What Is Polyvagal Theory? Understanding The 4 Trauma Responses

What Is Polyvagal Theory? Understanding The 4 Trauma Responses

Have you ever wondered why your body goes into overdrive during a stressful situation, or why sometimes a simple hug can instantly calm you down? The answer might lie in a fascinating theory called Polyvagal Theory.

Developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory delves into the complexities of the autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system responsible for unconscious bodily functions like heart rate, breathing, and digestion.

Polyvagal Theory sheds light on how our nervous system prioritizes survival by categorizing its responses into three distinct circuits, all governed by the vagus nerve.

The 4 Trauma Responses | The Three Circuits of the Autonomic Nervous System

The Ventral Vagal System

Ventral vagal (parasympathetic activation) represents our normal “rest and digest state”.

You can think of this as our social engagement circuit. When we feel safe and secure, this system activates, promoting feelings of calmness, connection, and well-being. It allows us to be receptive to social cues, fostering positive interactions and healthy relationships.

That also means we will be a lot less social when in the other two activation states.

The Dorsal Vagal System | The Freeze Trauma Response

Dorsal Vagal is the oldest circuit. It’s also our shut-down mode. You might not immediately recognize this from the description, but there’s no doubt you’ve felt this way: lethargic, rot-in-bed mode, zoning out on the sofa for days, depression, or even the sudden urge to nap.

This circuit kicks in when we perceive a threat, but it’s not an immediate danger. It puts us into a state of “tend and befriend” or “play dead.” Our heart rate might slow down, and we might become more cautious, but we don’t go into full fight-or-flight mode.

The Sympathetic Nervous System< | The Flight Or Fight Trauma Response

Sympathetic activation is the classic fight-or-flight response. You already know exactly what this feels like: racing heart, sweaty palms, and probably racing thoughts too. (Yes, that includes anxiety!)

When faced with a clear and present danger, this circuit takes over, triggering the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Our heart rate and breathing increase, preparing us to face the threat or flee the situation.

The Fawn Trauma response (ie. putting your attention on other people so you can feel safe) is thought to be a cycle between Freeze and Fight or Flight).

Basically, understanding whether your body feel safe (regulated) or not (dysregulated) is an important first step towards happiness and overall mental health.

Polyvagal Theory and Its Applications

Understanding Polyvagal Theory can be helpful in various aspects of our lives:


The most important use of polyvagal theory is to apply it to yourself and learn how to self-regulate. It’s not a bad thing to get into Fight or Flight mode! You were actually built to experience all of the autonomic nervous system.

However, problems can arise when we don’t know how to get out of one of our activated states. That can lead to depression (Freeze), anxiety (Fight or Flight), or even long-term stress-related health problems.

By recognizing the signals our bodies send through different nervous system responses, we can learn to self-regulate. Techniques like deep breathing or mindfulness meditation can help us activate the calming ventral vagal system and manage stress more effectively.

Polyvagal Theory is a complex concept, but its core message is simple: our nervous system is constantly working to keep us safe. By understanding the vagus nerve and how it responds to our environment, we can take steps to promote feelings of safety and well-being.

Improved Mental Health

As mentioned, staying in an activated sympathetic state creates symptoms that closely align with trauma, chronic anxiety, and depression. With somatic Polyvagal work, not only can we learn how to calm down our own nervous system, we can also treat the root cause of the most common psychological issues.

It offers insights into anxiety, depression, and trauma, where the nervous system might be stuck in a hyper-aroused state. Learning how to regulate the nervous system is a “small” tool that can make giant shifts in major psychological problems.


Polyvagal theory can also help us to better understand those around us. It’s especially useful for parents! For example, if you see your child going into fight or flight, you can work on helping them to calm down first instead of trying to force logic onto them. (After all, in their activated state logic won’t be of much use!)

The theory can help us understand how feelings of safety and connection are crucial for healthy relationships. By creating safe spaces and fostering trust, we can activate the ventral vagal system and promote deeper connections with others. When we value connection and calm over “being the winner”, then everyone benefits.

So what did you think? Did you learn something new about the nervous system today? How can you start to apply your new knowledge of the polyvagal theory to your own life?

At first glance, polyvagal theory might sound like a deep psychological term that you don’t need to know about at all. However, understanding the basics about polyvagal theory, the vagus nerve, and trauma responses will give you the foundation of emotional well-being.

Basically, it’s about time we all learned how to work with our body through somatic work, instead of trying to use willpower to feel better. (Because that never works!)

Jenn Stevens The Self-Worth Project

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What Is Polyvagal Theory? Understanding The 4 Trauma Responses

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