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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.

Flight & fight

(aka "sympathetic")


(aka "dorsal vagal")

2nd parasympathetic

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.

Mixed states

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


Safe/Social + Shutdown

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.


Flight/Fight + 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.

Peter Levine, PhD

Creator of Somatic Experiencing.


...we are not voluntarily controlling whether we shift in or out of these states.


the Autonomic nervous system

The PVT has everything to do with the Autonomic Nervous System.  The ANS is responsible for regulating all the internal stuff you don't need to think about, like: breathing, digestion and heart rate.  When we go into the different primary or mixed states, there are autonomic shifts that take place. 

For example, our breathing changes significantly if we are in our safe/social system (calm, deep & into the belly) versus our flight/fight system (faster, shallow & into the chest area).  And changes significantly again when we go into a shutdown state (very shallow and small).

Central to the PVT and how the ANS works is neuroception and the Deb Dana concept of the Polyvagal Ladder.


The unconscious detection of cues of danger or safety in the external or the internal environment.

Neuroception is also responsible for shifting the autonomic states up the Polyvagal Ladder.

A metaphor of how the autonomic circuitry is built in the human body.

Safe & social is in the head & neck.

Flight & fight is in the chest.

Shutdown is in the gut.

the Polyvagal ladder

A sequence of events,

not a menu of options

In my presentations, I like to explain that the autonomic states are a sequence of events, not a menu of options.  This means that we climb up or down the Polyvagal Ladder in order.  These are biological instincts, not conscious choices. 

If we neurocept that we are not safe, we drop down the ladder into sympathetic arousal.  Flight first, then fight.  If we cannot run away and we cannot fight, we drop down the ladder further into the shutdown state.

The reverse of this is true as well.  To come out of shutdown, our sympathetic state needs to kick in first.  A powerful fight state followed by flight and then into safety once again.

Your autonomic state comes to life and then the information is fed up to your brain and it's your brain's job to make sense of what's happening in the body, so it makes up a story.

Story follows state

When we shift up or down the polyvagal ladder, our brains create a narrative to explain why.  Examples include:

  • "I deserve it" or "I shouldn't have been there" or "I shouldn't have said that."

  • "I'm angry because [student x] was staring at me!"

On top of that, the thoughts we have will be a reflection of the autonomic state that we are in.  If we're in a safe and social state, our thoughts will be more compassionate and calm.  Our thoughts in a flight/fight state are going to be anxious or angry, directed at the outside world.  And in a shutdown state, ​our thoughts will be more apathetic and probably directed inward.

the Vagal brake

This is the influence of the safe & social system on the heart.  With a stronger vagal brake, there is a higher tolerance to distress.  

Traumatized individuals have a compromised social engagement system.  So minor problems become highly triggering events.  Their heart rate increases, sending them into flight/fight sympathetic arousal.

Think of "the window of tolerance," basically.

The vagal brake is the focus of my course - Building Safety Anchors.

Mammals are social.  That includes us.  Humans need safe mammals to provide


Think of a toddler throwing a tantrum.  They're dysregulated.  They need a safe adult to be in their social engagement system to provide cues of safety.  That's co-regulation.

Adults need it too.


Through the lens of the polyvagal theory, almost every diagnosis in the DSM is a dysregulated nervous system.


Mental health &

behavior adaptations

The PVT makes it clear that what we consider clinical disorders or psychiatric problems, may simply be a stuck defensive state or a behavioral adaptation to being stuck in a defensive state.  

A stuck defensive state - For example, what we commonly call "depression" may just be someone stuck in a shutdown state.

A behavioral adaptation - For example, substance use could be an individual's best attempt at self-regulating their defensive state.  

Psychology traditionally approaches trauma through its effects on the mind.  This is at best only half the story and a wholly inadequate one.


2 paths to trauma

Trauma is being stuck in a defensive state.  It's the reaction to the event.  Not the event itself.  This can take two paths:

  1. An acute life threat reaction - the individual survives something or multiple somethings that are basically one-time events, which leaves them in a stuck defensive state.  Some examples would be: war, school shooting, car crash or sexual assault.  This would be associated with PTSD and the freeze mixed state.

  2. A chronic disruption of connectedness - the individual's safe and healthy attachment with their caregiver(s) is consistently cut off.  Some examples include: parental neglect, physical or emotional abuse.  This would be associated with C-PTSD and one of the primary defensive states.


Not broken.

I hope it's clear that the issue is not someone is broken, defective or ill.  They're stuck.  Stuck down their ladder in a defensive state, but fully having the potential to climb right back up.

Climbing the ladder may mean a couple of things:

1. Discharging the stuck sympathetic energy if you're in a freeze mixed state.

2. Spending more and more time in the safe & social system, increasing the strength of the vagal brake.

Climb the ladder

Now that you know it all...


You're now equipped with the fundamentals you need to join in on any episode without losing a beat.


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Books and authors that I highly highly recommend. 


Mugs, pillows and more for #polyvagalnerds in my Society6 shop.


My first online course to help strengthen the vagal brake.

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