top of page

The Fundamentals of
Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory, created by Stephen Porges, provides a scientific way to study feelings of safety that incorporates an understanding of the brain and the nervous system.

It focuses on the vagus nerve, one of the most important components of our nervous system that regulates how our body relaxes after stress (Porges, 2011). 

In clinical practice, co-regulation serves as a tool that engages the nervous systems of both therapist and client.

Polyvagal theory is a theory that explains how the autonomic nervous system works and how many of our bodies’ involuntary functions, such as heart rate, breathing rate, and digestion are affected by our feelings of safety. 

When human beings feel safe

Their nervous system supports the homeostatic functions of health, growth, and restoration.

They become accessible to others without feeling or expressing threat and vulnerability.

Feelings of safety reflect a core fundamental process that has enabled humans to survive.


Humans, as social mammals, are on an enduring lifelong quest to feel safe. This quest appears to be embedded in our DNA and serves as a profound motivator throughout our life. The need to feel safe is functionally our body speaking through our autonomic nervous system - influencing our mental and physical health, social relationships, cognitive processes, and behavioral repertoire. Feeling safe is more akin to a felt sense. “Felt sense” is not a mental experience, but a physical one.

Polyvagal Theory suggests that social connectedness is a core biological imperative for humans, or a need that must be fulfilled for a living organism to perpetuate existence and survival, since human's dependence on trusting others is wired into our genetics and is expressed throughout the lifespan starting from the moment of birth.

The Theory:


Defines how the autonomic nervous system reacts to experiences and people and regulates that reaction.


Describes how the autonomic nervous system takes in information from people and environments and creates a response to help us safely navigate what is ahead.

Outlines three responses that the nervous system has. These three responses describe how we move in and out of engagement based on how safe we feel in our daily experiences. Learn more about those three states here.


Hierarchy of the Brain:
The Three Parts of the Automimic nervous system

The Reptilian Brain aka Lizard Brain (500 million yrs “old”) and the place of
Dorsal Vagal State

The Limbic Brain (originating in mammals about 400 million yrs ago) and the place of Sympathetic State

The Neocortex (200 million yrs “old’) and the place of Ventral Vagal State

Recognizing where your client is on the hierarchy is fundamental to successful therapy.

Neuroception describes how the autonomic nervous system listens and takes in information, searching for cues of safety and watching for cues of danger. This happens without the thinking part of the brain, meaning it occurs below the realm of conscious thought and without our awareness. Through neuroception, the autonomic nervous system is listening inside to what is happening in your organs, outside in your environment, and between, sensing the connection between another's nervous system.


Neuroception helps us answer “Am I safe or am I in danger?” and the autonomic nervous system moves us into a state to adequately approach the situation.

Being able to fine tune the implicit autonomic conversations that are happening between yours and your client's nervous system are crucial to developing a safe, therapeutic relationships.

How does the nervous system listen?

Does the therapist's regulation matter? 

Co-regulation describes how the autonomic nervous system is shaped and regulated by those we interact with. Co-regulation is a biological imperative and needed for survival. Through our biology, we are wired for connection. Our autonomic nervous system longs for connection with another system and sends signals out into the world, searching for signals in return.

As a therapist, it is your role to be regulated and a regulating presence for your clients.

bottom of page