Healing the Autonomic Nervous System -- the basics of the polyvagal theory

written by Bruriyah de Leon | edited by Mikaela de la Myco

Maybe you’ve heard the term tossed around a bit recently or maybe you’re thinking “polyvagawhat?” — but wherever you are on the spectrum of familiarity with the polyvagal theory, it is definitely something you want to know about. 


Who is Behind the Polyvagal Theory? 

The Polyvagal Theory, created by Dr. Stephen Porges in 1994, is based upon the notion that the human mammalian autonomic nervous system evolved over time in order to keep us alive and safe.   The theory states that since mammals evolved from reptiles, our nervous system developed in such a way that it would automatically communicate with other mammals and when needed, it would have systems that it could engage or disengage to defend itself.    


smiling man with beautiful flowers around head, in front of a mountain

“So, what does polyvagal theory have to do with me?” You might be thinking to yourself. 

The reason why the polyvagal theory is so relevant for us today is that if our self defense systems are repeatedly or chronically engaged (due to recurring trauma, for instance) our bodies can semi-permanently be stuck in a dysfunctional state.  

Knowing how this system works can completely reframe how we perceive behavioral problems and a multitude of psychiatric disorders and how we treat them.  

Polyvagal Theory + The Central Nervous System 101

The autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.  These two branches respond to signals and sensations through three different pathways, all of which react in service to “survival,” whether real or perceived.

nervous system diagram next to a plant root

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

In the parasympathetic branch, the remaining two pathways are found in a nerve called the vagus nerve.  When broken down, the word polyvagal comes from Latin (poly meaning “many,” and  vagal meaning “wandering”), referring to the different branches of the vagus nerve — a long wandering nerve that connects the brain stem, the heart and moves all the way down to the colon— creating a physical relationship between the brain and the body.  

Why is the vagus nerve important?  The vagus nerve is one of the most important nerves in the human body, because it acts as the internal control center that regulates our heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, digestion, as well as speech.

The polyvagal theory states that as the body takes in new information, the vagus nerve will then dictate a person’s reaction into one of three states: ventral vagal, sympathetic and dorsal vagal.  


nervous system graph

The Three States of the Vagus Nerve 

Ventral Vagal:  

When we feel grounded in our ventral vagal pathway, we feel safe and connected, calm and social.  This looks like healthy digestion, healthy immune response, and most notably, connection and ability to relate with others.  

A sense of danger can trigger us out of this state and into the sympathetic branch.  In the sympathetic branch, we are then mobilized to act, which can then help us return to the safe and social state.


The sympathetic nervous system is where our reactions to stress occur. It is responsible for our fight-or-flight state, which causes us to confront or flee from a situation, in order to find safety.  

The sympathetic state can manifest as a sense of threat, freezing to scan the environment, a spike in heart rate, increased sweating, feeling anxious, scared or angry, slowed digestion, increased blood flow to the muscles as well as more literally, the need to run away or fight.  

Dorsal Vagal: 

In the dorsal vagal state, part of the parasympathetic nervous system causes us to shut down when an immediate threat is detected. Its purpose is to keep the body frozen or immobilized in order to survive and eventually fight or flee. 

The dorsal vagal state can look and feel like disassociation, numbness, dizziness and a sense of feeling trapped, decreased heart rate and blood pressure, slowed breathing, difficulty speaking, loss of body awareness and collapsed posture.  

The age-old term “playing possum” is the perfect example of a mammal in dorsal vagal as a result of threat.  This expression refers to the possum's habit of feigning death when threatened or attacked.  The dorsal vagal state also provides a biological and evolutionary explanation for why assault victims often don’t fight or run away when being attacked.

If the justice system understood polyvagal nerve theory, survivors of assault may not be accused in court of not fighting or running away from their attackers. The implications of understanding the central nervous system has a great impact on how we communicate and treat our mammalian kin. 


So what do we do with all this information?

With this initial understanding of the role and responses of the autonomic nervous system in service of our safety and survival, we can begin to befriend the autonomic nervous system and pay close attention to our response patterns.  By paying close attention to and tracking our response patterns we can begin to intentionally tune to and heal our autonomic nervous system to its healthy functioning, allowing us to create an inner experience of safety and connection.

For those of us who’ve experienced some form of trauma in our lives, (which is all of us), our body may still be perceiving a threat long after it has passed, leaving us stuck in a state of chronic sympathetic activation or dorsal vagal shutdown and / or collapse.  When this is the case, by having awareness of the polyvagal system, we can serve our nervous systems and bring them to their homeostatic baseline of safety. 


Some helpful ways to befriend & regulate our nervous system 

  1. The most commonly used form of nervous system regulation therapy is somatic therapy.  Somatic therapy involves present moment awareness by exploring bodily tension, gestures and sensations through a combination of awareness dialogue, movement, and /or touch. When connecting with and listening to the messages in the body, people are guided to choices that support themselves and with more ease, move towards freedom in their lives.  Somatic therapy aims to support the individual towards completing their trauma response if they are stuck in sympathetic arousal or dorsal vagal collapse. 

  2. Through safe loving connection, people can support their nervous systems towards more regulation.  This is one of the most beneficial ways to help ourselves go from activation or collapse to ventral vagal.  The safety and connection we feel from a loved one or trusted friend can actually serve as a co-regulator — another person who helps us to feel greater regulation.  For many of us, co-regulation may be more easily accessible in the beginning of our trauma healing journeys than self-regulation might be, especially in the instance of early attachment and / or developmental trauma.  

  3. Additionally, we can support our nervous systems through our diets and the food that we eat.  Ensuring that we eat nourishing and grounding foods and limiting our consumption of caffeine and other highly stimulating foods can soften a heightened nervous response.  Beans and leafy greens in particular tend to have a very calming and stabilizing effect on the nervous system.  

  4. Herbal medicines can be a supportive tool to help us regulate our dysregulated nervous systems.  As herbalists, having an awareness of the polyvagal theory can assist us in better identifying if our systems or the systems of others tend to be more prone to activation and arousal or collapse.  

Herbs that help support our nervous system 

If a person tends to experience a lot of anxiety and hypervigilant behavior, they are likely stuck in a state of sympathetic arousal, so calming and grounding herbal blends can help support their nervous system to arrive at a state of safety.  One of our personal favorite blends for this purpose is our Jungle blend which has Ashwaghanda in it, one of nature’s best remedies for stress and anxiety.  We also love our Grounding or Calming blends which both have lavender and damiana, two of the most well respected natural remedies for anxiety or other nerve related problems. 

For those who tend to err on the side of dorsal vagal, which might show up as a lack of motivation or depression, we love our River and Desert blends, which boast the cheerful energy of cinnamon, cacao and maca, known adaptogenic mood enhancers.  


We hope this blog and learning about the polyvagal theory served to support you along your journey toward deeper nervous system regulation.  Maybe what happens in vagus doesn’t have to stay in vagus after all.  



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