Polyvagal Theory

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The Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, posits that the human autonomic nervous system has three distinct pathways influencing our emotional and social behavior: the ventral vagal complex promoting social connection and calmness, the sympathetic nervous system initiating "fight or flight" responses, and the dorsal vagal complex leading to "freeze" or shutdown states. These systems function hierarchically, with the body first seeking social engagement before resorting to defensive states. The theory emphasizes the importance of social connection as an evolutionary mechanism for safety and highlights how our nervous system constantly evaluates environmental cues for safety or threat.

Related LP Terms

Polyvagal Theory > Seven Essential Needs

Non-LP Related Terms

Polyvagal Theory >


This theory provides the neurological and evolutionary substrate for the Seven Essential Needs, specifically the environmental need for safety.

It also provides in important component of a proper Human Development Framework and full development of Individual Potential and Species Potential by explicitly informing our need, as a species, to develop safe systems and safe institutions.

It also has implications for therapy and Decolonization and Neurodecolonization.

Theory Summary

Three Neural Circuits: The theory proposes that we have three distinct neural circuits that determine our perceived sense of safety and how we respond to threats. These are:

Ventral vagal complex (VVC): Often called the "smart vagus," this pathway is associated with feelings of safety, calmness, and social connection. It supports social communication, facial expressions, and listening. When this pathway is active, we feel socially engaged and safe.
Sympathetic nervous system (SNS): This is our "fight or flight" system. When faced with a perceived threat, it prepares the body for action, either to confront or flee from the threat.
Dorsal vagal complex (DVC): This pathway can lead to feelings of disconnection and shutdown. It's the body's "freeze" or "collapse" response and is most primitive among the three. When overwhelmed beyond the ability to fight or flee, the body may go into this immobilized state.

Hierarchy of Response: These systems work in a hierarchical manner. Ideally, the VVC (social engagement system) should be the dominant system. However, when we perceive threats, the body may resort to the SNS (fight or flight). If the threat is too overwhelming or inescapable, the DVC (freeze or collapse) might take over.

Perception of Safety: Our nervous system is constantly evaluating our environment for cues of safety or danger. It's not just about actual threats but how our body interprets various stimuli. For instance, friendly facial expressions, melodic tones in voices, and gentle touches can activate our VVC and make us feel safe. In contrast, harsh voices, sudden movements, or hostile expressions can trigger our defense systems.

Social Connection: One of the key aspects of the Polyvagal Theory is the emphasis on social connection as a primary evolutionary mechanism for maintaining safety. Through our evolution, feeling safe was not merely about avoiding predators but also about being securely connected to a group.

Implications for Therapy: Understanding the Polyvagal Theory has significant implications for therapeutic approaches. For instance, therapies can aim to engage the VVC, promoting feelings of safety and social connection, thereby helping individuals move out of defensive states.

For Students


Possible paper topics (not limited to these, only suggestions).

Polyvagal Theory: Implications for psychopathology
Polyvagal Theory: Implications for human development
Autoethnographic analysis of childhood and adolescent environments, through the lens of the Seven Essential Needs and Polyvagal Theory
Mapping the Neurology of safety: Neurological circuits and behavioural pathways.

Potential Sources

Carter, C. Sue, Stephen W. Porges, and Tiffany Field. “The Healing Power of Love: An Oxytocin Hypothesis.” Emotion Review 14, no. 3 (2012): 281–89. doi:10.1038/embor.2012.191.

Porges, Stephen W. “Polyvagal Theory: A Science of Safety.” Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 16 (2022). https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnint.2022.871227.

———. “The Polyvagal Perspective.” Biological Psychology 74, no. 2 (2007): 116–43. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2006.06.009.

———. “The Polyvagal Theory: Phylogenetic Substrates of a Social Nervous System.” International Journal of Psychophysiology 42, no. 2 (2001): 123–46. doi:10.1016/s0167-8760(01)00162-3.

Porges, Stephen W., and C. Sue Carter. “Polyvagal Theory and the Social Engagement System: Neurophysiological Bridge Between Connectedness and Health.” Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 33 (2018): 32–40.

Porges, Stephen W., and J. A. Furman. “The Early Development of the Autonomic Nervous System Provides a Neural Platform for Social Behavior: A Polyvagal Perspective.” Infant and Child Development 20, no. 1 (2011): 106–18. doi:10.1002/icd.688.