How we experience the Polyvagal theory

We can have a direct experience of the Polyvagal theory by observing the different self-states in ourselves and others. This article will describe what to pay attention to.

Background: The Polyvagal theory identifies a previously unacknowledged circuit in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) by noticing how the Vagus nerve branches into Dorsal Vagus and Ventral Vagus. Its contribution to our understanding of the ANS goes beyond mere description. It puts the existence and functionality of the ANS circuits within the context of how we have evolved to respond to threats. For a description of the ANS circuits, see Window of Tolerance & Polyvagal Theory Diagram.

The ANS mediates interaction through its three circuits. Each circuit has a different way of organizing our resources to optimize the organism’s ability to face the situation. So, we’re talking about a whole-organism response that is different for each circuit. Hence, each circuit corresponds to a distinct self-state. As we can experience the self-states as different, we can have a direct experience of the Polyvagal Theory in action.

In the following paragraphs, I describe the experience of each self-state in terms of energy, as befits the function of these states, which is to modulate energy as befits the situation.

Ventral Vagal: The energy of engagement

The default mode is the Ventral Vagal circuit, evolutionarily the most recent circuit, and the one that is sophisticated enough to handle the subtleties of social engagement. It is represented by the green box in the PVT diagram. This circuit stays engaged as long as we sense the situation to be relatively manageable, a challenge but not an existential threat.

What does it feel like inside? And what does it look like from the outside? There’s a capacity for mindful engagement with others as well as our own thoughts, sensations, and feelings. A sense of relaxed alertness, i.e. neither vigilant nor inattentive. There’s a capacity for pausing and taking in experience (listening to people, reflecting on our experience). Beyond any of the specifics, this is clearly the self-state of somebody who doesn’t have a wolf at the door.

Sympathetic: The energy of survival

If the situation cannot be dealt with in Ventral Vagal mode, the ANS automatically switches to the Sympathetic circuit. It is represented by the red box in the PVT diagram. This circuit provides a tremendous boost of energy to facilitate survival through fight or flight.

The “boost of energy” is not a metaphor, but a down-to-earth description of what we can experience in this state, or observe in others when they are. The energy is palpable in many ways, e.g. in the agitation, the jaggedness of movement, and the faster rhythms of speech. There is a narrow focus on fight/flight (in sharp contrast to the fluid and broad perspective of the Ventral Vagal state).

Dorsal Vagal: Collapsed energy

If the Sympathetic is not up to the task of facing the situation, we automatically shift to the most primitive circuit. It is represented by the yellow box in the PVT diagram. The function of the Dorsal Vagal circuit is not to face the situation but to conserve energy in case the organism somehow survives.

In civilized life, the Dorsal Vagal gets triggered in plenty of situations where the threat is objectively not that great. This is because the trigger is not how objectively overwhelming the situation is. The trigger is just that the situation cannot be handled through fight or flight. And, in civilized life, there is much that cannot be handled that way, leading to a Dorsal Vagal collapse.

Again, the phrase collapse is not a metaphor, but an embodied reality. This shows up as somebody yawning a lot. Slumping on the couch, almost liquefied. Speaking in a barely audible voice. Feeling, and acting, confused.

When in doubt about which self-state, come back to the basics. Pay attention to the energy, most of all. Is it the relatively calm and fluid energy of engagement? Or the intense energy of survival? Or is it collapsed energy? This a what tells you which ANS circuit is involved.