The Poly Vagal Theory And The Stress Response

Published on 10th January 2021


In our anatomyand physiology course, the neurological system is very important to understand as so many of our students will work with clients who have a high level os stress. The human body is  designed to be in a state of ease and  balance (known as homoestasis). Otherwise our system can be overloaded and we go into a state of dis-ease or disease.

Most complementary therapies work in a preventative and restorative manner with the twelve systems of the body to maintain that homeostasis. 

In the past, the response to stress has been perceived as two- pronged:

  1. Fight, flight and freeze
  2. Rest and digest

Part 1; Fight, flight and freeze is controlled by the sympathetic part of our autonomic nervous system which responds to a stressor by sending alert messages to many parts of the body including all our organs and many muscles including those of the legs, arms and face. The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite and activates part 2;the rest and digest phase via the biggest nerve in our body the vagus nerve.

Poly Vagal Theory

However, Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal theory proports there to be third part of the stress response which he calls social engagement.

Social engagement, according to Porges is a playful mixture of activation and calming that operates out of unique nerve influences. The social engagement system helps us develop, enjoy and find our way around relationships. If we naturally or through learnt behaviour shift into using our social engagement system we become more flexible in our ability to cope. It is not a case of try harder, but try different.

Trauma can keep people stuck in the fight or flight response and teaching people to stimulate the vagus nerve will help them shift from being constantly on alert to a more restful, thoughtful and effective way of living.

How to stimulate the vagus nerve to develop and maintain balance (homoestasis)

Do some of these, you don't need to do them all! 

Exercise; a brisk walk for twenty minutes 3 or 4 times a week

Breath in for a count of 4, hold and breathe out for a count of 5/6 for 1-5 minutes a day

Splash cold water or even place ice on your face. In a and e, nurses use ice cubes to calm children

Sing or chant

Go upside down- yoga sun salutations or downward dog (encourage kids hang upside down on climbing frames and even on the sofa watching tv! )

Learn to Meditate- there’s loads of apps

Exchange love and compassion with family and friends

Breathe in for 4 hold for 7 breathe out for 8

Laugh- tell jokes, watch a comedy, have fun making funny faces, talking with funny voices

Have a massage view how to give one here

Go out in sunlight

Perform acts of kindness

Physical activities to regulate when you are about to go into fight, flight or freeze

Hook ups- put your hands under your armpits and cross your legs

Hold your forehead or heart

Carrying heavy backpack/books/jug

Do press ups against a wall

Do Wall squats

Stand on one leg- you can’t balance and be angry

Listen to music through headphones it stimlates the corpus callosume to connect right and left brain


Progressive muscle relaxation- tighten and relax muscles of the body starting at the feet and working up the body

Do something physical; Go for a Walk, do the washing up and scrub a really dirty pan, pair the socks in the clean washing, beat a pillow, scream into a pillow

Good luck with staying regulated!


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