Polyvagal Theory 

A short introduction


3 essential concepts provide a good overview and introductory understanding of polyvagal theory. 
These are:

  • the hierarchical reaction chain of our autonomous nervous system
  • the term "neuroception"
  • the importance of co-regulation for us as social beings 

The Hierarchy of the ANS

One of the pillars of polyvagal theory is the hierarchy of the autonomous nervous system. Our ANS reacts via neuro-receptively registered signals as emitted from the environment in three hierarchically sequential nervous circuits:


1. Safety:

The signals are classified as safe - ventral parasympathetic nervous system.

2. Danger:

The signals are classified as danger - sympathetic nervous system.

3. Life-threat:

The signals are classified as life-threatening - dorsal parasympathetic nervous system.


The hierarchy in the reaction determines the order from 1 to 2 to 3. 

Accordingly, the following happens with signals of danger:

1. We look for a solution by instinctively searching non-verbally for safety in social contact.

2. If this is not successful, our ANS switches to fight/escape reactions and goes into mobilization.

3. If this also fails and the danger stimulus continues to be registered, the only thing left is retreat, dissociation and immobilization.


Here it is important to understand that if we want to move from a dorsal vagus state (ANS interprets life threat) back to the ventral vagus state (ANS interprets safety), this can only be achieved by the reverse order of the above hierarchy, i.e. from 3. via 2. to 1.

The meaning of the term "Neuroception"

Another interesting concept described by Polyvagal Theory is the so-called "neuroceptive perception": the "unconscious" scanning of the environment by our nervous system. This happens without any involvement of conscious processing of the neuroceptively perceived contents.


Our ANS involuntarily interprets specific situations as 'safe': a familiar environment, a certain facial expression and attitude of others, etc. This develops at an early age and becomes a "blueprint" for the rest of our lives.


People are social beings, and therefore signals from others play an important role in neuroception. When someone is scared or runs away, we ourselves are immediately nervous without thinking about it. In this way we constantly, unconsciously, react to signals from other people: Facial expression, gaze, voice, posture, behavior.... In a safe environment, a traumatized nervous system often evaluates neutral or safe signals as unsafe or threatening and fixes our body in a sympathetic or dorsal state. 

Why do we need Coregulation?

Our ANS is in close contact with the ANS of other humans (and mammals) via neuroception. The process by which two or more people continuously and neuroceptively align themselves and exchange signals of safety is called co-regulation. Emotions and behaviors take shape and are adjusted through mutual contact. Co-regulation also allows one person in the ventral vagus state to positively influence the nervous system of another person towards feeling safe.