Three organising principles of polyvagal theory

a chestnut and a black horse nuzzle each other in the foreground of a grassy plain. There are hills in the distance and a small patch of snow in the foreground.

June 16, 2021

Polyvagal theory describes how our nervous system works hard to help us to connect with others, to keep us safe, and to protect us against threat. Many are familiar with terms such as fight, flight and freeze. However this is only part of the picture. This article unpacks three organising principles of polyvagal theory that help to make it accessible, understandable and easy to translate into daily life.

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Polyvagal theory describes the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to attend some sessions at the Online International Child Trauma Symposium. On the first day the wonderful Deb Dana spoke - what a font of wisdom, compassion and practical know-how she is!

Dana, a social worker in the US, is well known for her ability to translate the complex neurobiology of Polyvagal Theory, conceptualised by Stephen Porges, into accessible and relatable gems of support for everyday. In fact, they've teamed up and created the Polyvagal Institute to help spread the 'art and science of human connection' that is polyvagal theory.

What is Polyvagal Theory? ​

Polyvagal Theory (PVT) describes the evolution of mammalian nervous systems to connect, feel safe and loved in relationship, and respond without thinking to real or perceived threat in order to survive.

The vagus nerve is the longest autonomic nerve in the human body. Connected from the brain to the nerves of the face, the heart, the lungs and the key organs all the way down to our digestion, the functioning of the vagus nerve, is central to

  • connecting our minds and bodies
  • how we find safe connection in relationship with others
  • how we brace to protect ourselves through fight, flight, freeze or shut down.

Three organising principles

The purpose of this post is not to go into the detail of the neurobiology of PVT but to explore what Dana calls the three organising principles of PVT:

  • hierarchy
  • neuroception and
  • co-regulation.

1. Hierarchy

Our nervous systems are wired to help us to connect and survive.

PVT describes a three-tiered hierarchy of nervous system states:

  • Connection:

We feel safe and seek out connection for comfort and companionship. We feel at ease and relaxed.

  • Mobilisation:

A high energy state where our bodies mobilise to get ready to fight or flee from real or perceived danger. We feel agitated, on edge, our heartbeat races, we may get hot and flushed and our muscles are tense, ready to spring into action.

  • Disconnection:

A low energy state where we may feel flat and lethargic. We may withdraw, become small, try to disappear, or in extreme cases go into a state of shut down.

This hierarchy shows that when faced with threat, we will initially reach out to connect with others for safety.

If this is not an option, we go into a mobilised state of fight or flight to protect ourselves.

When fight or flight will not alleviate the danger, our body goes into a state of shut down in order to protect us.

You may have seen a mouse ‘play dead’ when a cat approaches, in the hope that the cat will assume it is already dead, and then spring into action to run away when the cat has passed?

This is the shutdown response.

2. Neuroception

Neuroception is our nervous system’s ability to respond to signals of warning or welcome, out of our conscious awareness. Dana conceptualises three ways that the nervous systems explores and decides whether we should move into connection or protection:

  • Inside us – the body’s internal sensations and cues
  • Outside – what is happening in the environment around us
  • Between – ourselves and another person (ie. two nervous systems); in relationship

3. Co-regulation

We are wired to be in connection with others.

Before we can self regulate we need many repetitions of co-regulation. And even then, because neuroception occurs outside of conscious awareness, we often need what Dana calls “an organising other” to help us to return to a state of safety and connection. Then we are more able to bring our conscious awareness to our neuroception in order to support ourselves.

So, why does any of this matter?

Our neuroception is always assessing whether or not we are safe. Because this happens all the time, out of our conscious awareness, we don’t always know why we might react in certain ways.

It’s always helpful to know if we’re feeling safe or not. Sometimes it’s very subtle, and can be quite tricky! But, if we are able to tune into our feelings and sensations, this helps to increase our awareness. If you are interested in some way that you can tune in to your body, you can see this post from last month: What's the body got to do with it?

The more aware we are of our internal states, the more we are able to seek the support we need from

  • ourselves
  • another with whom we can be vulnerable and safely co-regulate

This is not only true for humans but for all mammals - the horses pictured clearly feel safe and connected.

It is our responsibility to tune into what happens in our own nervous system… and to be curious about what is happening in another.

Related Resources

Header image: Claire Nolan