Polyvagal Therapy

Polyvagal Therapy

Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Learning to regulate one’s nervous system is invaluable for all of us living in today’s world. From burnout to generalized anxiety, or from relationship issues to social anxiety, we all can benefit from learning how to work with our bodies to deal with the physical symptoms associated with these issues. Polyvagal Therapy offers a unique perspective on how we understand and treat trauma, anxiety, and emotional regulation. With a growing body of research supporting its efficacy, Polyvagal Theory has become a pivotal framework for mental health professionals, self-healers, and anyone navigating their own emotional well-being. This blog post is a guide for those looking to familiarize themselves with the basics and learn what Polyvagal Theory in therapy looks like. I will also go into some of the symptoms of dorsal vagal shutdown along with exercises to help. Read on to learn how you can harness the potential of your nervous system so that you can start experiencing the benefits of noticing and prioritizing your inner experience.

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I offer video appointments and can work with clients anywhere in Florida. My practice is centered in metro Orlando and I also specialize in Anxiety treatment Orlando.”

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Nervous System Basics

The polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, explores the role of the vagus nerve in our body’s stress response and social engagement. To appreciate the theory, we must first understand the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the system that regulates bodily functions beyond our conscious control. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for controlling many operations in the body that we do not consciously think about, ensuring the body’s internal environment remains stable. Examples of ANS functions include the regulation of heart rate, control of the respiratory rate, modulation of the digestive process, and regulation of blood pressure. It also plays a crucial role in the body’s fight or flight response, a fundamental survival mechanism. By managing these involuntary processes, the ANS supports the body in maintaining homeostasis, allowing us to adapt to different stressors and environmental changes seamlessly.

Trauma can profoundly affect the autonomic nervous system (ANS), often leading to a dysregulated state where individuals may find themselves in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. This chronic stress response not only impacts emotional well-being but also has tangible effects on physical health, including increased risk of chronic diseases, weakened immune function, and more. The body’s natural ability to return to a state of balance and safety becomes compromised, making it difficult for those affected by trauma to engage in social situations, manage emotions, and connect with others in meaningful ways. Understanding the impact of trauma on the ANS is critical for applying the principles of Polyvagal theory effectively, as it offers insights into the pathways toward healing and resilience.

The ANS has three key components:

  1. The Vagus Nerve – The longest cranial nerve, the vagus nerve plays a critical role in the function of many vital organs, including the heart, lungs, and digestive system. It’s been dubbed the “wandering nerve,” given its far-reaching influence over the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us rest and digest after a threat has passed.
  2. The Sympathetic Nervous System – Our ‘fight or flight’ response is primarily governed by this system, activating to address situations that require immediate action. In the face of threat or danger, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) takes over, preparing us for action by increasing heart rate, dilating airways, and redistributing blood flow to major muscle groups. While this response is vital for survival, it can perpetuate a cycle of anxiety and hypervigilance
  3. The Dorsal Vagal Complex – This part of the ANS, associated with the vagus nerve, is linked to our ‘shutdown’ response, often observed in severe or life-threatening conditions when additional options are unavailable. 
    1. The “dorsal vagal shutdown” refers to a state in which the body essentially decides to “play dead” when facing extreme danger or stress, similar to how some animals might in the wild. This response is part of our survival mechanisms, governed by the dorsal vagal complex of the autonomic nervous system. Dorsal vagal shutdown symptoms manifest when neither fighting nor fleeing is an option. The system can trigger a state where a person might experience symptoms of feeling numb, disconnected, or like they’re in a fog—mentally and physically detached from the situation at hand. It’s the body’s last-ditch effort to protect itself from harm, and while it might be confusing or scary, understanding this response is a step toward healing for those who experience it.

These states are not mutually exclusive; rather, the nervous system constantly modulates to ensure our well-being. In cases of unresolved trauma or chronic stress, however, the balance can be disrupted, leading to persistent feelings of fear, anxiety, and disconnection.

Understanding these components paves the way for a deeper grasp of how our body reacts to and mitigates stress and trauma, a notion central to Polyvagal theory.


Polyvagal Exercises

The Therapeutic Implications of Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory has profound implications for therapeutic practice. It offers a physiological framework for understanding the body’s response to trauma and stress, emphasizing the importance of safety and connection in healing. Therapists who incorporate polyvagal principles into their practice are equipped with strategies to help clients shift from states of disconnection or hyperarousal to states of safety and social engagement.

For instance, recognizing the physical signs of each state allows therapists and clients to work together to develop strategies for regulating emotional responses. This may include techniques for engaging the ventral vagal state to promote feelings of safety and connection, which are critical for trauma recovery. Specifically, deep breathing, mindfulness, and guided imagery are just a few ways we can activate the Social Engagement System, promoting feelings of safety and groundedness. Additionally, therapeutic modalities like somatic experiencing focus on bodily sensations and movements to resolve the freeze response and release pent-up trauma. By integrating these practices, therapists can assist individuals in moving out of hyperaroused states of fight, flight, or freeze, towards a state of social engagement and emotional regulation, facilitating deeper connections with themselves and others.

Polyvagal Theory offers a path for trauma recovery and emotional regulation by proposing that treatment should focus on accessing and fostering the SES, the state most favorable for healing. Therapists and self-healers apply various techniques to achieve this, such as:

Building a Safe and Nurturing Environment

Sensory experiences, such as touch and gentle vocalizations, can stimulate the SES, signaling to the nervous system that the environment is safe. Therapy environments are often designed to provide a sense of safety and predictability, crucial for those recovering from trauma.

Breathing and Movement Exercises

Engaging in diaphragmatic breathing, singing, or other activities that require controlled breath can activate the vagus nerve, promoting relaxation and a shift towards the SES.

Mindfulness and Meditation Practices

Mindfulness and meditation practices are another crucial aspect of therapy based on Polyvagal Theory. These practices help individuals anchor themselves in the present moment, moving away from past traumas and future anxieties which can trigger the stress responses. By fostering an awareness of bodily sensations and the surrounding environment, individuals can learn to distinguish between perceived threats and safe contexts, gradually recalibrating their nervous systems towards a state of balance and calmness. This not only aids in trauma recovery but also enhances overall emotional resilience, allowing for a more fulfilling engagement with life.

Polyvagal Therapy goes beyond traditional talk therapy, incorporating a broader range of interventions to regulate the nervous system and promote overall well-being.

The Future of Mental Health Through Polyvagal Lens

The integration of Polyvagal Therapy into mental health practices is not only transforming individual lives but also shaping the trajectory of the field itself. There is a growing enthusiasm for developing specialized interventions tailored to the unique needs of individuals, informed by various polyvagal principles.

Research and Development

Current research is exploring how Polyvagal Therapy can be applied to a wider array of mental health conditions, from depression to autism. By continually refining our understanding of the nervous system, we expand our repertoire of healing modalities.

Personal Empowerment and Self-Care

The beauty of Polyvagal Theory lies in its empowerment of individuals. By learning to recognize and modulate their own nervous system states, people can play an active role in their mental wellness. The idea of self-care is being reshaped, with practices such as yoga, meditation, and biofeedback gaining popularity for their polyvagal-informed benefits. 

Concluding thoughts

Going beyond traditional talk therapy by incorporating techniques from somatic psychology into sessions has proven to be most impactful in my work. The influence of polyvagal theory is growing, creating a shift in our understanding of trauma and healing as well as highlighting the importance of prioritizing our internal experience.

This journey towards nervous system regulation is both personal and universal. Whether you’re working with a therapist, looking for a therapist, or exploring these principles on your own, the insights from polyvagal theory can offer a transformative perspective on emotional well-being.



Q: What is Polyvagal Theory? 

A: Polyvagal Theory is a groundbreaking framework developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, explaining how our autonomic nervous system mediates our reactions to stress and perceived safety. It emphasizes the role of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation and social connection.

Q: How can Polyvagal Theory help with trauma? 

A: The theory provides insights into the physiological basis of trauma and offers strategies for managing the body’s response to stress. By understanding and applying polyvagal principles, individuals can learn to self-regulate their emotional and physiological states, aiding in the recovery from trauma.

Q: What are a few polyvagal exercises for anxiety? 

A: Polyvagal exercises for anxiety focus on activating the parasympathetic nervous system to promote a state of calm. Techniques include diaphragmatic breathing, which encourages full and deep breaths, stimulating the vagus nerve and inducing relaxation. Another effective method is the social engagement system activation, where positive social interactions are used to calm the nervous system. Finally, grounding exercises that connect an individual to the present moment can also help alleviate anxiety by reducing the perception of threat, allowing for a shift toward a more relaxed state.

Q: Can Polyvagal Theory be applied to relationships? 

A: Yes, Polyvagal Theory can be applied to relationships by helping individuals understand and regulate their own autonomic responses as well as recognize the cues of others. By cultivating a sense of safety and connection, relationships can become more secure and fulfilling.