The Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges is a paradigm shift in the way we understand stress, and its effect on the mind and body. Understanding the polyvagal theory is extremely helpful for understanding yourself, how YOUR nervous system operates, and how you can be more mindful as you actively regulate your stress on a day to day basis. While Dr. Porges book on the poly-vagal theory is 350 pages of deep scientific jargon and theories, I’m going to attempt to summarize it to you in a single blog post. I’ll also explain how you can use the theory to be more mindful and stress-free.

Traditionally, the nervous system is described as having two different functions- sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic is the activated, energized, fight or flight state, while the parasympathetic is the relaxed and calm state. It is thought of in psychology as a binary, an “On” and “Off” state. Think gas pedal and breaks. 

However, Dr. Porges discovered that the nervous system doesn’t function in this simple, two-way street, it’s far more complex and nuanced. Rather than binary (sympathetic and parasympathetic states), the nervous system has “Poly” or multiple states of functioning. 

What are the three states of stress?

  • Ventral Vagal- Developed 200 million years ago, ventral vagal is described as the happy, feel good state. This is where we want to being living most of the time. It is also called “Social Engagement” because it’s where we feel connection between ourselves, others, and our environment. It’s a place of comfort, relaxation, groundedness, security, safety, curiosity, and love. Our body’s heart rate is slower, digestion increases, we have better circulation, and a better immune response. 
  • Sympathetic Activation– Developed 400 million years ago, sympathetic activation is described as fight or flight. This is a survival mechanism that energizes you to be in an optimal state to handle danger. During sympathetic response, you become superman or superwoman, and you have this strong feeling of “I can”. You feel energized, feel awake and mentally sharp, ready to take on any challenge. This state may come with feelings of worry, concern, anxiety, which when you’re trying to run away from a threat can be very helpful to have these feelings. The state may also include feelings of frustration, irritation, anger, and rage, which when your in a fight, are pretty awesome feeling to harness. Heart rate, adrenaline, and blood pressure increase to help you ward off danger. Your muscles tighten up to protect yourself. Digestion, immune response, and sexual responses decrease because these aren’t very helpful in when you are dealing with a threat. 
  •  Dorsal Vagal Shutdown- Developed 600 million years ago, dorsal vagal state is the oldest and most primal of all states. When the stress becomes overwhelming, we transition from the activated, sympathetic, “I can” state, to a helpless, “I can’t state”. This is where the stressors become too much to handle and we just collapse and give up. This is the point where in the cheeta/gazelle analogy described, the cheetah has caught the gazelle, and its fangs are seconds away from tearing it to pieces. When you are in this Dorsal Vagal response, your body shutdowns, freezes, and numbs out. You feel trapped, stuck, immobile, hopeless, and shameful. This dissociation or “numbing” is there to help ease the pain and prepare for death. Interestingly, however, the physiological response between dorsal vagal and ventral vagal are quite similar. Your heart rate and blood pressure slow down and you become relaxed. However, this relaxation is not a good, recuperative way, but a lethargic, “what’s the point” way.

While these are the three basic responses, it can get more complex as each person in each moment has a unique mixture of these different states, and the body has different coping mechanisms for each one. For example, if you live in a fight or flight state for too long, your body tries to put on the brakes. People may say you seem super chill and easy going, but on the inside you may feel agitated, uneasy, or may have a random outburst of rage. 

Understanding where you live on the chart will help you have self awareness of your nervous system. Tracking yourself throughout the day is a helpful strategy, and the first step to working on your stress. When you know which branch of you are functioning in, you can actively do things that you know will help bring you to a place of roundedness and safety. For example, when you are noticing you’re in fight or flight, you can take slow, deep breaths to try to calm yourself. Alternatively, if you find you are in the dorsal vagal state you can put yourself into a safe environment and get support from friends or a counselor. Trauma releasing exercises will help bring you back to Ventral Vagal regardless of whether you are in Fight or Flight or Freeze. However, if you are in freeze, it is advised to shake with a certified TRE provider or under the supervision of a counselor or psychologist. 

The chart below is a printable sheet you can use to track where on the curve you are throughout the day. Having this awareness makes it possible to step back and observe yourself from an outside, objective, scientific perspective, rather than being entrenched in these feelings of overwhelm. Mindfulness is a proven strategy to help reduce anxiety, and increase feelings of roundedness and joy.