The polyvagal theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. It elaborates on the function and importance of the vagus nerve in filtering and responding to external situations. 


The vagus nerve is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system, AKA Cranial Nerve X 

The vagus nerve is an important part of the Autonomic Nervous System. Autonomic refers to the automatic functions of the body. The polyvagal theory offers a neurophysiological way to look at the reasons people behave the way they do in response to the world around them. 

Understanding why people behave the way they behave is an important tool. It gives us deeper insight into our own behavior as well as others. To understand why people do what they do provides space for empathetic connection. 

The Polyvagal theory offers a framework that can be used to help people identify and track their emotional and behavioral states. 

One of my favorite tools that illustrates the polyvagal theory is the polyvagal ladder. We can move up and down our ladders with the goal of being able to return to the top of the ladder and be in a ventral vagal state of feeling safe and social.






The goal is not to find this state and never leave it, that's just not realistic. Our bodies are set up for survival. Anxiety, fear, and anger are  "negative" emotions that are actually quite important for keeping us safe. So it's important that we have movement along our ladder. You automatically move down the ladder in response to what is going on around you.  


When you are in a sympathetic state of arousal you may experience anxious or aggressive energy. The sympathetic state mobilizes our energy. First the nervous system will try to flee and if unable it will resort to fighting. In our modern society of perpetual stress many of us live in these states and the behavior can be quite nuanced. To be in a state of fight doesn't mean you go around getting into physical altercations with people, it can show up in your tone and word choice. Getting to know the "symptoms" of these states is extremely beneficial and something I hope to get into eventually.  

Further down the ladder is the dorsal vagal state of shut down. This state is accessed when individuals have little experience being in their ventral vagal state of feeling safe and social. Often this state is extremely difficult to climb out of and requires co-regulation (a safe someone to coax them back to connection). This shut down state happens quite often in nature and is discussed in more detail in this video(The specific clip is at 9:15).  

Learning to identify where you are on the ladder is a really good way of building awareness. When you find yourself lower on the ladder, in order to climb up the ladder to a safe and social state you'll have to climb through each state. The ladder is about movement and everyone's movement is unique to their experiences.