It’s been almost five years since I’ve started to dissect the PolyVagal Theory and… I realize that I have never really presented the BASICS of PVT.
I immediately made the connexion between PolyVagal Theory and my expertise, the physiology of stress and burn-out, which I deepened, dissected, illustrated…
I made lots of links, explored other reading keys, brought the prism of PVT on many subjects, yes BUT I miss an article on the fundamentals of the TPV.
AND I miss an article about PolyVagal Theory in english too…
What if I took the opportunity to update my first shares, and my first videos?
What if I took this opportunity to translate a first article in english, and share it to the Polyvagal Institute?
If you want to read this article in French it’s here,
otherwise let’s go for a story about PVT!
And what will be nice, for me who loves trilogies, is that I have a trilogy of trilogies for you to go around the subject:
- A trilogy of states
- A trilogy of principles
- A trilogy of elements
And to explore the subject you have a trilogy of options:
- A (relatively) short 2.0 video that covers the basics of the updated PVT, just below (and with english subtitles)
- The article that goes a little further, and illustrates the different principles: you’re on it 😉
- A 3.0 masterclass video that goes much further and gives you an overview of what I can offer in POWER, also below 🙂
NB: if you choose to watch the 3.0 masterclass, you don’t have to watch the 2.0 basics, which is an extract from it, it would be redundant 😉
PolyVagal Theory 2.0: the basics, a relatively short updated video (english subtitles)
ERRATUM : “co-regulation” is only when a person in secure ventral vagal makes another person safe (ventral vagal), when an insecure person transmits their sympathetic or dorsal state to another person we say that they dysregule them.
PolyVagal Theory 3.0: a masterclass video to go way further in EfferveScience (in french)
ERRATUM : “co-regulation” is only when a person in secure ventral vagal makes another person safe (ventral vagal), when an insecure person transmits their sympathetic or dorsal state to another person we say that they dysregule them.
(in the case of Sadness turning memories blue in Inside Out it’s a disregulation, not a coregulation)
A trilogy of states
If you follow me, you already know them: they are the dorsal vagal, the sympathetic, and the ventral vagal.
But let’s go back to the beginning: why POLY-Vagal Theory?
It’s the story of a nerve that we rediscovered, and which hasn’t stopped being talked about ever since: I named the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the tenth and longest of the twelve cranial nerves, and innervates almost all the organs, from the brain to the intestines, including the lungs, heart, stomach, liver, spleen…
It is the main player in the parasympathetic system and… but what is the parasympathetic system?
Let’s go back one more step:
Nervous system, old version
The nervous system, all of the nerves in our body, is divided into the Central Nervous System (the brain and the spinal cord) and the Peripheral Nervous System, which radiates throughout the body.
This peripheral nervous system is divided into the Somatic Nervous System, which directs consciously controlled movements, and the Autonomic Nervous System, which is as its name suggests autonomous, and most often unconscious, and includes the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric (from the intestines) nervous systems.
It is the Autonomic Nervous System, or ANS, that will interest us here.
The Autonomic Nervous System will automatically and unconsciously ensure the proper functioning and balance of the body (or homeostasis).
The ANS connects and regulates the internal organs which are the heart, the lungs, the blood vessels, the stomach, the intestines, the liver, the bladder, the genital organs, but also the pupils and certain muscles of the face.
In doing so, it controls internal physiological processes such as heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, body temperature, digestion, metabolism… but also the stress response.
The stress response has long been explained as the balance between the two main branches of the Autonomic Nervous System:
- On one hand, the sympathetic nervous system, an accelerator which will mobilize your resources in the face of stress, which will activate the action and allow you to respond to aggression, by fleeing or fighting. It’s the adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol team.
- On the other, the parasympathetic system, a peacemaker that will ensure the return to normal after stress. This is the vagus nerve pathway, along with acetylcholine and oxytocin (among other hormons, I’m simplifying as regards the actors involved).
