Polyvagal Theory: Getting Back to Safe and Social

Understand your body’s response to threat and stress and get control of your nervous system

As part of adding to my repertoire as a wellness educator and counsellor, I am learning about the polyvagal theory, a framework that expands upon the scientific understanding of the body’s defensive systems. “Fight or flight” mode describes our bodies responding to danger by gearing up to kick, head butt, bite or punch — or just frickin run. I observed it in action daily in my work in a youth homeless shelter. Most of the youth I worked with had PTSD and were quick to fight or fly, stress hormones flooding their systems and the limbic system activating their will to survive.

The limbic system functions with our autonomic nervous system to create emotions in response to stimulus. Dr. Stephen Porges theorizes that the autonomic nervous system is involved in our responses to threat and safety in complex ways, and his interest is in the vagus nerve. Porges posits that the ventral vagal parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, and the dorsal vagal parasympathetic nervous system all have their roles to play. As therapist/educator Justin Sunseri discusses, in the parasympathetic or ventral vagal state, we are “safe and social” and able to “rest and digest.” When functioning well, the ventral vagus nerve helps us produce the tones, facial expressions and listening skills needed for socializing. In addition, with breath and heart regulated, the vagal nervous system can now spare attention to digestion and other functions.

In “fight or flight” mode, the sympathetic nervous system takes over to protect us from threat. The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol pump out of the sympathetic nervous system. We are activated, alert, heart rate quickening, blood pressure up, and our blood is sent to our muscles. In this state, we may argue, yell, get physical. Or, we may back up to make space for ourselves, leave the room, hit the gas, or run.

If we are unable to defend ourselves through fight/flight, then our body moves into “shut down” mode, in which the dorsal vagal parasympathetic system takes over. The dorsal vagal shuts down communication between the body and the brain, but if an opportunity to fight or flight re-emerges, our sympathetic nervous system can kick back in. We numb, disassociate, immobilize, or perhaps faint. For example, during a sexual assault, many people automatically mentally “check out,” resulting in not being fully aware of the violence happening to them. Some people will automatically go into “shut down” mode even if perhaps there is some opportunity to fight or flight. Fear just takes over, causing your body to trip into one protective mode or the other.

In a mixed polyvagal state, there is also the “freeze” mode. This happens when the sympathetic “flight” energy has nowhere to go, and at the same time, the dorsal nerves activates with the instinct to immobilize. “Freeze” looks a lot like “shut down” mode — but you would have the fast heart rate and muscle tension of the sympathetic state. This is basically my mode when learning to drive — I would love to run out of the car, but I can’t, so my brain goes into freeze mode. My hands clenched on the wheel, I tell my body, “press the accelerator,” but my body doesn’t listen.

Being in hyper or hypoaroused states isn’t inherently bad, nor does it always mean that we are under threat. Arousal feels good, from the mild pleasure of the taste of a strawberry, to sex, to a thrilling risk-taking activity such as rock-climbing. Play can put us in a state that mixes the ventral state and the sympathetic state, but if the risk surpasses our tolerance, we will move into the sympathetic state. Yoga, meditation, and similar practices that produce internal stillness can move us into “shut down,” our breath and heartbeat slowing, our body and mind relaxing.

Through the lens of the polyvagal theory, many mental illnesses can be seen as the body getting stuck in these fight, flight, freeze or shut down modes. In depression, we’re shut down. In anxiety or stress, we’re in our sympathetic state. Our sense of “danger” can be either real or imagined, and can produce the same physical response. Folks with PTSD, like the youth I worked with in homeless shelters, are going about their lives on high alert. They are tense, with nervous systems overtaxed by trying to constantly evaluate and respond to internal and external threats. Constantly on guard or at the precipice of overwhelm, it may not take much for them to go into fight, flight, or shut down/freeze.

Photo Credit: Tamonga Nature Park

DEER VERSUS FEAR

The following story describes the different states produced by the vagus nerve via a scene visualizing deer under threat.

VENTRAL VAGAL PARASYMPATHETIC/SAFE AND SOCIAL

Imagine a herd of deer in a field on a mild summer’s day. They’re safe and social; resting and digesting. They’re moving slowly, with subtle movements of their ears showing some attunement to their surroundings. They graze. Some are sitting, soaking up the sun. The young ones play.

