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Polyvagal Theory for Total Beginners

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

The Polyvagal Theory is complex, especially if you're starting from the primary source - Dr. Stephen Porges. No, he doesn't make it easy to digest. Deb Dana does a great job in translating and I've done my translations through my many pieces of free content. But what if you're a total and utter beginner in the PVT? What are the essential aspects of Porges' Theory? No jargon. No complexity. Just the absolute basics that you can build from.



PVT Basic #1: Biological States of the Body

The mammalian body can be said to exist in basically one of three states. (For you PVT Nerds out there, I know. Slow your roll. I'm focusing on the basics for the total beginner here, not the mixed states!)


Three states of the Polyvagal Theory:

These three states are the result of the body's detection of safety or danger and have specific autonomic biological pathways:

  1. Social Engagement - biology that is responsible for your ability to connect with and socially engage with others when safe

  2. Flight & Fight - biology that is responsible for your ability to mobilize - to run from or fight off danger

  3. Shutdown - biology that is responsible for immobilizing when life is in threat and "play dead"

The PVT says that if the underlying biology is not active, then you won't be able to engage in these specific behaviors and the feelings and thoughts that come along with them. For example, if the biology for safety and social engagement is not active, then you won't be able to smile, make eye contact gently or give a hug.


On top of that, existing in one state cuts off your ability to use the behaviors of the other states. So if you are in a flight/fight state, then you won't have the ability to socially engage. You also won't have the ability to immobilize. Likewise, if you are in a shutdown state, you'll lack the capacity to mobilize with energy or to connect with others. (Again, I know, PVT Nerds. It's more complex. Calm yourself! Extend your exhale lol)



PVT Basic #2: Biological States of the Body are Unconscious

These biological states of the body are activated through unconscious means. The body receives input from its senses, then determines what level of safety or danger or life threat it is under. From there, the body shifts into one of the three basic states.


Polyvagal state evolved within us to ensure survival

These biological responses evolved within us to increase the chances of survival or bodily functioning. Running or fighting are going to help you survive when in danger. Immobilizing in collapse will help you to survive in life threat. And being in your safety state will optimize bodily resources for "health, growth and restoration," something Dr Porges says often.


All of this means that you can't consciously choose your Polyvagal state.


Increase the chances of being in your safety state

You can, however, increase the chances of being in your safety state through manipulating your environment and creating passive safety cues. You can also do something that increases your feelings of safety, like dancing (barf) or playing with a fidget. You can create a list of safety anchors to use that will help activate that state. And you can definitely practice being in your safety state to increase the strength of those pathways.


So there are things you can consciously do to increase the likelihood of being in your safety state, but it's not simply a choice to exist in that state.


Stop trying to "hack"

And no, it's not as simple as "hacking" or "resetting" or "activating" your vagus nerve. That kind of wording is common in the Polyvagal sphere, with a focus on the nerve itself. This is misleading and creates the impression that one can simply choose to do a certain thing to turn off or on their Polyvagal states.


PVT Basic #3: It's Biology First


Polyvagal Theory is a unifying theory

The PVT connects to pretty much everything in our experience: thoughts, emotions, sensations, relationships and more. How can this be? Because the PVT is a unifying theory. It takes these domains and provides an underlying explanation. And the explanation is a biological one.


Basically, PVT is saying that biological shifts are first. Then, when those shifts happen, they will result in other shifts that might be noticed by the individual. Think of it like a couple dominoes falling. When one domino falls, it hits the other and then that one falls too.


The autonomic nervous system is the primary factor

The dominoes in the PVT are biological ones. A bit more specifically, they relate to the autonomic nervous system. When the autonomic nervous system makes an adjustment, then feelings, thoughts and behaviors follow.


I see other Polyvagal enthusiasts focusing on various "trauma responses" and behavioral-level aspects of the theory. Which is important and valid. But what gets lost is the primary catalyst of those behaviors, which are the biological shifts happening in the autonomic nervous system.


 

Recommended further reading:


Brain Polyvagal Intro art

Polyvagal Intro

If this blog has interested you and you're ready to go deeper in your learning, check out my free Polyvagal Intro page to learn more about the essentials of the Polyvagal Theory and be connected to more free resources.


 

Q&A

What are the three ways in which the mammalian body can exist according to the Polyvagal Theory, and what determines which state the body is in?

The three states are Social Engagement, Flight & Fight, and Shutdown, and the body's detection of safety or danger determines which state the body is in.


Can an individual consciously choose their Polyvagal state, and what can they do to increase their chances of being in the safety state?

No, an individual cannot consciously choose their Polyvagal state. However, they can increase their chances of being in the safety state by manipulating their environment and creating passive safety cues, as well as practicing being in the safety state to strengthen those pathways.


What does the Polyvagal Theory say about the relationship between biological shifts and other shifts in an individual's experience?

The Polyvagal Theory states that biological shifts are first, and when those shifts happen, they will result in other shifts that an individual might notice in their thoughts, emotions, sensations, and behaviors.


 

Quotes from this blog:

"The mammalian body can be said to exist in basically one of three states... These three states have specific autonomic biology."
"...You can't consciously choose your Polyvagal state... it's not simply a choice to exist in that state."
"The PVT connects to pretty much everything in our experience: thoughts, emotions, sensations, relationships and more... When the autonomic nervous system makes an adjustment, then feelings, thoughts and behaviors follow."
 

Author Bio:

Justin wrote the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm and receives 150k monthly downloads as the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states as a therapist and coach.

 




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