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Can we use polyvagal theory to understand our nervous system?

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

I keep an extremely open mind about polyvagal theory. I use my knowledge of the autonomic nervous system, or ANS, to help clients' regulate their bodies; what follows is a very simplified introduction to polyvagal theory!

CAVEAT - Whilst I am a Hypno-CBT therapist, polyvagal theory is not advocated by the UK College of Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy, where I trained. My polyvagal interest is via supplemental professional training, and continued professional development. The ANS controls our involuntary responses – it’s our survival system. It is concerned with issues of safety and danger.

The ANS has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.

The sympathetic branch regulates the 'flight-or-fight' response - a defensive state, with a 'sympathetic energy' (of, for example, fear or anger) that you can't miss when you're in that state.

The parasympathetic branch is best known for looking after aspects like slowing and regulating our breathing and heart beat, digesting food ('rest and digest'), lowering our defensiveness, and regaining calmness. Again, the 'energy' of this state is clear - at our healthiest, we can rest without feeling fearful, and access joy. But, within the polyvagal theory ethos, the parasympathetic branch also regulates the lesser known 'shutdown' response, giving the 'energy' of numbness, dissociation and low mood.

Polyvagal theory considers that the parasympathetic branch has a social engagement element that keeps us 'safe and social'. It considers that, conversely, the sympathetic branch regulates the 'flight-or-fight' responses, and that we can get 'stuck' in a sympathetic state, due to unhelpful perceptions of safety versus danger. The graphic below is by Justin Sunseri, and shows the primary autonomic nervous system states in black writing, as well as what Dr Stephen Porges, the theory's originator, calls the mixed states, in pink writing.

The parasympathetic part of the ANS is coordinated by the vagus nerve, a superhighway of nerves which starts at the base of the skull, and winds its way down the body to the abdomen.

It has two pathways - the ventral vagal, which responds to cues of social engagement and safety ('safe and social'!), and the dorsal (a reptilian-like, more primitive pathway), which responds to cues of life-threat (shutdown!). This potentially causes us to become numb, and even to disconnect from others.

You can imagine driving your ANS like a car – you can use your gas pedal to accelerate into a heightened, sympathetic zone (utilising 'sympathetic energy'), or slow down with your footbrake into a calmer zone ('safe and social').

The term 'vagal brake' describes this adaptability. Imagine a brake slowing down the heartbeat, or other heightened activity.

"The vagal brake is the influence of the social engagement system on the heart. If the ventral pathways are active, it will keep the heartbeat at a calmer pace. Without the ventral pathways active, heart rate increases about 20 beats per minute," explains Justin Sunseri.

Using a traffic light analogy for the ANS, green is a socially engaged state – you're engaged, and may feel curious and connected. You will have an expressive face, and will freely smile - the ventral vagal nerve is working well in a regulatory fashion. The pre-frontal areas of the brain are engaged, and you can make rational choices. Using the ladder analogy, you're at the top.

Amber is flight or fight (the sympathetic branch) – you may feel angry and confrontational, or panicky and fearful. (Or ready for action, perhaps if you have to quickly save someone from danger). Here, you may experience tight facial muscles and wide eyes, and may experience physical sensations like a tight throat, fidgety legs or a pounding heart. The brain's limbic system is taking charge, and the amygdala is on emotional alert. Using the ladder analogy, you're in the middle.

Red is part of the parasympathetic branch, but this is disengagement - you may feel numb, hopeless or shut down (described as the 'shutdown' stage). People may say that your face seems 'spaced out'. Your brain stem is taking charge and your mood is low. (Sometimes 'amber' and 'red' can combine as a 'mixed state' to produce a 'freeze' state, like the captured antelope that plays dead). Here in shutdown, the 'reptilian', dorsal vagal branch of the parasympathetic element of the ANS has taken control - and we can get 'stuck' here, with a false sense of danger combined with hopelessness.

If you’re heading to the red zone, that’s a big red flag that your nervous system needs some self-care.

To help regulate yourself in all states, you can become more mindful of your breathing, your body's muscle tension, your facial expression and any negative thoughts that can trigger unhelpful responses.

It’s actually really important to learn how to relax and connect to the state you're in, to positively influence your ANS, and help you move up and down the 'polyvagal ladder' (that's pictured above) in a healthy way.

We can help to ‘shift’ our 'stuck' states to something more helpful (and train ourselves to access our social engagement system) by making choices to do things that release energy in the way that’s needed. E.g. walking or running, music, art and creativity, using movement like dance or somatic work, humming, chanting and singing, specific skin tapping, meditation etc can be used as required, depending on the need.

Justin Sunseri has some great suggestions surrounding 'safety anchors' at this site. Please contact me, Kathy Carter, if you would like any cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy sessions relating to creating safety anchors for yourself.

Speaking personally, the implications for the use of polyvagal theory within cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy are immense - phobias, tics and anxiety disorders may for example show up for clients who are stuck in 'flight or fight', and aren't able to regulate the 'rational' element of their minds that comes with their 'safe and social' state. Dysregulation of the body's assessment of safety and danger, as well as internal 'states' - known as 'interoception', within this theory - is skewed.

Kathy Carter

If you’d like more info, please email me on to discuss your queries.

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