Have you ever wondered why you react the way you do in certain situations? The Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges provides a fascinating lens through which to understand our complex biological responses. So, what exactly is the Polyvagal Theory? In simple terms, it outlines how the vagus nerve, the longest of the 12 cranial nerves and a critical component of our autonomic nervous system (ANS), influences our responses to stress and shapes our social behavior. The vagus nerve, often referred to as the ‘wandering nerve,’ originates in the brainstem and travels to various organs, including the heart, lungs, and digestive system. Its role extends beyond regulating bodily functions, it also influences our emotional and psychological states. Central to this theory are three core elements that shape the way we interact with our inner and outer world. Let’s have a look.

1) Hierarchy
At the heart of the Polyvagal Theory lies the concept of hierarchy, which outlines three neural circuits from the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that each have physiological, mental and emotional effects in the body. They are the ventral vagus nerve, the dorsal vagus nerve and the sympathetic spinal chain. Depending on our detection of safety or danger, these three circuits lead to a different state of being:

  1. Ventral Vagus – social engagement state: Ability to connect and engage with others
  2. Sympathetic spinal chain – mobilization state: Ability to mobilize, fight or flight when in danger 
  3. Dorsal vagus – immobilization state: Ability to immobilize or play dead when life is in threat
Poly Vagal Theory and Trauma
Afbeelding met tekst, skelet

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

Depending on our stress level and ability to cope with stressors, we shift from feeling safe and connected (social engagement), to fight/flight, and as a last resort into the shutdown mode. Understanding these states helps us comprehend why we react differently in various situations.

2) Neuroception

Our body determines which neural circuit gets activated through the process of neuroception. Neuroception explains how our nervous system instinctively scans for cues of danger or safety in our internal world (body) and external environment (outer world and between relationships) shifting into defensive or safety states. When we neurocept safety, we then engage in prosocial behaviors. And when we neurocept danger, we engage in defensive behaviors like running or fighting. And when we neurocept that our life is in threat, we engage in shutdown behaviors. The more context, choice and connection we perceive with our inner and outer world the safer we feel.

Afbeelding met tekst, Lettertype, ontwerp

Automatisch gegenereerde beschrijving

3) Co-regulation

Finally, we arrive at the third cornerstone of the polyvagal theory: co-regulation. As mammals, we are hardwired for social connection, and within these interactions, a fascinating and subconscious process takes place, known as co-regulation. When our own nervous system reaches a state of safety and connection, we unconsciously help others to come into a safe and connected state through resonance1 and mirroring2. When individuals co-regulate, their physiological states, including heart rate, respiration, and emotional arousal, become synchronized. This synchronization often occurs through nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, touch, and even shared experiences. This idea of co-regulation explains why interactions with some people can either soothe us and make us feel safe or lead us to experience increased stress and anxiety. In conclusion, co-regulation plays a crucial role in maintaining healthy relationships, promoting resilience, and contributing to overall social and emotional health.

In conclusion, the Polyvagal Theory introduces us to the complex connections between our physiological responses and our mental well-being. By understanding how the vagus nerve influences our stress responses and social behavior, we can implement practical strategies to cultivate a healthy vagal response. In the upcoming blogpost about the Polyvagal Theory – Part 2, we will explore proactive steps we can take to unlock the potential for a healthier mind-body connection and improve our overall well-being.


  1. https://www.justinlmft.com/polyvagalintro
  2. https://www.justinlmft.com/_files/ugd/2d354d_184ae4b3284040008323217c32f7551b.pdf
  3. https://www.traumageek.com/blog/evolution-of-a-theory-polyvagal-is-not-dead
  4. https://amsmedicine.com/polyvagal-theory-advancing-the-understanding-of-the-autonomic-nervous-system-in-medicine/#:~:text=It%20refers%20to%20the%20reciprocal,well%2Dbeing%20and%20emotional%20connection.
  1.  Bio-electric rhythm matching via heart-brain magnetic field ↩︎
  2.  Activation of mirror neurons in the brain that let you mirror others ↩︎