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The fundamentals of the Polyvagal Theory
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What the polyvagal theory is
The Polyvagal Theory, in essence, is the science of how mammals connect, but also how they respond to danger. You've heard of fight & flight. Wellll, there's more to it than that. The PVT is the first to explain that there are actually three distinct primary states the body may be in:
Safe & social
(aka "ventral vagal")
Allows for social connection, executive functioning, play, stillness, health, growth and restoration.
Active when the external & internal worlds are perceived as safe.
Survival mode - allows for legs to be used for evasion and arms for aggression.
Active when the internal or external worlds are perceived as being in danger.
Heart rate up, shallow breathing, muscles tense, looking for danger.
(aka "dorsal vagal")
Life threat response - allows for the end of life with little to no pain. Numbing and dissociation allow for possibility of escape.
Active when the internal or external worlds are perceived as life threatening.
Body numbs, dissociation, drop in blood pressure and heart rate.
Those 3 are just the primary states. It's also possible to have "mixed states," meaning the primaries are activated at the same time. Just like mixing primary colors creates another color. But you can't create a primary color by mixing other colors. They simply exist on their own.
For it to be play, both mammals need to have access to their safe/social state as well as their flight/fight state. If the flight/fight energy becomes too much, it's not play anymore.
Safe /Social + Flight/Fight
This is the ability to immobilize - to be still - without fear. Including laying down to sleep, practicing yoga or meditation, being intimate and using the restroom, plus more.
Freeze is a distinct thing, not just another word for "shutdown." It's a tense, rigid immobilization compared to a collapsed one in shutdown.
find new ways to access your safety pathways.
Dr. Stephen Porges
Creator of the Polyvagal Theory.
Deb Dana, LCSW
Pioneer of PVT in therapy.