Polyvagal Theory: Your Body Will Tell You If You Feel Safe


Our brains and bodies are clever things. They are really good at looking at experiences together and storing them away as memories for future reference. One time, when I was little, a loose dog bit me hard, and that memory got an alarm mechanism attached to it when it was filed away. This alarm, by the way, still works very well today. When I see a dog I don’t know, I am immediately on guard. This is all as it should be. 

There are several kinds of stored memories. Sometimes, a person will experience or witness a terrible event (shock trauma). For others, chronic poverty or abuse, neglect, or physical issues (strain trauma) will create a sensitive alarm system. Others inherit trauma responses from their parents and grandparents. All of these causes our nervous system to develop in less-than-ideal ways, and sometimes, the alarms that get assigned to those memories become problematic. 

Imagine installing a highly sensitive detection system to protect your home. It is so responsive to movement that it will certainly alert you if there is ever an intruder, which is good. But it also goes off whenever a possum crosses your driveway, branches sway in the wind, or if a bird flies by. This is not so good because the alarm causes you to jump to your feet with your fists up every time it goes off, ready to respond to the intruder, even when there is no threat. Your rational brain gets knocked offline. Your family and friends try to tell you everything is okay, but you can’t hear them over the noise of your alarm. They can’t reach you, which is scary and frustrating for them. After a while, you calm down, but you and everyone around you have been disrupted. Life with a sensitive system is unhealthy for everyone.

Read Our Blog: What Does Integrative Psych Mean?

How does the body keep score of this trauma?

The vagus nerve is the largest in our bodies. It starts at the base of our brain and runs down through our chest and abdomen. It is responsible for all the sensations you get when that alarm goes off, like rapid breathing, increased heart rate, and the sick feeling you get in your stomach when you are stressed. It affects social behavior and moods. It makes us freeze or run or fight and is in place to help us avoid bad situations or to get ourselves out of tight spots. While we want it in place, we also need it to work well; otherwise, it can create more distress than anything else.

The vagus nerve sends these signals up and down our bodies collecting information from our organs, and our seven different perception systems, to our brains and our brains send similar signals down to our bodies, organs and systems, signaling either an up or down regulation of our autonomic nervous system. 

Polyvagal theory suggests there are three main nervous system states:


Ventral Vagal State

Ventral Vagal state is activated when we feel safe and connected to others in positive, engaging ways. We are relaxed and open to social interactions.  In our Ventral Vagal state we are able to be creative, learn and communicate clearly.

Sympathetic Vagal State

We slide into our Sympathetic Vagal state when we perceive some threat (either real or imagined) and are mobilizing to respond to it. This is commonly known as fight-or-flight and shows up as aggression, picking fights, or overly critical. People in this state sometimes quit their jobs or abruptly end relationships. Sometimes, they decide to move away. Remember, there doesn’t need to be a threat for someone to behave as if there was one.


Dorsal Vagal State

Dorsal Vagal State is when we are immobilized or frozen. We struggle to respond, to make choices, or to engage. We don’t get excited about anything or feel unmotivated, and our moods stay flat. We withdraw to protect ourselves from pain. In the Dorsal Vagal state, we are not able to learn, communicate effectively, or play. This state can look calm, but in reality, our nervous system has us shut down and numb rather than regulated and calm.

Luckily, people are resilient, and our alarm systems can be readjusted. We can learn to feel more safe. Specific therapies, like EMDR, can effectively alleviate our responses and expand our window of tolerance, meaning how well we manage our emotions to allow for proper functioning in our day-to-day lives. And many everyday, simple practices help rebuild a healthy response system.

Read Our Blog: Why So Many Are Choosing EMDR Therapy

How can I rebuild a healthy response system?

Get active

  • Dance. Really. Just do it.
  • Join a challenging exercise class.
  • Get outside.
  • Create art (Don’t be shy. It doesn’t have to be good). 
  • Go for a brisk jog.
  • Help others.
  • Build something.
  • Lift heavy things.
  • Punch something.

Get calm

  • Breathe deeply, sing, or hum.
  • Stretch or practice yoga.
  • Practice active gratitude.
  • Spend time with a calm, safe person to help you co-regulate. 
  • Do tapping sessions – you can ask us more about the technique.
  • Create a temperature change. Simply splashing cold water on your face and hands can help. 

These are the same techniques we all use for everyday stress relief and to calm ourselves down after a difficult event. They seem natural and manageable, don’t they?

Here at Counterbalance Counseling & Psychiatry, we have our favorites: Sydney sings. Or she gets into really cold water (to each her own). Morgan dances and runs. Pooja exercises and practices yoga. Jen goes hiking nature trails with good friends or gets her hands dirty in the garden. And Carlos….  well, never mind. We’re not sure Carlos ever actually gets upset. 

*As a post-scriptum, it is essential to note that this is a theory, and it has its critics. Despite its imperfections, we at CBCP find it provides a helpful framework for understanding our responses to events as well as the behavior of others.