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Why the Polyvagal Safety State is so Important

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

The defensive autonomic states are usually how people get introduced to the Polyvagal Theory. And I think tend to be the focus. But the safety state should be the area that you spend more time on and learn more about.

It's also an aspect of the Theory that you can take action on.

What is Polyvagal Safety?

Polyvagal safety is a reference to biology first and foremost. In the PVT, we are discussing biology. Not simply feelings. Not just “trauma responses.” But biology.

Polyvagal safety refers to the ventral vagal pathways of the autonomic nervous system.

Why Polyvagal Safety is Important

When active, these ventral vagal pathways result in your ability to connect with yourself and with others. They allow you to socially engage and provide cues of safety to another, a Polyvagal process called "co-regulation". When you’re in your safety state, you can then do things like:

  • smile genuinely

  • use vocal prosody

  • make eye crinkles from listening or smiling

  • get close physically to another

You'll also be able to use a couple of Polyvagal mixed states - play and stillness. Meaning, you can mobilize while socially engaged in play and/or you can immobilize without fear in stillness.

If the safety state is not active, then these mixed states and their resulting behaviors and experiences are not possible.

Of course, you can learn a lot more about the Polyvagal Theory in my Polyvagal 101 course. It covers the essentials of the Polyvagal Theory in a self-paced course. Everything you need to know, all in one place, in less time.

Accessing Polyvagal Safety

Accessing your Polyvagal state of safety is not simply a choice that you make. Remember, it is essentially a biological process. The biology for safety needs to be active and this is done through neuroception. Essentially, this is the autonomic nervous system's process for unconsciously detecting safety or danger in the environment, then shifting to the appropriate autonomic state: connection, mobilization or immobilization.

You need a couple basic things to neurocept safety:

  1. Environmental safety - You need literal safety. To be free from actual danger to your person. This also includes a more subtle form of "safety," which involves passive cues of safety from the environment. Things like the hums of electronics, loud sounds, harsh lighting and crowded spaces will all give you cues of danger, even though they are not literally dangerous.

  2. Interpersonal safety - Again, literal safety. To be free from danger from others. But it's more than that. This involves receiving co-regulative cues of safety from others. Smiles, eye crinkles, vocal prosody, you get the idea...

Having these two pieces are essential to accessing the Polyvagal state of safety and social engagement. However, it may not be that simple. (Duh, right?)

Building Polyvagal Safety

I started this blog by saying that learning the safety state is the next step after being introduced to the Polyvagal Theory. I say that because it's also the aspect of the PVT that you can take action on immediately.

The safety state needs to be exercised, just like anything else. Through exercising it, you build the strength of the ventral vagal safety pathways. This builds the strength of your "vagal brake," which is the influence of the social engagement system on the heart, keeping it at a calmer pace and keeping the flight/fight sympathetic state from activating.

Polyvagal safety is not something to be used. It's something to be developed. It's not something you can make a conscious choice to turn off or on.

You can definitely increase the chances of your safety state being active. You can do so through creating passive safety cues for yourself in your environment.

In my Building Safety Anchors course, this is the starting point. Creating environmental safety cues. From there, you can then create active safety cues. These would be activities that you can do, like mindfully using your senses or movement, to feel more safety in your system. If you can mindfully do so, you can then exercise and increase the safety pathways.

Be patient with yourself

Be as mindful of what helps you to access your safety state as you can. It'll feel like connection with yourself or with others. It'll feel more like being grounded in the present moment and more awareness of your senses. You will be more curious than evaluative.

Building the safety state is a long process. Be patient with yourself.

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Jan 15, 2023

This has me wondering if what I have called being connected to my heart is the same as being in the ventral vagal state.

Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Jan 16, 2023
Replying to

Might be an indication of being in the safety state! It can be easy to miss.


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