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What is The Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal Theory emphasizes the role the autonomic nervous system - especially the vagus nerve - plays in regulating our health and behavior. Created and developed by Stephen Porges, PhD, the theory describes the physiological/psychological states which underlie our daily behavior as well as challenges related to our wellness and mental health. By applying Polyvagal Theory to our personal lives as well as to disciplines such as medicine, education, and management, we can understand how safety, co-regulation, and connection are paramount to a healthy human experience.

Polyvagal Theory in 60 Seconds

We challenged some of our most passionate and well-trained friends of Polyvagal Institute to define Polyvagal Theory in their own words in 20 seconds or less. Here's what they had to say...

3 Key Principles of The Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory has three defining principles: the hierarchy of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) per PVT, neuroception, and co-regulation. We've described each principle below in detail and if you'd like to learn more, sign up for a course or check out our free downloads in the FAQ's.

The Hierarchy of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) per Polyvagal Theory

Through the process of evolution the mammalian ANS has a primary repertoire of  3 principle states. These states functionally and adaptively shift according to how safe we feel at any given moment. The mechanism involved in shifting these states (see neuroception ) occurs beneath the level of conscious awareness. These states form an underlying neurophysiological foundation for our feelings and emotions. In reality, these states are not always independent, but may interact to form hybrid states, which support a continuum of behavioral reactions ranging from quiescence to mobilized actions within both safe and threatening contexts. Download and/or share the ANS diagram (at right, and translated in multiple languages below), which shows the three main states plus hybrid variations. 

Autonomic Nervous System  diagram Polyvagal Theory Stephen Porges PVI2023.jpg

Frequently Asked Questions
about The Polyvagal Theory

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Crisis Resources

If you are experiencing an emergency, or are in danger of hurting yourself or others, please call 911 or your local emergency number, or go directly to the nearest emergency room. The following resources are available to support you:

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline (USA) at 1 800 799-7233

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (USA) at 1 800 273-8255 or visit their live online chat here:

  • SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) National Helpline at 1 800 662-HELP (4357)

  • NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) Helpline at 1 800 950-NAMI (6264)

  • LGBT Trevor Project Lifeline 1 866 488-7386

  • Veterans Crisis Line at 1 800 273-TALK (8255)

  • Ayuda en Espanol: Lifeline ofrece 24/7, servicios gratuitos en español, y no es necesario hablar inglés si usted necesita ayuda. 1 888 628-9454

  • A comprehensive list of international crisis resources from To Write Love on Her Arms