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…