We were satisfied for a long time with this binary reading of the response to stress, and yet there remained a paradox: fight and flight are not the only responses to stress, there is also freezing, which can go as far as dissociation, and is associated with a particularly intense parasympathetic response. We can therefore also respond to stress mobilizing the parasympathetic system…
Another point: we also observe individuals who will react to a situation perceived as stressful and remain in a state of confidence and adaptability which does not require the mobilization of the sympathetic… but how?!
All the researchers, doctors and scientists who have studied the mechanisms of stress have torn out their neurons listening to the TEDx “How to make stress your friend” by Kelly McGonigal, the one who demonstrates that it is not stress but our perception of stress that kills us… and that we can react to stress through oxytocin and the search for collaboration, but how?!
THE answer came to us from the work of Stephen W. Porges: the vagus nerve counts double!
There is not ONE but TWO pathways associated with the vagus nerve, and that changes everything:
At a time when we see more and more books on the vagus nerve and its role in good health, with a super anti-inflammatory power and an overall calming role, I can only regret that only a few books share the latest discovery about the vagus nerve: it actually has TWO distinct pathways!
And so if we update the general diagram of the nervous system, it gives this (ok that’s a lot of diagrams but we MUST start displaying this updated version):
Nervous System 2.0: a polyvagal perspective
In fact, we speak of a “vagus” nerve because its starting point in the brainstem is not the easiest to observe, anatomically. This surely explains why we have long missed its second branch. But not anymore.
We know today, thanks to the work of Stephen Porges, that it is no longer one but two nuclei that will give rise to the vagus nerve at the level of the brainstem—one dorsal and the other ventral, forming the branches of the same name: dorsal vagal, or old, and ventral vagal, or new.
And it changes the family picture!
So we welcome the new kid on the block, Mister Vagal Ventral!
And now, introductions!
So we have from left to right:
Mister Ventral Vagal, the security and social engagement mode
It’s the “new kid on the block”: the path of confidence and resilience that activates when you feel safe, with no cue of danger on the horizon.
You feel confident, everything seems simple, accessible, you have easy connexion with others and life smiles on you: a true game master!
In geek mode, it would be the “Rec” button (record) because you are calm, attentive, receptive to external signals and to the facial and bodily expressions of your interlocutors.
Some great thinkers would say you’re aWare, with a double V as in Vagal Ventral.
You can even have a “boost effect” where you will mobilize your energy very punctually without going through the sympathetic system and the rise of adrenaline and cortisol. This is allowed by the vagal brake which allows you to make the transition between the different states, and which has as much a role of brake when it mobilizes as of booster when it relaxes punctually. This is called “vagal flexibility”, and it’s valuable for handling stressful situations.
Mister Sympathetic, the fight or flight mode
We have known him for a long time: it is the action mobilization system.
It activates when you feel in danger, stressed, threatened.
It allows you to mobilize your resources to defend yourself, or flee, in front of a situation perceived as stressful or threatening.
It is an adaptative mode that puts your senses on alert, very useful, but which can quickly become exhausting if it lasts too long.
Unfortunately, this is somewhat the default mode in our era of infobesity and hyperstress.
In the geek version, it’s the acceleration button, whether it’s forward for the fight (aggressive sympathetic), or backward for flight (fleeing sympathetic).
It is also the mode of taking action when it is chosen and not automatic, the play and motivAction mode.
Mister Dorsal Vagal, the “Mister Freeze” mode
This is inhibition: you become immobilized, unable to move, you “play dead”.
And it is appropriate: the dorsal vagal pathway is activated in the event of mortal danger, and allows you to preserve your energy while waiting to be able to fight or flee.
You feel threatened, helpless, exhausted, you don’t want to do anything, you feel unable to move.
It’s the stop button, everything stops.
It is also the withdrawal mode dear to introverts when it is chosen, which allows them to recharge their batteries and regenerate.
It is essential and a little too neglected in our time when it is difficult to slow down to recover and just rest, press pause and do S.T.O.P…
So here are our three states.
