Polyvagal theory - how is this relevant to me?

Polyvagal theory was devised by Stephen W Porges (Stephen W. Porges, PhD | Polyvagal theory).  He began researching heart rate variability in the 1960's in the USA, studying the heart rate of babies in the NICU in response to cues of stress and safety.


Heart Rate Variability (HRV) refers to the length of time between heartbeats. A healthy heart does not beat like a metronome, with a steady 'boom, boom, boom,' there is variability between heartbeats. The more variability between beats the 'healthier' and more resilient your system is thought to be. This can be thought of as a measure of our ability to have a flexible adaptable nervous system that can cope with stress and what life throws at us.

The autonomic nervous system

Through his decades of research, he uncovered the role of the vagus nerve and its impact on our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Our ANS is comprised of two branches - the 'sympathetic' and 'parasympathetic' branches. The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve which connects the brainstem to several visceral organs.  

The parasympathetic branch has two additional circuits – the dorsal and ventral vagal circuits. The ANS regulates bodily functions and has different modes of response to threat and safety. The primary function of our ANS is to keep us alive. This is its sole purpose. These three circuits (sympathetic, ventral, and dorsal) make up the ANS.   

The vagus nerve (the second longest of the body – the sciatic nerve is the longest) mediates the processes of the ANS. For example, on detection of cues of safety or danger, the vagus nerve sends a signal to either the sympathetic or parasympathetic branches of the ANS, to give energy to the most appropriate circuit.

  • Think of the sympathetic circuit as an image of large predator chasing a gazelle – this is fight or flight.
  • Think of the Dorsal circuit of the parasympathetic branch as a turtle hiding under its shell – immobilisation – stuck. 
  • Think of the Ventral vagal circuit as two people in conversation chatting, making eye contact, and enjoying each other’s company. Safe, connected, and at ease.  

Of course, we do not tend to ‘live’ in one circuit for prolonged periods of time, during the course of our day we move between states, into ‘mixed states’. For example, if you want to have a massage, a mixed state of dorsal (stillness) and ventral (safety) is needed in order for you to lie still and allow someone to touch your body. Doing a presentation at work, you may be in a mixed state of sympathetic (energised) and ventral (safe, connected) through watching your audience smile or nod as you speak.   

Our ANS is constantly working for us, outside of conscious awareness. Think of it as internal CCTV. Scanning our bodies and minds, scanning our immediate environment, and scanning our interpersonal space when with others. It is a fantastic set-up for us, without it we would need to spend an extraordinary amount of time saying, ‘Am I safe?’, ‘Am I safe?'

You know that feeling you have when you are with someone and you feel relaxed, calm, alert, receptive? That is your ANS telling you, 'This person is safe/interesting/warm etc…' You will also have had the experience of being with someone and feeling something is off – that too is your ANS picking up on some cue of danger. This is ‘neuroception’.  


Stephen Porges coined this term to mean ‘perception without awareness’. We ‘neurocept’ internally (hunger, thirst, emotions, thoughts), externally (the room we are in/ our environment – does it feel safe or not?) and interpersonally, as the examples above show. 

Although we are not usually aware of this, we do tend to be aware of the physiological shift which could be feelings in our gut or that ‘sense’ that something is off.  

Faulty neuroception

Of course, our neuroception can be faulty. We can be triggered by seemingly innocuous things – a smell, a sound, a feeling in our bodies. These are not necessarily cues of danger but are ‘neurocepted’ as such by our ANS.

An example of this is for people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the midst of experiencing a terrifying or distressing event, some memories are intensely remembered however what can happen is that prolonged release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenalin, can mean that memories are not encoded with contextual details. This means memories are partially encoded, they are more fragmented. For example, you may remember the first moments your car collided with another but events that unfolded after this may feel ‘bitty’ as they have not been encoded in the usual way.

In your day-to-day life you could then ‘neurocept’ a cue as dangerous such as the smell of petrol at a petrol station as it evokes this memory from the accident. This could feel very distressing, and you can then avoid cars/driving etc. which will adversely affect your life. 

The social engagement system

Stephen Porges describes this as a fundamental part of polyvagal theory.  He posits that the social engagement system is made up of five cranial nerves that control the muscles of the face, head, and heart (Porges 2003). This system is fundamental in communicating connection with others, through our bodies, our face, our eyes, and our tone of voice. We are wired to bond and connect with others, this supports evolution and survival. In order to bond, cooperate and survive, we need to feel safe. 

Neuroception constantly scans internally ('How do I feel?') Externally ('How does this environment feel?') and interpersonal ('Is this person safe?') When we ‘neurocept’ danger, our ability to connect and bond with others erodes. If the sympathetic circuit is activated, we tend to misinterpret others as unsafe. If the dorsal circuit is activated, we ‘lose muscle tone in the face, appear flat… avoid eye contact’ (Kase 2023).  This too erodes our ability to connect and bond.

Childhood attachment shapes the social engagement system, we learn to self-soothe by our caregivers through co-regulation, through nurture, gentle touch, soothing tone of voice etc. However, a lack of co-regulation hinders us to be able to develop self-regulation. The ability to self-soothe, however, can of course be learnt as an adult and the therapeutic relationship is an environment where this can be modelled, ‘neurocepted’ and taught. 

The vagal break and vagal tone

Stephen Porges argues that the vagus nerve ‘acts a pacemaker, influencing cardiac output’ (Porges 2011). The vagal break speeds up or slows down your heart rate.  

Using your middle fingers, find your heartbeat – just under the chin and the top of the neck is where people can usually locate it. Take a slow inhale for four, exhale for four and do this again. What did you notice? Usually, we notice that on the inhale our heart rate speeds up – we are taking the brake off, increasing sympathetic energy. Once the exhale heart rate slows, we are applying the brake. Ventral vagal energy takes centre stage. Our ability to tone this brake, to increase or decrease our heart rate, is a measure of health. Flexibility in this system means we bring the energy needed in any given moment to cope with and respond to life’s ups and downs.  

To help us do this, we can use breathwork, journaling, exercise, yoga, and running. We can ask ourselves, 'Which circuit is more dominant today? Do I feel safe, connected, energised, alert ready?' (in a ventral vagal state), 'Do I feel anxious, unsettled, fidgety?' (sympathetic state) or, 'Do I feel flat, shut down, disinterested?' (dorsal state).  If in a more shut-down state, for example, we need more sympathetic energy – we need to take our foot off the brake. This may mean standing up, going for a walk, or jumping up and down. If we feel agitated and mobilised, we may need to do some breathwork, journaling, or yoga.  

The takeaway message here is that getting to know your autonomic nervous system, bringing awareness to how we feel and respond internally, externally and with others, gives us vital information about what we need to feel safe, connected, nourished and alive – to be our optimum selves and use wise discernment about what works for us physiologically and psychologically.   


  • Porges, S. W. (2011) The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation.  New York. Norton
  • Kase, R 2023 Polyvagal Informed EMDR A Neuro-Informed Approach to Healing, Norton

Interesting books to read

  • Polyvagal Exercises for Safety & Connection Deb Dana (2020) Norton
  • The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory Stephen Porges (2017) Norton
  • Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, Stanley Rosenberg (2017) North Atlantic Books 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Hitchin, Hertfordshire, SG5
Written by Rachel Green, CPsychol AFBPsS HCPC Psychologist, Accredited CBT Therapist
Hitchin, Hertfordshire, SG5

I am a Counselling Psychologist, I worked in the NHS for many years in clinical health, sexual health, primary care, sure start and IAPT and have worked with the police officers in the London Met presenting with trauma experienced in their work. My interests are many, among them, ACT and also attachment informed EMDR.

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