Back to All
June 24, 2023

Polyvagal Theory: Your Nervous System’s Wiring for Safety and Connection

by Alexandra Braswell, LCSW

Written about the work of Dr. Stephen Porges and Deb Dana, LCSW.

Our nervous systems are constantly working to keep us moving, breathing, thinking, feeling, and more. It’s common to think about the Central Nervous System (CNS) when you hear the words “nervous system.” The CNS is a network responsible for taking in sensory information from the body, sending info to the brain for processing, and sending out motor signals to the rest of the body from the brain. But this is not the only part of our nervous system, or its only function.

Another part of this network is called the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which is connected with the longest cranial nerve in the body called the Vagus Nerve. According to Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, the ANS and Vagus Nerve are responsible for our body’s safety or protective responses to danger, in addition to sensing and connecting with others. Essentially, they are responsible for our “survival modes.”

There are three main principles of Polyvagal Theory:

1. The Hierarchy- ANS is separated into two parts (parasympathetic and sympathetic) and creates three main types of responses:

    • Ventral vagal state (social engagement/safety)
    • Sympathetic state (mobilization/activation)
    • Dorsal vagal state (immobilization/collapse)

Think of this hierarchy as a ladder. To get to the rung you need, you must stand on your current rung and then climb to the next rung up or down, in this order:

    • Ventral vagal (safety)
    • Sympathetic (mobilization)
    • Dorsal vagal (immobilization)

2. Neuroception

3. Co-regulation

So, why is this important?

Polyvagal Theory can be used as a lens to grow insight into yourself and your “survival modes” when you go through difficulties or traumatic events and their aftereffects. This is a way to understand why your nervous system does what it does to keep you safe and connected to others.

The Hierarchy

Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory suggests that the Vagus nerve connects with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and helps you survive by telling one of the two parts of the ANS to get to work: the Parasympathetic or the Sympathetic nervous system. Parasympathetic has to do with lowered energy in two ways: relaxing for rest (ventral state) and collapsing for safety (dorsal state). Sympathetic is considered its own state because it only functions in one way, having to do with activated or mobilized energy.

  • Ventral vagal state is our least protective state, about feeling safe, resting, connecting, and social engagement.
  • Sympathetic state is our second most protective state, about anxiety, anger, fight/flight, and mobilization.
  • Dorsal vagal state is our most protective state, about shutting down, depression, dissociating, collapsing, “playing possum,” and immobilization.

There are “mixed states” as well, which means you have a combination of nervous system states happening at the same time. There are multiple kinds of mixed states. Here are two examples:

  • Playing or dancing is a combination of Ventral vagal and Sympathetic states.
  • Freeze (an intense, stuck, rigid feeling where one’s body will not move despite having muscle tension and energy to do so) is a combination of Sympathetic and Dorsal vagal states.

So, what does that have to do with daily life?

Our nervous systems are constantly seeking safety. It is exhausting to be in “survival mode” all the time. It takes a toll on our mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social health. For example, if you spend a lot of time in survival mode, it is very common to experience digestive issues; this is due to the connection of the Vagus nerve with the digestive system. This is not sustainable, so the nervous system consistently works to seek safety cues from our environment and others and climb the “ladder” up to Ventral vagal state. We consciously want to feel safe, and the same is true for our nervous system.


Our nervous systems send us into protective states (ventral, sympathetic, dorsal) when they “neurocept” information about our safety, or unconsciously pick up on safety and danger cues from others and our environment.

Neuroception is all about detection, it is our body’s unconscious surveillance system. Think back to a time when someone who was anxious or angry came into the room you were in. You noticed almost right away, right? You were not just looking or listening to them to figure this out, your nervous system was sensing all the small cues of danger that person sent out:

  • frowning
  • squinting or wide eyes
  • abnormal eye contact (too much or none)
  • tense or sharp body movements
  • jaw clenched
  • closed body language
  • tense or increased tone or volume of voice, etc.

We unconsciously use Neuroception to identify if it is safe to Co-regulate, or automatically connect nervous system states, with others around us.


Co-regulation is the connection piece of this puzzle. Regulating your own nervous system, or changing nervous system “states” intentionally with coping skills, is important. Co-regulating with others is just as important. As researcher Dr. Porges and therapist Deb Dana say: our nervous systems are wired for connection. Think back to a time you were upset, and someone you trust gave you a hug. You felt a bit better, right? That is because your nervous system sensed that person was sending cues of safety like:

  • calm or slow movements
  • “eye crinkles”
  • appropriate eye contact
  • open body language
  • smiling
  • soothing tone, etc.

…and then aligned with their nervous system state, triggering your brain to tell your body to send out happy chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin. Physical closeness can be a helpful part of Co-regulation but is not always necessary. This is why video calls with loved ones (or our therapists!) can help us feel better and connected, too. We are social creatures, and co-regulation is one of our major, built-in tools for having meaningful connections with others.

So, what do you do with all this information?

As a therapist, I recommend going into therapy to work on healing traumas, anxiety, depression, addiction, grief, or other things that are sending you into survival modes. Other ideas:

  1. Practice coping skills to learn to regulate your nervous system states
  2. Create a safe or calming connection with at least one other reliable person (even if that person ends up being your therapist!)
  3. Join an emotional support group or substance use group
  4. Volunteer
  5. Attend yoga classes
  6. Exercise
  7. Become more involved with your faith institution
  8. Mindfulness/Meditation
  9. Connect intentionally with loved ones on a regular basis

Try Vagus Nerve Stimulation: 


If you are interested in beginning or continuing your therapy journey, please reach out to Avance Care Behavioral Health today, and get started with a therapist who can help meet your needs.

Want to learn more about Polyvagal Theory? Please see the websites below for more information, including books, lessons, videos, and podcasts:

  • Dr. Stephen Porges’ website:
  • Deb Dana, LCSW’s website:
  • Justin Sunseri, LMFT’s website and free podcast (also available on Spotify)

Don't delay the care you need.

Open 7-days a week with same-day appointments.