polyvagal theory

Polyvagal Theory: Everything You Need To Know

Do you live in Ottawa? Are you looking to find out more about Polyvagal Theory?

If so, you are in the right place.

Today, I will discuss Polyvagal Theory and its relation to chronic illness.

In This Article:

Let’s start by explaining what Polyvagal Theory is.

What Is Polyvagal Theory?

The Polyvagal Theory provides a map that helps explain the nervous system’s responses to perceptions of threat and safety.

The founder of the Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges, says,

“Our underlying physiological state shapes our perspectives of the world.”

The Polyvagal Theory explains the hierarchy of the three physiological pathways in our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The Polyvagal Theory focuses on the function and role of the Vagus nerve.

Let’s now discuss some key terms used within Polyvagal Theory.

Polyvagal Theory Key Terms

The key terms used in Polyvagal Theory are the following:

  • Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)
  • Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)
  • Ventral Vagal Circuit
  • Dorsal Vagal Circuit
  • Vagus Nerve
  • Vagal Tone

Let’s now explain the ANS and how these terms fit within that system.

What Is The ANS?

The ANS has two branches, the PNS and SNS.

The PNS is associated with “rest and digest” and is regulated by the Vagus nerve.

The Vagus nerve has two circuits: the ventral and Dorsal Vagal circuits.

The Ventral Vagal Circuit is our safety connection or social engagement circuit.

This part of the Vagus nerve runs through our eyes, ears, face and throat and is above the diaphragm.

If turned on too much, the Dorsal Vagal Ciruit is associated with rest, repair, and immobility.

This part of the Vagus nerve innervates the organs below the diaphragm.

The SNS is associated with “fight, flight or react.”

When there is high vagus nerve activity, there is low SNS activity.

Conversely, there is high SNS activity when there is low vagus nerve activity.

The healthy functioning of the vagus nerve helps with nervous system regulation.

Let’s now discuss the Vagus nerve in more detail.

What Is The Vagus Nerve?

The Vagus nerve, or cranial nerve 10, is the master controller of the PNS.

The Vagus nerve is responsible for numerous bodily functions, including our mood, immune response, digestion, heart rate, and numerous physiological functions in our organs and glands.

Emotionally, the Vagus nerve shapes our safety experiences and impacts our ease of social connection.

Some might say that your vagus nerve is the on-off switch for chronic illness and a chronic stress response.

Let’s examine how healthy vagus nerve function/tone moves us out of a chronic stress response.

How Healthy Vagus Function/Tone Moves Us Out Of A Stress Response

When a stress or threat occurs, firstly, the Amygdala in the Limbic system sends a signal to the hypothalamus, activating the sympathetic branch of the ANS and HPA axis.

When the Limbic System detects the threat has passed, the Vagus nerve engages the PNS, returning us to calm.

Having a healthy vagal tone is essential to completing the stress response cycle.

One way to assess healthy vagal tone is to measure heart rate variability (HRV).

Various Apps measure HRV; I use the Inner Balance App by HeartMath.

If you have a poor vagal tone or the threat is continuous, this could lead to a chronic stress response, Limbic System Impairment, nervous system dysregulation and chronic illness.

Polyvagal Mapping: What Is The Current State Of My Autonomic Nervous System?

Dr. Steven Porges, Polyvagal Founder, says, “Our story about the world, ourselves, and our relationships is based on our autonomic nervous system state.” 

There are three states of the ANS, including the following:

  • Ventral Vagal equates to feeling OK, safe and having a social connection.
  • Sympathetic quates to fight, flight and reactive. Also, I am energized and want to get things done.
  • Dorsal Vagal means feeling I am not OK, disconnected, shut down and hopeless.

Let’s look at each of these states, beginning with Ventral Vagal.

Ventral Vagal State

Each state has three parts: its Safety response pattern, Biochemistry and Mindset.

The safety response pattern in Ventral Vagal includes feelings of love, connection and joy and being open-hearted, curious and engaged.

The biochemistry of the Ventral Vagal is the healing and anti-inflammatory chemistry of dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins.

The body’s systems are functioning optimally, allowing proper detoxification, absorption of nutrients and ability to fight infections.

The mindset of Ventral Vagal is that you feel you can self-regulate and co-regulate with others.

You feel connected, safe, loved and capable.

You also feel loved and are willing to take risks.

Sympathetic State

The four safety stress response patterns of the Sympathetic state include the following:

  • Fight – exhibited by excessive trying, aggression and tightness in the body and chest.
  • Flight – exhibited by anxiety, avoidance, running away, fear and crying.
  • Fawning – exhibited by people pleasing and fear of rejection.
  • Find – exhibited by a sense of wanting to be rescued.

The biochemistry of the Sympathetic state is the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine, leading to hormone depletion, excessive inflammation and nutrient deficiency.

If you are in this Sympathetic state, the mindset return to Ventral Vagal includes beliefs such as:

  • I can be with and process difficult emotions.
  • I can meet my needs.
  • I am resilient, connected, and willing to live this life of triggers and joyful experiences.

Dorsal Vagal State

The stress pattern response of the Dorsal Vagal State includes feelings of low energy, numbness, dissociation, out of focus, hopelessness, unlovable emptiness, alone and loss.

There are also strong feelings of shame.

The Biochemistry of the Dorsal Vagal State is that of a complete system shutdown or basic survival mode.

This shutdown goes down to the cells and mitochondria, leading to Cell Danger Response.

The health consequences of the Dorsal Vagal State include chronic fatigue, low blood pressure, digestive issues, poor immune function, decreased ability to detoxify and many more.

There are also blended states of Polyvagal Mapping.

Blended States Of Polyvagal Mapping

The three blended states of Polyvagal Mapping include:

  • Ventral Vagal plus Sympathetic is represented by feeling safe and able to go and do!
  • Ventral Vagal plus Dorsal Vagal is represented by feeling safe when still, e.g. Meditation.
  • Sympathetic plus Dorsal Vagal is represented by feelings of freeze.

The Polyvagal Theory maps out the different states of our autonomic nervous system and how that relates to chronic illnesses and conditions.

Knowing what state you are in can help guide you toward healing.

Now It’s Over To You

Which state are you in?

Leave me a comment below.

Do You Need Help?

If you need help, I suggest you book a free functional medicine discovery session with me to determine whether my functional medicine approach fits your needs.


The information provided on this website is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease. Please do not apply this information without first speaking with your doctor.

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