Understanding Polyvagal Theory

In the ever-evolving field of psychology, new theories and approaches frequently emerge to help us better understand the complex workings of the human mind and body. One such idea that has gained significant attention and recognition in recent years is Polyvagal Theory. Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, this theory offers insights into the ways our autonomic nervous system influences our mental and emotional well-being. 

The basics of Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory is a framework that helps us comprehend the relationship between our autonomic nervous system and our psychological experiences. It centers around the concept of the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve responsible for regulating various bodily functions, including heart rate, digestion, and facial expressions. Dr. Porges proposes that the vagus nerve plays a crucial role in our emotional and social responses.

The theory outlines three interconnected branches of the vagus nerve- the ventral vagus, the sympathetic nervous system and the dorsal vagus.

The ventral vagus

This branch is associated with feeling calm and connected to others. When the ventral vagus is active, we are more likely to experience feelings of safety, connection and well-being. We are able to think clearly in this state.

The sympathetic nervous system

Known as the fight-or-flight response, this system is activated when we perceive a threat or danger. It prepares the body to respond to stressful situations by increasing heart rate, dilating pupils and diverting resources away from non-essential functions (often leaving you with nausea). Due to the fast pace of our lives, many people function in this space. This may show up in our lives in many ways, including anxiety, difficulty sleeping, relationship difficulties or feeling a need to be in control.

The dorsal vagus

This branch is linked to the immobilization response, which occurs when we perceive extreme danger or helplessness. Activation of the dorsal vagus can lead to feelings of dissociation or shutdown. Some people describe this as feeling ‘like a deer in the headlights’.

Polyvagal Theory in practice

Regulating emotional responses

When we can identify which stage of autonomic arousal our body is in, we can self-regulate better. For example, we can recognise that a feeling of panic means we are in a state of sympathetic activation and we need to focus on breath control, yoga or mindfulness. If we notice feelings of being zoned out, or in a dorsal vagal state, we might need to bring movement to our body.

Enhancing social connection

The theory highlights the importance of building and maintaining healthy social connections, as these stimulate the ventral vagus, promoting emotional well-being.


When we understand polyvagal theory, we can respond appropriately to our own and others’ levels of distress. For example, trying to rationalise with a child having a tantrum is unlikely to be helpful, as the child can’t utilise their higher order brain functions. Instead we need to focus on co-regulation through hugs, guided breath work and empathy before discussing behaviour infractions. This is also true for fighting with our partners or loved ones at times of sympathetic activation. Although at times you might just want to prove how you’re right and they are wrong, this is unlikely to be helpful. Instead, we need to self regulate so that we can have more meaningful and connective conversations.

Written by Sarah Hollingworth, Senior Clinical Psychologist


More information

If you would like to know more about how polyvagal theory and practices might be helpful for you, or to book an appointment with Sarah Hollingworth, or another one of our experienced clinical psychologists, contact our friendly client team by calling 6143 4499 or email via our contact page.

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