Safety Resources


Welcome to Polyvagal Safety Resources! We believe that creating a sense of safety is the cornerstone of healing, and our goal is to make this space accessible and informative for everyone.Our content is designed to guide you through compassionate learning while exploring the diverse applications of Polyvagal Theory. So, take your time, see what resonates with you, and remember – this website is here for you! Enjoy your journey!Resources
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Understanding the Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is part of the nervous system that regulates involuntary processes such as blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, digestion, body temperature, and sexual response [7]. It goes to the internal organs and various glands, and helps maintain balance in the body. It has two distinct divisions: the parasympathetic and the sympathetic.

The ANS receives information about the body and the external environment. If danger is sensed the sympathetic division is activated, and if safety is sensed the parasympathetic division is activated [16].


What is the Vagus Nerve?

The vagus nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve, is a large, bilateral nerve that plays a critical role in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) [10][1]. It is the longest and most complex of the cranial nerves and has both sensory and motor functions. The vagus nerve connects the brainstem to various organs and systems, including the heart, lungs, digestive system, and other internal organs. It is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system.

In the context of the autonomic nervous system states, the vagus nerve has two primary branches, each with distinct functions:

  • VVC(The ventral vagal complex)

    This branch is associated with the social engagement system, which is the most evolved part of our nervous system [13]. The VVC is involved in regulating functions such as facial expression, vocalization, and social communication, as well as controlling the heart and lungs. When our nervous system perceives safety, the VVC is activated, promoting feelings of calm, relaxation, and social connection.

  • DVC(The dorsal vagal complex)

    This branch is associated with the immobilization response, or the freeze and shut down state [13]. The DVC controls functions related to digestion, such as peristalsis and the secretion of digestive enzymes. When our nervous system perceives extreme threat or overwhelming stress, the DVC is activated, leading to a decrease in heart rate, shallow breathing, and feelings of dissociation or numbness.

In addition to these branches, the vagus nerve also interacts with the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the mobilization or fight-or-flight response [13]. When our nervous system perceives a moderate threat or challenge, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, increasing heart rate, respiration, and preparing the body for action.

Overall, the vagus nerve plays a crucial role in regulating the autonomic nervous system states by:

  • Promoting social engagement and feelings of safety through the activation of the ventral vagal complex.
  • Initiating the immobilization response when the nervous system perceives extreme threat or stress through the activation of the dorsal vagal complex.
  • Interacting with the sympathetic nervous system to regulate the fight-or-flight response when the nervous system perceives moderate threat or challenge (mobilization) [1].

By understanding the functions of the vagus nerve and its role in the autonomic nervous system states, mental health practitioners and researchers can develop more effective interventions and strategies to support emotional regulation and overall well-being.

What is Polyvagal theory?

Polyvagal theory is a framework through which to understand how our autonomic nervous system’s overarching function of keeping us safe profoundly affects our day to day experience. How safe or unsafe we feel moment to moment changes our reactions, thoughts and behavior, and how our body functions [9].

Polyvagal theory has 3 foundational principles:

  • HierarchyWe move between the 3 nervous system states in a predictable order: VVC to sympathetic to DVC and vice versa, so to go from DVC to VVC a person has to move through sympathetic activation.
  • NeuroceptionWe are constantly scanning our internal and external environments for cues of danger and safety. When we pick up cues of danger, we move into a state of mobilization, when we pick up cues of safety we move into a state of safety and connection.
  • Co-regulationThe most effective way for someone’s nervous system to come back into a state of safety is through connection to a regulated other. We find safety (and therefore regulation) in sociality [2].

When our VVC is activated, we feel safe and we can connect to others and ourselves. Our resources are mobilized towards connection and growth. Being in this state is often referred to as having a regulated nervous system.

When something threatens this safety our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we move into a state of mobilization. This is also known as fight or flight.

When the state of fight or flight gets overwhelmed, like we can’t defeat or escape the threat, our DVC is activated and we move into a state of immobilization or shutdown.

polyvagal theory diagram

Being in a state of sympathetic activation or DVC activation is often referred to as having a dysregulated nervous system. When we are in a dysregulated state our body’s resources are utilized for self-protection, versus connection, growth, learning, or repair.

Ideally, we want to spend most of our time in the state of safety and connection, moving into and out of mobilization and shutdown when needed. A healthy autonomic nervous system is not one that is calm all the time; it is one that can respond and move appropriately.

We experience persistent physical stress and are at a higher risk of developing physical and mental illness if we stay in a dysregulated state for a prolonged period of time [9].

Finding regulation within our nervous systems is often complicated for those of us who have had unsafe experiences with other people, especially if those people were caregivers or loved ones during early life or as an adolescent. Developmental trauma causes changes in the brain that may lead to a hypersensitivity to danger and a reduced ability to come back to a sense of safety due to having difficulty with coregulation [2][8].

Our autonomic nervous system is “shaped by our early experiences and reshaped by ongoing experiences” [2]. We learnt to react the way we do based on our past experiences, and we can learn new ways to react. Our nervous system learns by experience, not by being told. To change the way we react and experience our lives, we need to make choices that show our nervous system that we are safe. Through this we can renegotiate adverse life experiences. This isn’t a quick process; it is an ongoing way of interacting with the world and ourselves [2][8][9].

