Your in-depth introduction to the Polyvagal Theory, with loads of links to further learning.
the basic idea.
The Polyvagal Theory is the science of how mammals connect, but also how they respond to danger. PVT connects biology to emotion, thought, relationships and more.
A core piece of the Theory is the hypothesis that our bodies can exist in three distinct evolutionary survival states: safety & social engagement, flight & fight mobility and shutdown immobility.
safe & social
Allows for social connection, executive functioning, play, stillness, health, growth and restoration.
Active when the external & internal worlds are perceived as safe.
flight & fight
Survival mode - allows for legs to be used for evasion and upper body 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.
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.
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It's also possible to have "mixed states," a combination of two primary states active at the same time.
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.
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.
Mammals can be prepared for safety, mobilization or immobilization. These are the 3 primary states.
Freeze is a distinct thing, not just another word for "shutdown." Freeze is a tense, rigid immobilization compared to a collapsed one in shutdown.
the autonomic nervous system
The PVT has everything to do with the Autonomic Nervous System. It's 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.
the polyvagal ladder
A metaphor of how the autonomic pathways evolved and function in the mammalian body. Autonomic shifts happen in a sequence, not as conscious choices.
Safety pathways at the top
Flight/fight in the middle
Shutdown at the bottom
a sequence of shifts.
not a menu of options.
We climb up or down the Polyvagal Ladder in order. These are biological instincts, not conscious choices.
If we detect 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.
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.
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.
-Deb Dana, LCSW
the vagal brake
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. Minor problems become highly triggering events. Think of "the window of tolerance," basically.
The vagal brake is the focus of Building Safety Anchors.
story follows state
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.
mental health &
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 - what we commonly call "depression" may just be someone stuck in a shutdown state.
A behavioral adaptation - substance use could be an individual's best attempt at self-regulating their defensive state.
Mammals are social. That includes us. Humans need safe mammals to provide co-regulation.
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.
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. 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. This would be associated with PTSD and the freeze mixed state.