Polyvagal Theory

Kate Bartlett
3 Jan 2023
2 min read

The polyvagal theory is a theory of emotion and behaviour developed by Stephen Porges. It is based on the idea that the autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a crucial role in regulating emotions, behaviour, and social interactions.

According to the polyvagal theory, the ANS comprises three branches: the sympathetic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the ventral vagal complex. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight or flight” response, which activates the body’s stress response and prepares it to respond to perceived threats. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “rest and digest” response, which promotes relaxation and recovery. The ventral vagal complex is responsible for social engagement and connection, activated when we feel safe and secure.

The polyvagal theory suggests how our environment and social interactions influence the ANS functions and that it can significantly impact our emotions and behaviours. According to the theory, when we feel safe and secure, the ventral vagal complex is activated, which promotes social engagement and connection. However, when we feel threatened or unsafe, the sympathetic nervous system or the parasympathetic nervous system may be activated, depending on the nature of the threat, which can lead to stress and other negative emotions.

The polyvagal theory has been used to understand and treat various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and trauma-related disorders.