Why is Polyvagal Theory important in the mental health field?

  1. 1

    Enhances understanding of the nervous system

    Polyvagal theory provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the functioning of the autonomic nervous system, which plays a significant role in emotional regulation and stress response [3]. This knowledge allows mental health professionals to better understand the physiological basis of their clients' emotional experiences and behaviors.

  2. 2

    Informs trauma-informed care

    Polyvagal theory helps explain the physiological and emotional reactions associated with trauma, including hyperarousal, dissociation, and difficulties in emotional regulation. By understanding these reactions, mental health practitioners can develop more effective, trauma-informed interventions to support clients in their healing process.

  3. 3

    Supports emotional regulation strategies

    Polyvagal theory highlights the importance of the social engagement system and its role in promoting emotional regulation and feelings of safety. Mental health professionals can use this knowledge to help clients develop skills and strategies to engage their social engagement system, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and social connection, which can lead to improved emotional regulation and mental health.

  4. 4

    Facilitates the mind-body connection

    Polyvagal theory emphasizes the interconnectedness of the mind and body and how physiological states can impact mental health [9]. This understanding allows mental health professionals to integrate somatic and body-based interventions into their therapeutic work, addressing both the psychological and physiological components of mental health issues.

  5. 5

    Enhances therapeutic relationships

    Understanding polyvagal theory can help mental health practitioners be more attuned to their clients' nonverbal cues and physiological states [11]. This increased sensitivity can foster a stronger therapeutic alliance, as the practitioner can better empathize with the client's experiences and adjust their approach accordingly.

  6. 6

    Empowering clients with self-awareness and self-regulation tools

    When clients have an understanding of polyvagal theory, they can better recognize the connection between their physiological states and emotional experiences. This knowledge can empower clients to take an active role in their healing process, as they become more aware of their body's signals and develop strategies to regulate their nervous system. By understanding how their autonomic nervous system functions and how it impacts their emotions and behaviors, clients can develop a greater sense of control, self-compassion, and resilience in managing their mental health challenges [12]. This awareness can also enhance clients' ability to communicate their needs and experiences with their mental health practitioners, fostering a stronger therapeutic alliance and more effective treatment outcomes.

  7. 7

    Promotes self-care for practitioners

    Mental health professionals are not immune to the effects of stress and trauma. By understanding polyvagal theory, practitioners can develop self-care strategies that support their own emotional regulation and resilience, contributing to their overall well-being and ability to provide effective care for their clients.

How does Polyvagal Theory reframe our understanding of behaviour?

Polyvagal theory reframes our understanding of behavior by emphasizing the role of the autonomic nervous system in shaping our emotional and behavioral responses. This perspective shifts the focus from viewing behaviors as conscious choices or simply learned responses to recognizing the underlying physiological processes that drive them. Here are some key ways polyvagal theory reframes our understanding of behavior:

  1. 1

    Viewing behavior through a neurophysiological lens

    Polyvagal theory highlights the role of the autonomic nervous system, specifically the vagus nerve, in regulating our emotional and behavioral responses. This approach places greater emphasis on the biological basis of behavior, rather than solely attributing it to cognitive or environmental factors.

  2. 2

    Recognizing adaptive responses

    The theory suggests that our nervous system has evolved to respond adaptively to different situations, with three primary response states: social engagement, mobilization (fight or flight), and immobilization (freeze or shut down). Each response is adaptive in certain contexts, and understanding this can help reframe behaviors as attempts to maintain safety and homeostasis, rather than merely being problematic or maladaptive.

  3. 3

    Emphasizing the importance of safety

    Polyvagal theory points out that our nervous system constantly assesses the environment for cues of safety or threat. Our behavioral responses are shaped by this ongoing evaluation, with a primary goal of ensuring our survival and well-being. This perspective can lead to greater empathy and understanding of why individuals may engage in certain behaviors, as they are often attempts to establish a sense of safety and security.

  4. 4

    Understanding the role of social engagement

    The social engagement system, as described by polyvagal theory, plays a crucial role in emotional regulation and the development of healthy attachment. This system helps us communicate and connect with others, which is essential for our well-being. Recognizing the importance of social engagement can reframe our understanding of behaviors related to attachment, communication, and emotional regulation.

  5. 5

    Appreciating individual differences in nervous system functioning

    Polyvagal theory acknowledges that individual differences in nervous system functioning can lead to diverse emotional and behavioral responses. This understanding can promote greater compassion and empathy for individuals who may experience difficulties in emotional regulation or social connection due to differences in their autonomic nervous system.

  6. 6

    Integrating the mind-body connection

    By highlighting the interplay between the nervous system and our emotional and behavioral responses, polyvagal theory reinforces the importance of the mind-body connection. This perspective encourages a more holistic understanding of behavior, integrating both psychological and physiological factors.

In summary, polyvagal theory reframes our understanding of behavior by emphasizing the role of the autonomic nervous system, recognizing adaptive responses, highlighting the importance of safety and social engagement, appreciating individual differences in nervous system functioning, and integrating the mind-body connection. This perspective can lead to a more compassionate and comprehensive understanding of human behavior, ultimately informing more effective and empathetic interventions in various fields, including mental health care.