- Brooke Gibson, LCSW
Finding Safety and Connection with Polyvagal Theory
A solid portion of my clients know that I tend to geek out when we discuss Polyvagal Theory and the autonomic nervous system (ANS). When I was first introduced to polyvagal theory, everything about the body’s response to stressors, conscious or subconscious, suddenly began to make sense. I want to highlight that what is shared here is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Polyvagal Theory, but I hope this introduction resonates with you and creates a spark to know more.
In 1994, Dr. Stephen Porges presented his work on Polyvagal Theory which defines the ways the ANS reacts to experiences and regulates responses. Through neuroception, a term created by Porges, our ANS is scanning without awareness for cues of safety as well as danger - internally, in our environment, and when we’re with others.
In order to find safety, our ANS craves context, choice, and connection. However, if one of these is missing, the ANS begins to prepare for protection. When we’re born, we lack the ability to self-soothe and depend on our caregiver(s) to help us regulate our emotions over and over through co-regulation until we establish the neural architecture we need to be able to soothe ourselves. Co-regulation is the foundation of autonomic regulation and remains a lifelong need.
The ANS is organized into a hierarchy of three response states - ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal. Neuroception often activates in response to events from our past which leads to changes in autonomic states, emotions, behaviors, and stories.
Ventral vagal is at the top of the hierarchy. This is the state of safety and connection. All is well in the world. We’re able to communicate, co-regulate, and connect with others.
When our neuroception detects a sense of unease or danger, we move down one step into the mobilization of the sympathetic nervous system - more commonly known as fight or flight. In sympathetic, our cognitive abilities decrease and our bodies flood with cortisol and adrenaline.
If the sympathetic response doesn’t resolve the issue, the autonomic response moves to the bottom of the hierarchy into the dorsal vagal. Our neuroception has detected a life-threat. In this state, we tend to shut down, isolate, dissociate, and “freeze.” We present with a flat affect, poor eye contact, and avoid social engagement with others.
In order to return to the ventral vagal state from the dorsal vagal, we have to safely move through the sympathetic nervous system. When the ANS has been shaped in an unsafe environment, it is common for people to overreact (hypervigilance) or underreact. Individuals can display a bias toward protection and survival rather than connection and social engagement.
Clinically, the goal isn’t to always be in a ventral vagal state but to be able to navigate up and down the hierarchy in a flexible manner. The benefits of autonomic flexibility include: reduced inflammation, emotion regulation, stress resilience, ability to inhibit distractions, increased compassion, and more. However, maintaining autonomic rigidity can result in the following risks: impaired immune functioning, inflammatory diseases, digestive problems, respiratory problems, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, and more.
The ability to recognize and regulate your autonomic state are fundamental to success in therapy and in safely navigating daily life. By bringing our awareness to the consequences of neuroception and making the implicit autonomic experience explicit, the autonomic response can be mapped, tracked, and shaped. If this information excites or makes you curious to learn more, I encourage you to ask your therapist or seek out a mental health professional, so you can dive deeper and learn how to regulate your autonomic response.