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Polyvagal Theory a Simplified Overview

Updated: Apr 4

Polyvagal Theory:

The Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, provides a framework for understanding the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its role in regulating our body's responses to stress, safety, and social engagement. The ANS is like the body's autopilot system, controlling functions we don't consciously think about, such as heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate.

Autonomic Nervous System (ANS):

The ANS has two main branches, often referred to as the "fight-or-flight" and "rest-and-digest" systems:

  1. Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS - Fight-or-Flight):

  • Activation: When the body perceives a threat or stress, the SNS kicks in. It increases heart rate, dilates pupils, and redirects blood flow to essential muscles, preparing the body for action.

  • Role: This system is crucial for responding to immediate danger, helping us survive challenging situations.

  1. Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS - Rest-and-Digest):

  • Activation: When the body is in a relaxed state and feels safe, the PNS dominates. It slows the heart rate, promotes digestion, and conserves energy.

  • Role: This system supports recovery, growth, and restoration. It's active when we're at rest and feeling secure.

Dr. Porges expanded on this model by introducing the third branch, known as the "Social Engagement System."

  1. Social Engagement System (SES):

  • Activation: This system is engaged when we feel safe, connected, and social. It involves facial expressions, vocalizations, and other behaviors that facilitate communication and bonding.

  • Role: The SES promotes social interaction and fosters a sense of safety within relationships.

Polyvagal Theory Simplified:

The Polyvagal Theory suggests that our body doesn't just switch between the SNS and PNS; it adapts based on our perception of safety. When we feel safe, the Social Engagement System takes charge. If we perceive a threat, the body may first activate the SES to seek support and only resort to the SNS if the threat persists. If the SNS doesn't resolve the threat, the body may shut down into a state of immobilization (like playing dead).

Woman giving herself a hug.

Exercises to Regulate Vagal Tone:

  1. Deep Belly Breathing:

  • Exercise: Inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your diaphragm and allowing your belly to rise. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Focus on making your exhale longer than your inhale.

  • Explanation: Deep diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, promoting a shift toward the rest-and-digest state.

  1. Humming or Singing:

  • Exercise: Hum or sing your favorite tune, feeling the vibration in your chest. Aim for slow, steady humming or singing.

  • Explanation: The vibrations from humming stimulate the vagus nerve and can enhance relaxation.

  1. Self-Soothing Touch:

  • Exercise: Gently massage your neck, shoulders, or the area below your collarbone using your fingertips. Alternatively, give yourself a comforting hug.

  • Explanation: Gentle touch activates the vagus nerve, signaling safety and promoting a calming effect.

These exercises encourage activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, fostering a sense of safety and relaxation. Regular practice can contribute to overall well-being by promoting a balanced autonomic nervous system response.

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