01 October 2022

Understanding and Regulating Our Nervous System from the Perspective of Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory is a theory developed by Stephen Porges (first introduced in 1990s) that explains how our autonomic nervous system works. Although there has been some criticism of this theory, many people including professionals find it useful.

According to Polyvagal theory, our autonomic nervous system has three states: social and safe, fight-or-flight (mobilisation) and shutdown (immobilisation). We move between these states in a hierarchical way. This means that if we are in a state of calm or social engagement, we do not move into immobilisation without going through mobilisation. Likewise, if we are feeling shutdown and withdrawn, we need to move into mobilisation (even momentarily), and then into our social engagement system.

Very briefly, when our ventral pathway of the vagus nerve is activated, we feel calm and safe, we are in connection with others. At the same time, our sympathetic nervous system regulates our heart rate and breath etc. However, when we perceive danger, ventral vagus can no longer hold and our sympathetic nervous system takes over. This means that we move into fight/flight to take action (we either run away from the danger or fight it). This may present as anxiety, hypervigilance or anger (Dana, 2018 & 2021). If fight/flight does not solve the problem and there is a life-threat (perceived or real), we become immobilised. This is where we become disconnected and withdrawn. We might also feel hopeless.

Based on this theory, when our nervous system is dysregulated, there are simple steps we can take to activate the ventral vagal branch. This is the branch of our nervous system, when activated, helps us to feel safe and connected to others.

According to Deb Dana (2021), the first step we can take is to notice and listen with self-compassion and curiosity. You may wish to place your hand on your heart to feel your heart beat or you may wish notice your breath. When you turn your attention to your nervous system, notice: Are you feeling calm? Are you feeling anxious or angry? Are you feeling low and withdrawn? Once you tune into your nervous system, you may want to:

  • try slow breathing and sighs (these are useful especially if you are anxious),

  • use words/tones of voice that makes you feel calmer (it may be a good idea to come up with these words when you were in a state of calm)

  • try humming

  • go for a gentle walk (this may be helpful if you are feeling low)

  • connect with others (if we connect with others who are calm and containing, this helps us to return to a state of calmness, through coregulation).

These are simplified ideas. Perhaps you can come up with your own methods of calming down which will be unique to you.


Dana, D. (2021) Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.

Dana, D. (2018) The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation.