The polyvagal theory: how humans respond to challenges

The polyvagal theory: how humans respond to challenges

During these challenging times, it is perhaps helpful to look at how our nervous system has evolved to adapt to challenges and stress.

In a 2009 paper[1], Dr. Stephen Porges explains a theory he has developed regarding the hierarchical nature of our autonomic responses when confronted by a challenge:

  • First, the ventral vagal complex engages the parasympathetic nervous system which controls facial expressions and tone and inhibits the HPA axis. In evolutionary terms, it is the newest part of the human nervous system.
  • Next, our fight or flight mobilization system will engage the sympathetic nervous system if a danger is detected. Heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels will increase and digestion is inhibited.
  • Finally, when a danger becomes a seemingly inescapable threat, we will engage the most primitive component of the nervous system, the dorsal vagal complex. This will result in immobilization or a freezing behaviour. From an evolutionary perspective, if one is to be eaten by a tiger it would be better to faint or shut down. In this response, blood pressure and heart rate drop as we feign death.

By way of an example, if we are confronted with a challenge we will use discussion, diplomacy, and physical and facial gestures to resolve it. If this fails and the situation devolves, a fight may ensue or we may simply disengage and leave. If we feel there is no escape, we may simply shut down. 

These three states are dynamic, explains Dr. Porges. In switching between the responses, the nervous system will: 1) assess risk; and 2) if it is safe, inhibit the fight, flight or freeze behaviours.

But the question is, Dr. Porges asks, how does the nervous system know when the environment is safe or dangerous?

It does so through “neuroception” – we respond to the “intention of voices,” warm, expressive faces and hand movements. These signals promote a sense of safety. However, in a state of fight/flight or immobilization the ability to decode these cues is reduced.

Dr. Porges is a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He explains his fascinating polyvagal theory in a video you can watch here:  https://youtu.be/ec3AUMDjtKQ

  

[1] S. Porges, “The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system,” Cleve Clin J Med., 2009. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/

 

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