And THE most important point:
There is no better state than another.
All states are OK and there to preserve us.
Our states will activate autonomously depending on the level of perceived danger.
But how are our states activated?
And how do we perceive the danger?
Good news, that’s what we’re going to see right after 🙂
A trilogy of principles
If I played A LOT with the states, their personal files, their connection with emotions, their role in our relationship to the body, their links with the parts of the Internal Family System or with the states of the Transactional Analysis I do have not detailed the founding principles of the PVT in details.
There are three founding principles of the PVT:
Let’s go for our second trilogy!
Each state has its role to play, and we have seen that the states will be mobilized automatically depending on the level of danger.
And the first founding principle of the PVT is that the states will activate according to a predefined and immutable order: we speak of hierarchy.
We therefore move from one state to another in an orderly fashion, starting by mobilizing social engagement to find an “amicable solution” (like asking a spider to leave, or trying to give directions to a fly to find window open—yes, admit it, we’ve all done it once).
If we are unable to manage the situation in Ventral Vagal we will descend into the mobilization sympathetic, to activate the fight or flight.
This is the second level, which will activate when we have the necessary resources to manage the situation perceived as dangerous or stressful.
But it happens that the danger is perceived as too great, deadly, or at least beyond our resources: we will then switch to the Dorsal Vagal of immobilization and withdrawal if we have no solution to operate.
And it works both ways, which also means that to get out of a state of freezing, you will have to go up the scale from the Dorsal Vagal to the Ventral Vagal, going through the reactivation of the sympathetic.
There is always an impulse that triggers action and mobilization, putting things back into motion.
It is this path that will allow resilience, and which translates a good vagal flexibility to navigate between states and go up from the dorsal or sympathetic states towards the ventral vagal which will allow us to reconnect to a perception of security, once the danger has passed.
We therefore have a hierarchy of states which forms a ladder on which we will navigate according to the levels of danger.
And there again each state is ok and there to protect us… provided that it is adapted to the situation, and temporary.
It is therefore important, when we talk about the hierarchy, that we find there again the notion of vagal flexibility, with this ability to go up from the dorsal or the sympathetic towards the Ventral Vagal once the danger has passed.
Otherwise we will lock ourselves in a state that will no longer necessarily be adapted to the situation, and risks becoming suffered and chronic, and cutting us off from the world and from ourselves…
But how do we know which state we are in?
Let’s talk about neuroception!
Neuroception is the nice word coined by Stephen W. Porges to describe our ability to unconsciously ‘perceive’ cues of danger and safety, whether internal, environmental or relational.
It is a whole new meaning that is played out at the bodily and unconscious level, at the level of the interoceptive receptors of the Autonomic Nervous System (and in particular of its fascias).
Our receptors will constantly interrogate the environment in search of danger and safety signals, to activate the state most suited to the situation.
This is how we can, for example, feel an impression of threat, of danger, without necessarily identifying the cause.
We will feel his pulse quicken, his alertness increase, his muscles tense, possibly his hands become sweaty: here we are in sympathetic mode.
It is by observing these changes in perception, and their associated physical manifestations, that neuroception will allow us to focus our attention on the state that is activated: mission observAction!
Depending on the state that will be activated, we will be more or less in full confidence and in possession of our means in the face of the situation, and our organism will be mobilized differently:
- Vigilance and social engagement for the Ventral Vagal state
- Fight or flight for Mister Sympathique, and his mobilization of action
- Inhibition and immobilization for the Dorsal Vagal state, waiting for a better moment to act
But above all our states by activating will completely change our perception of the situation:
Thus, by observing the evolution of our perception of the world, we will be able to detect changes in states.
It is the first level of awareness of the autonomous activity of our nervous system: observAction (I put the “Action” because in English we speak of “awareness” and not of “consciousness”, it is active attention)
We can then question the relevance of the activated state according to the danger situation.
Indeed our past experience will influence our responses to the environment, and our level of sensitivity to danger.
