Polyvagal Theory: A Simplified Explanation

Dr Stephen W. Porges, author of “The Polyvagal Theory” (PVT), examines how different parts of the nervous system respond to stressful situations. The name makes reference to the vagus nerve (vagal meaning ‘wandering’) that runs from the neck down to the abdomen. It transmits signals between our brain and various organs in the body.

The PVT hypothesises that by better understanding the functions of our vagus nerve we are able to understand why and how we respond to high levels of stress. It teaches us to use this knowledge to regulate emotions.

When applying the Polyvagal Theory, therapists can help their clients:

  • notice and appreciate the constant communication between the body and the brain
  • understand how trauma lives on in the body
  • gain insight how chronic stress can lead to extreme emotions or to total emotional shut down

In essence, this approach works from the position that the body feels everything first through sensations. Then these get translated into emotions. The next phase of this process is when we form thoughts in order to make sense of our emotions.

Our non-stressed body

When not in stressful situations, in other words when our brain detects no threat, the nervous system is calm. Hence we feel safe to socially engage. Our emotions are stable, we are optimistic, we enjoy our daily lives unafraid, trusting and connected. 

In this state we feel a natural curiosity, happiness, and playfulness. As a result we can sleep and eat normally. Our nervous system is in the healing, restorative ’rest-and-digest’ mode. 

Stress and the sympathetic nervous system response

Our brain constantly checks whether we are safe or not. The immediate response to threat or danger activates the sympathetic nervous system which in turn sets up a defence mechanism. It is what causes the ‘fight or flight’ response that we’ve probably all heard about.

Being in the hyper-alert state manifests in many ways, some of which we have all experienced at some point, including: rapid increase in heartbeat, short and shallow breathing, increased sweating, tightening of muscles or feeling nauseous.

Our bodies release cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones to help us retreat from the situation, or fight. Furthermore, our gestures might show signs of defence – clenched fists, crossed arms, standing up taller or hunched.

Shutdown – the last line of defence

If the ‘flight or fight’ response is not going to help our escape or survival, our brain switches to the most primal defence that we are not consciously aware of: ‘freezing’. Think of fainting or passing out when facing extreme threat. We call this primal response, coming from the most ancient (reptilian) part of our brain, ‘protection through disappearing’. Only after our safety is restored do we recall that we froze, unable to move, lost for words and logical thoughts or fainted.

Immobilisation is the ultimate resource our brain utilises to help us survive when ‘fight or flight’ (or mobilisation) is deemed futile. Shutdown can manifest in many ways and, when triggered, can keep recurring and we can get stuck in a cycle:

  • Emotional dissociation, dizziness, hopelessness, numbness
  • Despair and depression
  • Eyes fixed or unfocussed, inability to move
  • Difficulty in thinking and getting our words out
  • Wanting to withdraw from society, feeling lost, ashamed, worthless

The experience of trauma which triggers the body’s shutdown response can negatively impact us for a very long time. We may have flashbacks or nightmares and can end up in a state of disconnect again and again.

Overcoming shutdown

Dr Stephen W. Porges describes trauma as chronic disruption in connectedness. He explains that it is impossible to live joyfully and engage with people when feeling unsafe. Trauma-sensitive counselling can be vital for clients to identify the resources they have to stabilise their emotional states and restore safety.

By building a trust-based relationship with you, and using the Polyvagal Theory, your therapist will understand how and why a shutdown unfolds. They will be able to guide you towards re-establishing safety and a willingness to seek social engagement. Because our nervous system is shaped and regulated through interactions with others, these aspects are key in helping you.

It is also important to understand that your emotional response is a natural reaction, away from conscious control. So if you have anger, your therapist will help move you from feeling threatened to access safety and appropriate social support.

Your therapist may recommend complimentary embodied practices such as Qi gong, yoga, martial arts training, or breathing exercises. These will contribute to empowering you, install strengths and build resilience.

Swan Counselling at Peregian Springs

Anita Balogh of Swan Counselling believes that understanding the Polyvagal Theory is fundamental in recovering from trauma, attachment injuries and/or addictions. She uses it to underpin her trauma-sensitive, ‘bottom-up’ approach in individual therapy, relationships counselling and resilient grieving therapy in a safe and comfortable environment in Peregian Springs on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast.

To arrange an appointment with Anita, contact her today.


Connect with Anita Balogh - Swan Counselling

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30 Lakeside Dr, Peregian Springs QLD 4573

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