Polyvagal Theory – Insights into our responses

Oct 7, 2020 | Blog Articles

The Polyvagal Theory provides insight into our responses to threat. Kate MacRae, Quest Facilitator writes about this theory.

When we think of the autonomic nervous system, you may have heard or read that it’s made up of 2 systems: the parasympathetic (commonly known as the rest and digest response); and the sympathetic (commonly known as the fight or flight response). This is absolutely correct, although there is a third adaptive response to threat and that is to freeze. The Polyvagal Theory makes sense of this third neurobiological state.

The Polyvagal Theory was discovered by Stephen Porges (Distinguished University Scientist and Professor of Psychiatry) through his extensive research in behavioural neuroscience.

What’s useful to understand about this response within the context of what we teach at Quest is that this third response of freeze is commonly linked to trauma and is completely automatic based on our neuroception (a word coined by Porges), which is a sub-conscious system for detecting threat and safety.


  1. Immobilisation: Freeze/feigning death/behavioural shutdown. It is dependent on the oldest branch of the vagus nerve and is the unmyelinated portion of the parasympathetic system.
  2. Mobilisation: Fight/flight. This neural circuit is dependent on the functioning of the sympathetic nervous system and is associated with increased metabolic activity which increases cardiac output, pumping blood to the muscles in our arms and legs as well as activating the production of adrenaline to give humans additional strength to run or fight.
  3. Social connection: Rest & digest. This is the other parasympathetic response that’s dependent on the myelinated portion of the vagus nerve that fosters calm behaviour and inhibits the sympathetic system to create a physiological state allowing us control of facial expression, vocalisation and listening. This is what enables our ability to connect with other human beings when we feel safe and relaxed.

According to Stephen Porge’s research, the freeze response (or immobilisation) is the most primitive of 3 stages of the development of the autonomic nervous system that’s shared with most vertebrates and is associated with ‘feigning death’ in animals in life-threatening situations.

Physically the heartbeat & metabolism slows right down and certain areas in the brain shut down completely. In humans, physically the same things happen when we feel our life is under threat and from a behavioural perspective, we display characteristics of dissociation. This is when we avoid being in the here and now as a protective response to a traumatic event or the memory of one.


What can help people who have experienced this freezing response during a traumatic event is the understanding that it’s an entirely automatic response of our nervous system that we have zero influence over.

We may reflect back on that time and not comprehend why we didn’t run or fight. It’s useful and healing to understand this part of our nervous system would have completely overwhelmed the other potential response of fight/flight (mobilisation). It is in fact our bodies acting in a heroic way by protecting us from possible death.


I thought this article was a good summary:

Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threat and Safety

YouTube videos:

Dr. Stephen Porges: What is the Polyvagal Theory

Seth Porges: The Polyvagal Theory – The New Science of Safety and Trauma


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