informs all the work I do and teach

Polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Steven Porges, is one of the big game changers in treatment during my 30-year career as a therapist. It has changed not only how we treat trauma, but also how we understand the neurobiology of being human. I was lucky enough to get to see Steven Porges about 16 years ago at a conference. It led me to study him and his work completely transformed the way I see people—as well as the way I do therapy. We are finding that PV Theory seems to affect all of how understanding psychological principles and treatment, as well as the the relational aspects of being human. And because it is so grounded in biological responses, it means we can bring compassion to our humanness in a way that is important to all of us.

So, what is polyvagal theory? Polyvagal theory is the idea that as we evolved evolutionarily, we needed different available physiological states—particularly as we evolved into being mammals who care for offspring and with needs of being connected to our tribe. The “theory” part of the Polyvagal theory is about the theory’s connection to evolution.

For humans, we have 3 states: social engagement, fight/flight or freeze/collapse/shutdown. These 3 states are elicited by our perception of threat and are biological and nervous system responses to our neuroception, (a term that Porges coined to define how we perceive threat in the environment). Neuroception is not a cognitive perception, as much as the body’s assessment of threat in the environment, as determined by our nervous system.

These states have biological underpinnings that lead to physiological states—and these physiological states affect how we feel and how we behave. In this way, our neuroception has huge implications for our health—as well as how we function relationally. If we feel safety, the social engagement state (the Ventral Vagal Complex) is present—meaning we can be present, and we can


use relationships to regulate, connect and feel safe. If we feel a sense of danger, the fight/flight system (Sympathetic Nervous System) is activated. In this state, our body is mobilized and ready to act. And finally, if our nervous system perceives life threat, the body will move into immobilization or collapse—part of the freeze response (Dorsal Vagal Complex).

It’s important to know that these physiological states actually limit our behavioral repertoire. For example, if our fight/flight system is most present, we will not be available for connection. And if we are in freeze, we will not be able to take the action we need to take—using our fight/flight system or our social engagement system. And if we feel safe, we have access to having our nervous system be present, aware and responsive—and this means we can respond and not react. This social engagement state (Ventral Vagal Complex) is critical puts the the body in the physiological state of health, growth and restoration, as well, as it is the foundation for healthy relationship skills. Most of our struggles in being human are about these states working together less effectively.

These physiological states can become dominant, based on our life experiences as well as genetics and epigenetics. So, in some families, people could possibly have their flight or fight extinguished from their repertoire of options for themselves. If it was not safe to fight or flee, due to what would happen if the child tried to fight or flee, then someone might learn to not have healthy flight—like setting boundaries or saying “no,” or even be able to advocate or take care of themselves with others. Flight could also get extinguished out—where someone might stay in bad jobs or relationships, as it is not an option to get away.

The good news is that there is help to support shifts in the physiology that lead to changes in health and relational vitality also. And doing that is all about connecting to the body. We now know that embodiment, and truly being in one’s body and paying attention to body cues is a huge part of healing.


Download a JPEG of this chart.

Any and all diagnosis can be present on this chart—as psychiatric diagnoses are connected to states being regulated or not regulated. This also explains the idea of states—and the importance of being aware of our states. This awareness can then lead to ways to create resiliency, and the importance cultivating non-trauma states like connection, gratitude, self-compassion, and mindfulness.


So, in summary Polyvagal theory is a non-pathologizing lens that helps us better understand the nervous system and how it impacts the way we show up in the world, relationally and otherwise. It is critical to bring in this way of seeing as so much of our behavior is more about the physiology in our body rather than any kind of lack of strength or coping strategies. The good news is that we can all work toward improving our resiliency because resiliency is actually learned.




Ruby Jo Walker, LCSW, SEP, CHT
Psychotherapist   •  Somatic Experiencing Practitioner   •   Certified Hakomi Therapist
2855 Main Avenue, Suite 107A, Durango, CO 81301    •     970-259-5711    •    rubyjowalker@icloud.com