Polyvagal theory is based on the influence of the vagus nerve on different physiological (body) processes as well as psychological states. It also describes how there can be nervous system dysregulation and the process to gain more regulation in the nervous system.
The Vagus Nerve
The Vagus Nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body and it stretches from the brainstem to the stomach. It influences both our emotional and physiological states. It wanders throughout your body connecting with most of the organs in the body.
What is Polyvagal Theory?
The polyvagal theory was developed by Stephen Porges and recognizes a hierarchical autonomic nervous system, which evolved to help us survive through communication, connection, and collaboration.
It describes three primary physiological states of the autonomic system, guided by a division of the vagus nerve (CN X) into dorsal and ventral components. The three states can be associated with the window of tolerance where your window of tolerance is your ventral vagal state, hyperarousal is your sympathetic state, and hypoarousal is your dorsal vagal state.
The dorsal vagal state responds to cues of extreme danger through immobilization and helps us to survive by shutting down important physiological functions (i.e., digestion) in the presence of a life threat. It is a state of hypoarousal that communicates that you are unreachable and can be confusing to others. It’s a story of despair where the body enters conservation mode. A person in this state may feel like they are going through the motions but not connected. They may feel alone, lost, abandoned, unreachable, hopeless or that they have disappeared.
The sympathetic state responds to cues of danger through mobilization and helps us to survive through activation and action. It is a state of hyperarousal and high alertness where you can’t access your Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) like you are used to and are unable to truly connect with others. It is part of the spinal nervous system that regulates breath and heart rhythms. Moreover, it is a story of an unsafe world and unsafe people. It is a state of looking and listening for danger and in this state, people tend to miss and misread signs of safety. There is a sense of separation and being disconnected from self, others, the world, and spirit.
The ventral vagal state responds to positive cues and supports feelings of being safe and relaxed. It is the state of co-regulation and connection and where health, growth, and restoration happen. It is where the social engagement system is and engaging socially cannot happen in a state of threat. Furthermore, it is the state that creates healthy homeostasis, allows for hope, compassion and self-compassion and is resourced and resourceful. It is this state of cooperation that is essential for survival where you reach out for, and offer, support.
In any event, these states are on a continuum, and we can experience blended states, where a pattern of response is influenced by more than one state. You can have one state in the foreground and another in the background.
Influence of Different States
Different physiological states can affect your behaviour, emotions, and cognition. It can bias your perception of the environment and prepares you to be either welcoming or defensive toward other people and situations. The better we can regulate our states and the more flexibly and smoothly we can move between them, the better our health (physical, emotional, mental) will be. Additionally, when we are more regulated we are able to connect with others better and have better relationships.
There are psychotherapeutic techniques and practices that can help to regulate your nervous system and promote the sense of wellness. Ultimately, this can improve your sense of safety, health, connection, and wellness in the world.
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