival essential. Self-regulation, something a lot of people come into therapy to improve on, can not occur without first establishing co-regulation experiences. That being, we have connected with others, and felt safe in that interaction. For example, for those who have had childhood traumatic experiences, these effective co-regulation experiences may be few and far between. Thus therapeutically, within the therapist-client relationship we can create predictable, regulating interactions that create experiences of co-regulation for your autonomic nervous system to store. This can become a foundation for self-regulation outside the therapy room.
“Polyvagal invites you into the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love and take the risks of living”
– Deb Dana, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection
What is Polyvagal theory trauma?
Polyvagal informed therapy works from the premise that the autonomic nervous system has been moulded by early life experiences, that it continues to be moulded by ongoing experiences, and that the habitual reactions that we have developed over time, can be altered, allowing for new responses to be created.
I have found this particularly helpful for those of us who have experienced trauma in our lives. As trauma, particularly in early childhood creates a bias in our autonomic nervous system towards protection rather than connection. When the nervous system perceives a threat, being social is the last thing it wants, it is purely focused on survival and protection. When in a state of connection, this is where our body restores, heals and is most resilient, so if we are constantly in a state of survival, you can imagine how quickly that can cause a range of other physical health and relationship issues beyond just our mental health.
A polyvagal approach begins with empowering clients to explore how their autonomic nervous system operates and guiding them to develop ways to self-operate this essential system. This allows for flexibility, the reshaping of our responses to situations where previously we may have reacted in a way that was unhelpful or even harmful to ourselves and others.
Is Polyvagal Theory legitimate?
Whilst there exists criticism of the theory (as often occurs with most theories), the mechanisms have not been disproven and are widely supported by clinicians and clients. Ultimately, when someone suggests using Polyvagal in therapy, they are likely referencing the greater research area beyond just the theory which incorporates attachment, emotional regulation research, psychological understanding of stress and anxiety, and other neuroscience regarding the nervous system. It appears to be popular because of the way it actually incorporates a range of other theories and research, this allows a more integrated approach while working with trauma survivors. Frankly, this is something I have found particularly helpful myself, as this framework has been a way for me to better understand my nervous system, to befriend it, with compassion towards myself, and to play not just an observing role in my physiology but to feel more empowered in how I approach self-regulation. This is something I have been able to pass on to many of my clients, who have found it similarly helpful.
Author: Samantha Sheppard, B Psych (Hons).
Samantha is a registered psychologist with experience working with children and adolescents (and their families), young adults and adults. Samantha empowers others with their mental health using a non-judgmental, compassionate approach and particularly resonates with the social and emotional wellbeing framework.
To make an appointment with Samantha Sheppard try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.
This information was adapted from Deb Dana’s book Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection.