Polyvagal Theory

The Polyvagal Theory discovered by Dr. Stephen Porges is a working model of the autonomic nervous system which connects safety and social connection with health, well being, and recovery.

The Vagus Nerve & Chronic Illness — Trauma Geek

The 3 core concepts of PVT remain foundational to my understanding of the nervous system. These core ideas are:

  1. The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) has 3 neural circuits that each have physiological, mental, and emotional effects in the body. They are the ventral vagus nerve, the dorsal vagus nerve, and the sympathetic spinal chain.
  2. The body determines which neural circuits to activate through the process of Neuroception (the subconscious sensing of danger or safety in our internal and external environments).
  3. Co-regulation (the subconscious process of syncing up with a coherent nervous system) is the strongest safety cue for mammals.

Neurodivergent people are not outliers where these 3 facts are concerned. While neurodivergents do have some significant neural differences from neurotypical people (mostly increased neural connections and increased electrical activity), our nervous systems operate on these same three principles.

There are some who would claim that neurodivergents don’t have the same 3 neural circuits, that our neuroception is broken, or that we can’t co-regulate, and I find this perspective to be rather dehumanizing.

The polyvagal understanding of the nervous system seems to be observable in all humans, and all mammals for that matter, including cats, dogs, and horses.

A neurodiversity paradigm lens on polyvagal theory

First, Polyvagal Theory is not just a theory. PVT is a working model of the Autonomic Nervous System. It’s not the only model that exists, but it is the most well known. There are 4 other current working models of the nervous system: the Neurovisceral Integration model, the Biological Behavioral model, the Resonance Frequency model, and the Psychophysiological Coherence model. In my opinion, these models are complementary rather than competing explanations. These models of the nervous system are used as maps to understand the terrain of the human nervous system.

Let’s look at the actual core concepts of PVT: Hierarchy, Neuroception, and Co-regulation.

Hierarchy refers to the order in which our bodies activate the 3 neural circuits of the Autonomic Nervous System (the ventral vagus complex, the sympathetic adrenal system, and the dorsal vagus nerve complex). Neuroception is the body’s ability to sense danger or safety in our environment and cue the activation of the 3 neural circuits. Co-regulation is the ultimate safety signal wherein resonance with another nervous system allows us to engage the ventral vagus nerve complex. 

Evolution of a Theory: Polyvagal is Not Dead — Trauma Geek

Co-regulation is when we complete the stress cycle with the support of a safe enough person.

Infants & small children do not have the biological capacity to complete the stress cycle alone. That is built over time through a multitude of coregulation experiences.

A safe enough person is a person in safe & social mode. They have deep belly breathing, expressive face, soft gaze, calm heart rate, prosodic voice, and the ability to enjoy safe touch or closeness.

The Neuroscience of Community. A set of graphics by Janae Elisabeth… | by Trauma Geek | Age of Awareness | Medium

Psychological safety is increasingly recognised as central to mental health & wellbeing. The polyvagal theory offers a ‘Science of Safety’ which can help inform clinical practice to promote wellbeing, resilience & post-traumatic growth, whilst mitigating trauma. To date, there is no standardised measure of psychological safety comprising psychological, physiological & social components. The current study aims to develop this.

Developing a standardised measure of psychological safety.

When working with humans, it is crucial that we shift the lens in which we view behavior from the traditional four functions of behavior to survival brain responses that occur due to feeling unsafe. Our most important goal as educators should be to promote safety within the classroom and school setting so students are not feeling threatened and going into flight, fight, freeze mode.

When we view behavior through a traditional lens, we punish dysregulation.

Rethinking The 3 D’s…

Part of our neuroception is genetic. Neurodivergent people have heightened neuroception from birth or before birth.

Danger cues that are very painful to a neurodivergent person may be neutral or pleasant to someone else.

How to Use the Polyvagal Ladder. A set of graphics

Neurodivergent people are hypersensitive to mindset and environment due to a greater number of neuronal connections. They have both a higher risk for trauma and a large capacity for sensing safety.

Neuroception and the 3 Part Brain

Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.

The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.

Because of our different bio-social responses to stimulus, autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.

Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns.

Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

Whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures.

We must preserve the power of intrinsic motivation, dignity, cooperation, curiosity, joy in learning, that people are born with.

W. Edwards Deming

For a skeptical assessment of Polyvagal Theory:

Further reading,