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  • Writer's pictureSimone Grove

An introduction to polyvagal theory

Updated: Jan 16

Chronic stress is now ‘normal’ – but it impacts on our health in many different ways. Over time these effects become compounded – and the longer we deal with chronic stress, the more habitual and difficult to address it can become.


In many of my articles here on the blog I cover the physical and emotional impact of stress and chronic stress, particularly when coping with a cancer diagnosis (you can read them here if you haven’t already). In this blog I’m going to introduce you to a unique and innovative therapeutic approach to healing the nervous system which is known as polyvagal theory.


Why is tackling chronic stress so important?


Whether you are dealing with chronic illness or a diagnosis of cancer, or simply want to find a way to manage severe long-term symptoms of tension and anxiety, addressing stress is always a sensible place to start. Increasingly studies show that heightened levels of stress are having a devastating impact on our physical and mental health, from exacerbating existing issues to becoming contributing factors in the development of new conditions.


When we are always (or almost always) stressed, our bodies and minds don’t function how they should. That’s because we’re not designed to live in fight or flight mode constantly – and in doing so, we’re causing untold damage to our wellbeing. This is known as ‘dysregulation’, which refers to being unable to manage fluctuating emotions and is a common feature in many mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.


When we are dysregulated, we feel:


  • Unable to relax

  • Bombarded by intense emotions

  • Stuck with unpredictable mood swings

  • Negative about our self-image

  • Impulsive

  • Unable to focus easily


Tackling dysregulation and chronic stress can be incredibly challenging when we approach it from a purely cognitive, rational perspective - because much of the healing and change needed to make a positive impact is body-based. Paying attention to the symbiotic connection between our neurological processes and our nervous system and physiological stress response is key in order to bring about lasting change and real relief from anxiety and stress.


What is polyvagal theory, and how does it work?


Developed in the 1990s by Professor Stephen Porges, polyvagal theory is a relatively new way of thinking which has helped to expand our understanding of the autonomic nervous system (the system that plays a crucial role in regulating our emotional, behavioural and psychological states). Through exploring and outlining how the nervous system works in response to internal processes and external stimuli, it has helped us to make sense of a complex and until recently neglected aspect of human health – and a topic which is becoming increasingly relevant with the rising impact of stress and nervous disorders.


Polyvagal theory focuses on the function of the vagus nerve and the role it plays on how our body responds to certain situations, which is a key component of the parasympathetic nervous system and connects us to calm, shut down or ‘fight or flight’ states. The vagus nerve is impacted through our social connections and is usually self-regulated, but certain external events can affect our ability to do this. 


Polyvagal theory shows promising outcomes for those with PTSD, anxiety, chronic illness, chronic pain and depression. Although it isn’t new, it is rapidly gaining recognition and is being found and implemented by more people worldwide.


How do you practice polyvagal theory?


To practice polyvagal theory and better harness its benefits for emotional regulation, first you need to understand and apply its principles to different areas of your life. Polyvagal theory is comprehensive and holistic in that it also supports our social engagement and overall wellbeing. This means that techniques which support implementation of polyvagal theory tend to be diverse and focus on different aspects of our health and wellbeing.


It’s a good idea to take some time to learn more about polyvagal theory and develop your understanding of your nervous system before attempting any vagus nerve techniques.


Some popular tools and techniques which have been shown to support polyvagal theory include:


  • Mindfulness and meditation

  • Movement

  • Trauma therapy

  • Self-regulation (grounding, tapping, progressive muscle relaxation)

  • Breathwork

  • Connecting with others


You can try many of these techniques on your own, but it is recommended that you seek professional help if your symptoms are severe or if you are addressing stress with a specific technique for the first time.


More on dealing with chronic stress


If you’re dealing with the impact of chronic stress, you’re certainly not alone. Busy modern lifestyles, constant exposure to overstimulating technology, chaotic home lives and demanding careers can all contribute to feelings of unmanageable and persistent stress, as well as a diagnosis of cancer or any other life-threatening or long-term illness.


For more on meaningful ways to deal with stress and enhance your emotional wellbeing, take a look at my stress management focused blogs here.



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