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  • Writer's pictureVikram Saggu

What is the Polyvagal Theory?

The Polyvagal Response to Trauma

As there is a growing number of people with anxiety, depression, and PTSD in multiple cultures and age groups, it has become more critical than ever for counsellors to focus on trauma. For example, traumatic injuries, and harassment, occurs in many societies and makes it difficult for a person to focus on a career or socialize in society. Fear of socializing in society will trigger such behaviours like fight or flight and freeze response in a relatively common situation. A typical case includes going to dinner, a local shopping center, or just talking about a particular topic. Therefore, it is important to study multiple ways of treating trauma, helping people associate with society.

Theory of Response to Trauma

Coined by Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory is the concept of a person’s autonomic state and behaviour. The theory is hierarchical in relation with three subsystems of the autonomic nervous system that grew to maintain adaptive behaviours in response to the particular environmental features of safety, danger, and life threat (Griller&Porges, 2014, 180). Furthermore, the theory is primarily based on two life defence strategies in neuroscience, fight or flight and immobilization. Fight or flight is linked to the sympathetic nervous system (Griller&Porges, 2014, 180). Immobilization and dissociation are related to the activation of the vagal pathway (Griller&Porges, 2014, 181). Additionally, the theory describes the neural mechanics which physiological states communicate the experience of safety and contribute to an individual ability to feel safe and engage with others, or to feel threatened and retreat in defensive strategies (Griller&Porges, 2014, 181).

Stages of Adaptive Response

When the client walked into the office and sat down in a good mood as she was making eye contact, smiling, and talking in a full voice. In fact, during this stage, she was in optimal arousal (Lee,N.D.,1). Optimal arousal is a psychological construct where the level of mental stimulation is at its peak. Similarly, the female client is talking about her childhood, and she has just shared a traumatic memory from her childhood as her palms are sweaty and face reddened, rocked her chair back and forth. The hippocampus’s long-term memory has associated the memory as traumatic, and she has now gone into fight or flight mode (Lee,N.D.,1). As a result, the client is unable to channel her fight or flight and has now gone into permanent shutdown.

Nervous System

The client’s nervous system has first been affected in the ventral vagal nervous system. The ventral vagal system is the branch which effects the social engagement system (Wagner,2016,1). Similarly, the ventral vagal nerve dampens the body’s regulatory active state (Wagner,2016,2). According to Porges, one can imagine riding a horse to understand this process further. The rider would keep pulling back on and release the reigns in nuanced ways to ensure the horse good speed. Similarly, the ventral vagal nerve allows activation in a nuanced way and offers a reliable quality of sympathetic activation. In the second stage of response, the client went into the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is an autonomic response in the peripheral nervous system. As a result, the client’s pupils start to dilate, her stomach and intestine slowed down, and her heart has become to beat faster (Wagner,2016,3). In the third stage, the client’s dorsal vagal branch activated. The dorsal vagal branch is parasympathetic and an autonomic response associated with the peripheral nervous system.


When looking at a client’s emotions, one must only look at the amygdala, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and pituitary gland. Similarly, during the activation of these fight or flight emotions, the HPA Axis is also activated. “The HPA Axis is a psychotic response to stress involving interactions among the hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands” (N.A.,2015,417). This response starts when the hypothalamus releases hormones to the pituitary gland to release the hormone ACTH. ACTH then sends to message to the adrenal glands to release more hormones like cortisol. As a result, the body is ready to respond to the threat (N.A.,2015,418).

How Could a Counsellor Help

As counsellors aren’t always going to be around during a fight or flight moment, it is important to teach clients things that they can do on their own. Firstly, controlled breathing has shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and boost one’s immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control to stimulate concentration and improve energy. Science is just beginning to show evidence that the benefits of this ancient practice. For instance, research has shown that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms linked to anxiety, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and attention deficit disorder (Choudhary,2017,243). Another strategy is exercise. Exercise drives away the displays of stress hormones in the body. Additionally, even walking for short periods of the day or stretching and yoga can relieve tension in the muscles as it releases endorphins, which block pain messages (Choudhary,2017,244). At the same time, a good counselor would book weekly sessions to promote therapeutic presence and safety for the client. As the client does their self-help, they can feel safe and open during therapy work. As a result, a good therapist will be able to tune into both obstacles and successes the client is going through.

General Strategies

When someone is in freeze mode, we cannot, unfortunately, take them straight to hyperarousal. When a client is in freeze mode, the counselor will help them to enter into fight or flight slowly, then in the sense of hyperarousal. This would be attained my deep breathing. A good therapist would also use titration. Titration is a good practice that allows clients to experience small amounts of destressing while also maintaining their stress level. Using titration, the client would discuss their trauma in small doses while also avoiding the side-effect of fight or flight and freeze. This strategy will help the client’s autonomic nervous system face traumatic areas or topics.


This essay discussed the importance of the Polyvagal Theory as a tool during fight or flight. It also analyzed the different stages of the client at a neuroscience level and at in their nervous system from arousal to fight or flight, and the eventual freeze. In this portion, this essay also discussed the parts of the brain involved in these stages and the HPA Axis. Near the conclusion, this essay always talked about how counsellors would help the client do self-help. From there, this essay discussed some general strategies of the therapist in a fight or flight situation like deep breathing and titration.

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