If we have not been secure in childhood, we may have more difficulty regulating ourselves in ventral vagal.
If we cross-reference the Polyvagal Theory with Bowlby’s attachment theory, here is how our perception of safety (or not) in childhood will influence our default state:
We come into the world wired for connection…at least in the beginning.
Then we experience different attachments that will influence our dominant states:
- Secure organized is a state of trust that favors the Ventral Vagal
- Ambivalent organized corresponds to the parents with the changing attitude which will cause a lack of self-confidence and the sympathetic state
- Avoiding organized: attachment figures that are not very present will lead to a lack of trust in others and Dorsal Vagal
- And I pass over the disorganized nervous system which corresponds to traumas and certain psychiatric pathologies, which come under therapy
An important point about trauma, however: trauma, chronic stress and other “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (ACEs) are all past experiences where we did not feel safe. and in connection with our attachment figures.
These experiences will condition our ability to feel safe and fluidly activate the Ventral Vagal branch as we grow.
In all of these situations of trauma and/or chronic stress, the autonomic nervous system’s sensing system can become faulty, constantly signaling danger even when we are safe.
When there has been trauma, our nervous system can no longer tell the difference between our dangerous past and our safe present, keeping us locked in a state of chronic sympathetic or dorsal.
A friendly meeting can then become stressful, a work meeting threatening, speaking in public paralyzing.
Our negative childhood experiences, our traumatic experiences, and/or our chronic stress can therefore prevent us from connecting to others, which is problematic because as a child our priority to survive is to engage ourselves to people who take care of us.
What can we do when our autonomic nervous system is out of whack, and the alarm is constantly on?
How can we recover from trauma and develop a healthy, regulated, and resilient nervous system?
Fortunately, we can re-train our nervous system to feel safe again, and it’s best done with the help of others.
This is called co-regulation.
Each of us has a nervous system that constantly communicates with the states of others.
We autonomously reflect the states of those around us, which we unconsciously capture thanks to neuroception (mirror neurons may be be part of this, this would not surprise me).
Better: we can influence the state of our interlocutor, and transmit our feeling of security, our ventral vagal.
This is called co-regulation.
The best way to restore a healthy nervous system is to connect with people who are safe in the present, resourceful people who make us feel good, peaceful, safe.
Beware, however, of the energy cost of co-regulation, for those who play the role of resource person, who will then have to find their own way of co-regulation, as this pretty animation shows:
I wanted to change from the traditional “I am therefore you are” a french short film that I put in each article to illustrate co-regulation 😉
It should be noted here that the dog has also become deregulated from his day of solitude,
but that both are mutual resources for each other.
So co-regulation is when we transmit our security (our ventral vagal) to a person who is in sympathetic or dorsal vagal state: we secure him, we bring him back to the ventral vagal BUT we can also transmit our insecurity, as is the case in “”I am therefore you are“, and there we would rather speak of deregulation (“co-deregulation” sounds good but it does not exist).
This deregulation is when we are faced with someone in a sympathetic state (angry or afraid) or dorsal (frozen, sad and/or complaining), and we are not secure enough not to being “contaminated” by the state of the other person (see the dark balls in “I am therefore you are“). Here it is the neuroception of the other’s insecurity which will deregulate us in insecurity, when the person in front of us is TOO negative, and/or we are TOO insecure (this is what I call “energy vampires” in the videos).
This is for interactions with our fellow human beings: co-regulation is necessarily between two people, but we also have tools to regulate ourselves when we are alone…
We also begin to understand that many of the activities that we intuitively know make us feel better and rejuvenate (like being in nature, doing yoga, dancing, singing, helping others, etc.) are activities. which can help our nervous system become more regulated and resilient.
Hence the importance of being clear about your rejuvenating activities and practicing them as often as possible to feel calm and safe: this is self-regulation.
It is important to understand that we will only be able to self-regulate, i.e. return to ventral vagal through revitalizing activities and practices if we have already experienced co-regulation, and the conscious neuroception of this return to the ventral (otherwise we will lock ourselves in a chronic state of survival).
