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Polyvagal Theory

What is Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, describes how the mammalian autonomic nervous system evolved to keep us safe and alive. Polyvagal Theory helps us to understand how our body and brain work together to respond to cues of safety and danger.

Polyvagal States

There are 3 primary polyvagal states that help to enhance our wellbeing or increase survival. These states are biological responses to the environment. We don’t get to consciously choose which state to be in. Our body gets inputs from our 5 senses then our brainstem decides whether it is safe, dangerous or life threatening and automatically shifts the body into one of the three states. The three primary states include the Ventral Vagal State, the Sympathetic State and the Dorsal Vagal State. The Ventral Vagal State is a state of safety and homeostasis. When in this state we feel calm, grounded, mindful, curious and compassionate. The Sympathetic State controls our fight/flight responses to increase survival. When in this state we experience feelings of anger, frustration, irritation, fear, anxiety, worry or panic. The Dorsal Vagal State increases the chances of survival by conserving resources. In this state we may feel depressed, hopeless, numb, shut

down, trapped or dissociated.

Trauma and Polyvagal Theory

Trauma is when our autonomic nervous system is stuck in a defensive state (sympathetic or dorsal vagal). In the case of trauma, our natural patterns of connection are replaced with patterns for protection. We become wired for threat, scanning our environment for cues of danger. Trauma interrupts our ability to regulate our nervous system responses and feel safe in relationships. The initial phase of working with trauma in therapy is safety and stabilisation. This phase is about helping people who have experienced trauma understand the way their nervous system works. This includes a psycho-education component that is important for people to begin to recognise how their nervous system is responding.


Porges, S. W. (2022) Polyvagal Theory: A Science of Safety. Front. Integr. Neurosci. 16:871227. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2022.871227

Sunseri, J. (Host). (2022, Nov 2) Polyvagal Theory for Total Beginners. (Audio podcast episode). In Stuck Not Broken. Spotify.

Warren, S. (2022, Jan 13) What is the Polyvagal Theory? Somatic movement Centre. Retrived via


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