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Where polyvagal theory fits in with trauma

Where polyvagal theory fits in with trauma

I shared a version of this a year or so back but since then I’ve been doing some more research and training in polyvagal / somatic approaches, so I thought I’d share an updated edit!

One of the things that I feel quite responsible for in my work with clients is to be able to provide clear and science-based explanations of whatever mental health / trauma symptoms they might be navigating in not only a relatable way, but also in a very evidence-based way.  There is more than enough pseudo-science / pop-psychology out there and whilst sometimes unproblematic, sometimes it can be unhelpful. So, I think it’s REALLY important to understand how trauma impacts our lives whether from a psychological, social or physiological way because very often this is the launch-point for recovery and integration – if we can understand why what we are experiencing is happening it helps us realise that our reactions and responses are very often completely understandable, and at a survival level, super adaptative (which helps us remove self-criticism / judgement) and from this more compassionate place we can begin to heal.  This is why understanding things like polyvagal theory is helpful so bear with me…

The experience of trauma is a whole-body one.  Many distressing symptoms of post-traumatic stress are felt in the body, such as a tightening sensation in the chest, a lump in the throat, sinking or dropping feelings in the stomach or a state of chronic fatigue or exhaustion.  When we experience a threat (real or perceived) our pattern of breathing changes, as does our heart rate in order to find a way to navigate that threat.  One of two defence mechanisms kick in, triggered by different parts of our nervous system.  When our sympathetic path (fight-flight) system is activated, our nervous system is upregulated, our heart rate increases, and our breath usually becomes shallow and rapid.  Other times the parasympathetic path of our nervous system might trigger a shutdown response – commonly called freeze or faint.  When this occurs, our nervous system is downregulated and we might experience breath-holding, or maybe an irregular heartrate or a very slowed, or laboured heart rate.

The autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, and responds to signals and sensations via three pathways, each with a characteristic pattern of response. Through each of these pathways, we react “in service of survival.”

The sympathetic branch is found in the middle part of the spinal cord and represents the pathway that prepares us for action. It responds to cues of danger and triggers the release of adrenaline, which fuels the fight-or-flight response.

In the parasympathetic branch, the remaining two pathways are found in a nerve called the vagus. Vagus, meaning “wanderer,” is aptly named. From the brain stem at the base of the skull, the vagus travels in two directions: downward through the lungs, heart, diaphragm, and stomach and upward to connect with nerves in the neck, throat, eyes, and ears.

(Deb Dana, 2018)

Polyvagal theory, created by Stephen Porges, identifies a third type of nervous system pathway that he terms the social engagement system – a playful mixture of activation and calming that helps us navigate relationships.  The use of our social engagement system requires a sense of safety, which is a potential challenge when working with traumatised people.  Porges chose the name social engagement system because the ventral nerve affects the middle ear, which filters out background noises to make it easier to hear the human voice.  It also affects the facial muscles, enabling us to communicate via facial expressions and lastly, it affects the larynx and therefore vocal tone and patterning, helping humans create sound that soothe one another.

The vagus is divided into two parts: the ventral vagal pathway and the dorsal vagal pathway. The ventral vagal pathway responds to cues of safety and supports feelings of being safely engaged and socially connected. In contrast, the dorsal vagal pathway responds to cues of extreme danger. It takes us out of connection, out of awareness, and into a protective state of collapse. When we feel frozen, numb, or “not here,” the dorsal vagus has taken control.

(Deb Dana, 2018)

Why does this matter?

First off, having this polyvagal understanding and language can help us make sense of what our body is trying to tell us, and it gives us a helpful framework to support getting us moving back towards that ventral vagal state where we feel safe, engaged, and socially connected.  Importantly, there’s nothing wrong with being in any of these states or places on the ladder – it’s just a way of structuring the data that our body is providing us with to help recognise whether it’s actually helpful in the moment, and if it isn’t we can work with that framework to find our way (using a range of strategies that we can learn and practice in therapy, and with other safe people to support us with co-regulation when we need it) back to a more regulated state.

There are a range of different body-mind (I’m deliberate about it being that way around) approaches to resetting or supporting the vagus nerve in order to allow a greater capacity to socially engage.  As with most approaches to trauma work, there is no one-size fits all, and different approaches might be necessary at different times or in response to different triggers.

  • Creating at healthy gut biome
  • Laughter therapy
  • Breathwork
  • Humming or singing
  • Shake it out – such as Trauma Release Exercises (TREã)
  • Safe and Sound Protocol (SSPã)



If you’d like to explore your experience of trauma and its impact on your nervous system and would like a space to talk about how you’re feeling, please get in touch with us: / / 03 9077 8194.