And I am responding here to THE criticism that was made to me on my first video: yes the Autonomic Nervous System is… autonomous, BUT there are ways to act to regulate it, and to activate the ventral vagal state.
The first, and main, is breathing.
Let’s not forget that the lungs are innervated by the vagus nerve, and it is THE organ on which we can consciously influence the rhythm.
(great yogis can also play on the heart rate, but it’s next level)
A means well known for its soothing effects: cardiac coherence, presented here and optimized there by Eric Marlien.
But there is also intentional sighing, yawning, gargling, other breathing practices, meditation, visualization, movement, hugs, our pets… in short, so many resources that will serve co-regulation and self-regulation, if we take the time to explore what works for us.
And precisely, we are now going to explore the last trilogy, that of the elements which make the well-being, and help the autonomic nervous system to be anchored in the safety and the regulation.
But first, a little pedagogeek interlude with the excellent animation of the Trauma Fondation, which sums up these first two trilogies, and the impact of trauma on our autonomic nervous system:
Trauma and the nervous system: a polyvagal perspective
A trilogy of elements
This part is more recent, it comes from “Anchored“, the latest book by Deborah Dana, which presents, among other things, the three essential elements for our well-being and our regulation towards greater safety:
When these three elements are present, we more easily find the path of regulation.
But with just one absent, we can end up with a deregulated nervous system and a form of discomfort.
Let’s go for a final trilogy, with a high added stress-defense content!
The context reflects the need to gather information on how, what and why a particular situation.
Gathering information about a situation or experience helps to deal with it, and to respond to it.
We will collect cues of danger, or safety, from the explicit communication on the contextual information of the situation.
Otherwise, we are more likely to feel insecure and enter into a protective pattern based on our past experiences.
Typically, it is the C.I.N.E. of stress, as described by the Center for Studies on Human Stress (in french):
Stress is C.I.N.E.
Our neuroception will seek to identify danger and safety signals through the C.I.N.E. of stress:
- Lack of Control
- Ego threatened
In english we would talk about “VUCA” situations:
The more clues there are in favor of these four indicators, either CINE or VUCA, and the more we are sensitive to them, the more we will feel a sense of threat, and the more we will withdraw into states of sympathetic or dorsal survival.
While when the situation is clear, well framed, and without all that C.I.N.E. or VUCA to make films, then we can manage it in complete safety, in complete serenity, and in the confidence of our Ventral Vagal.
Second element for a regulated nervous system: choice.
With the choice we have the possibility to decide if we will remain static or move, approach or avoid, connect or protect ourselves: in short, we have the POWER to choose, and that changes everything.
And for that we not only have the “choice” between our 3 states, when they are available independently (which is not always the case, we can for example be cornered and unable to flee, or hindered unable to fight), but you can also combine them:
When choice is limited or absent, or when we feel like we’re stuck and without options, and we’ll start looking desperately for an escape.
In this quest for survival we can feel the activation of the action of the sympathetic and its high energy, with sometimes a form of anxiety, anger or panic, or the collapse in dorsal vagal, with its low energy and its stillness.
We saw it with the situation suffered from lock-down: martial discourse could activate the sympathetic, when confinement could awaken the dorsal, faced with a situation where we had little choice, and all the criteria of the C.I.N.E. or VUCA to maintain stress.
Even in the simplest daily activities, we are therefore more likely to remain in a state of safety and regulated ventral vagal if we have several options.
This is the POWER of PolyVagal Theory and its 3 response pathways, but also the possibility, via self-regulation, of moving towards “chosen” states (with a dose of ventral vagal) rather than “autonomic” (and often unconscious):
Hierarchy of autonomic and “chosen” states
Be careful though: TOO many options can be overwhelming, and a too rigid schedule paralyzing: think slider, everyone will need their right dose of choice to have the security of a framework that leaves room for a dose of flexibility. Mission adaptAction!
Last point to cultivate our well-being and our sense of security: connection.
It is of four kinds:
- connection to self
- connection to others, and to animals
- connection to nature
- connection to spirituality
With connection we feel reconnected to our body, connection with others, connection to nature, and in harmony with the spiritual dimension.
Everything that makes fulfillment and well-being 🙂
Conversely, when there is a break in our sense of connection, such as disconnection from body and emotions, tension in a relationship, disconnection from nature, or spiritual wandering, then we will have difficulties to reconnect to our sense of security and to regulate ourselves, with at the lowest a feeling of despair and isolation in dorsal vagal… not top.
The solution ? It exists !
Reconnect with yourself, with others, with nature, with what inspires and drives us, our needs, our values, our talents and our child’s soul!
Sounds too good, and too simple, to be true?
As Deb Dana would say:
“It’s simple, but it’s not easy”
That said… sometimes it’s enough to put a little color(s) and game back into our daily lives… DemonstrAction:
“Alike”, a short movie by Daniel Martínez Lara & Rafa Cano Méndez
So it’s up to you, Game Master, mission régulAction!
As I said at the beginning of the article, I have LOTS of resources to explore and dissect the TPV… in french, starting with my book “Le POWER du Je(u)” and my formAction-coaching “POWER“, but also lots of freely accessible articles on this site.
Here is an efferveSciente selection, if you want to google translate some of them, or watch the illustrations:
💡 Scientific version, my discovery of the TPV with Ludovic Leroux in 2018 🤓
An article published a trilogy of days after my initial training at the TPV, with homemade drawings, before releasing the famous video on the TPV that I update today via this article.
My first video about polyvagal theory…
💡 General public version, an invitation to live in their house and observe their states according to Deborah Dana’s beginner’s guide 🏡
A reflection on the links between burnout (my main expertise) and PVT, based on Deb Dana’s beginner’s guide (which is no longer accessible today), in an efferveScient article and a pedagogeek video:
💡 From emotions to states, and inside-out 🎭
Because states and emotions are connected, an article with illustrated cards to make the links between states and emotions, and choose the reading key that is most accessible to you (for example me, who is in the autism spectrum, I decode states better than emotions) 🙂
💡 The injunction to SuperFormance in Star Wars mode to play with the Force 🤖
An exploration of the impact of restrictive messages, or “drivers”, on our states, and how the PolyVagal Theory can help us reconnect with our body and cultivate our Force: a pedagogeek video as I like to propose them, completely out of boxes!
💡 On the urgency to slow down and get out of the overly sympathetic 🙀
A decoding of the physiological mechanisms of burn-out, and how the key to reading the PolyVagale Theory can get us out of chronic suffered states, from the injunction to the chronic sympathetic to the decompensation in dorsal vagal that is burnout.
💡 On the importance of body and movement to gain confidence 👟
Because “Think Positive” no longer really makes sens now that we know that it is our state that writes history… Descartes is overwhelmed, now the body takes power over the mind with the PolyVagal Theory.
💡To play with the FLOW thanks to the PVT 🌊
Because the ultimate level of the PolyVagale Theory is to be able to play with our energy, our motivation and our creativity here is a reflection on the links between the flow state and the states of the PVT 🙂
Without forgetting THE resource that unites them all, but here again in french: my book about PolyVagal Theory that update stress and burnout reading and as a precious resource for playing with your energy and with the flow 📗
Finally, if you want to go even further, if you too have an efferveScient mind and you like to make connections, you will have a blast exploring and dissecting PVT with me in my efferveSciente formAction POWER 💎
And if you want to know what POWER looks like, you can watch the long version video of the article, the masterclass 3.0 : it’s a nice overview of the connections I make in POWER, with english subtitles :-):
And to conclude this article on the basics of the updated PVT, here is an introduction to the PolyVagal Theory in music
(because expert American speakers have a sense of showmanship):
Polly Vagal Blues, performed by Robert Schwarz and Michael Reddy