SYMPATHETIC/ FIGHT OR FLIGHT

One deer looks up. Her nose flares, and her ears move as they catch a sound nearby. The other deer pick up on her nervous energy, and listen too. The babies stop playing and the sitting deer stand up. The herd appears skittish, and if you look closely, you can see some muscle tension because they are preparing to run. They smell the predator, but perhaps they don’t know where it is, because they don’t move yet. Suddenly, three wolves burst out of the forest. The deer run. FLIGHT.

DORSAL VAGAL PARASYMPATHETIC STATE/SHUT DOWN

A slower deer is caught. She puts up a fight for a few seconds, still in the sympathetic state. But a wolf clamps her teeth around the deer’s neck. The deer’s body goes limp. She is alive, but she has moved into shut down mode. Her heart rate has slowed. She is numb, disassociated. Her nervous system is no longer giving her brain information about pain or distress. She dies.

MIXED POLYVAGAL STATE (sympathetic and 2nd parasympathetic)

Okay, now instead of the wolf pack, imagine the threat is human. Two trucks speed up from opposite directions, with loud motors and bright lights. People jump out with portable fencing. A few deer get away, but the rest are trapped by the fences. They continue to run from a barrier on one side to the barrier on the other. Realizing there’s nowhere to go, they stop. They become very still, but their muscles are still tense and there’s fear in their eyes. Because they couldn’t run away, they went into freeze mode. They are literally trapped and also the fear is locked in their bodies. It will take a long time of no further action by the humans for them to be like, “Okay I guess we’re safe??” and return to grazing.

RETURN TO PARASYMPATHETIC/VENTRAL/SOCIAL STATE

Now let’s imagine the escaped deer. What do they do? After reaching safety, their hearts are beating fast and their muscles are tense from the fear and the run. They huddle, feeling the safety in numbers and closeness. Their bodies tremble — an automatic nervous system response that releases the fear. The stress hormones dissipate. Soon, they see they are no longer in danger, and they can now recover, rest and digest.

APPLICATION OF POLYVAGAL THEORY

This theory is useful firstly because it allows people with trauma to understand what our body does to protect us. With this knowledge, people with PTSD are often able to forgive themselves and to understand why they continue to experience so much activation and/or dissociation. Secondly, learners realize that we can assert control over our nervous systems, helping ourselves complete defensive cycles and move back into our ventral, social state.

One of the key findings in Porges’ research is the importance of co-regulation, which has application in therapy and in our daily interactions. As social beings, connection helps us get back into our ventral “safe and social” state. Porges says, “When we become a polyvagal-informed society, we’re functionally capable of listening to and witnessing other people’s experiences; we don’t evaluate them.” For those wanting others to feel safe with you, think through how you communicate safety. Some key examples are keeping people informed of what will happen, showing coherent expressions on your face, managing your tone and body posture, being genuine and friendly, avoiding judgement, and respecting boundaries.

I love this video of scared young orangutans clinging to each other. When I saw it, I laughed and thought, “Fight, flight and . . . Hug?” But really the hug is the coping strategy for the fear. They are likely in freeze mode, seeking co-regulation — or maybe they’re in “flight” to the nearby, relative safety of each other’s arms (ever gripped your friend in a haunted house?). Never underestimate the power of a consensual hug!

For those wanting to get out of over-excitement, irritability, or anxiety (hyperarousal), do something calm and relaxing. Some examples are lying under a weighted blanket, meditation, yoga, or a walk in the forest. For someone feeling numb (hypoarousal), use a form of stimulation from any of the five senses: smell mint, touch the fur of your pet, listen to music, watch people walk by, mindfully eat an orange. Body movement and social connection can be useful for both hyperarousal and hypoarousal. For example, Jane Clapp teaches her students to move their bodies to help their sympathetic nervous systems complete their cycles. It can be any type of movement, even a fine motor skills exercise such as tying or untying knots. Imitating the trembling of the escaped deer, one strategy is to purposely shake our bodies until we feel a bit more relaxed.

Social connection, play and relaxation can increase our window of tolerance to stress — allowing people, for example, to function well in high-stress work environments. The more we feel safe internally and externally, the more resilience we have when faced with threat. The corona virus and climate change crises are pressuring our nervous systems, and demand our resilience. It is comforting to know that our bodies automatically protect us, and that we can prepare for and recover from threat through co-regulation and self-regulation of our nervous systems.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly. audreybatterham.com.

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