Health & Wellness
June 19, 2024

The Neuroscience of Polyvagal Theory and the Journey to Emotional Wellness

human body sculpture showing nerve connections from mind to body

Understanding the Polyvagal Theory is crucial for anyone seeking insight into the mind-body connection and the journey toward healing. In this blog, we aim to break down the complexity of the Polyvagal Theory and shine light on some of the Polyvagal Theory exercises.

Unveiling the Polyvagal Theory

What is the Polyvagal Theory?

The Polyvagal Theory is a revolutionary perspective in neuroscience that explains our physiological response to safety and danger. It provides a framework for understanding the body's autonomic nervous system and its reaction to stress. With the Polyvagal Theory, our nervous system operates in one of three states: social engagement, fight-or-flight, or shutdown. These states are inherently linked to feelings of safety, danger, and life threat, respectively (2).

The Role of the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is integral not only to our physical well-being but also to our emotional and social health. As the longest cranial nerve in the human body, the vagus nerve extends from the brainstem to our vital organs (1). This vagus nerve is the primary component of the autonomic nervous system, which governs our body's unconscious and automatic functions. Let’s dive deeper into the vagus nerve:

Bodily Regulations

The vagus nerve plays a significant role in regulating the functions of our primary organs, including digestive processes, heart rate, and respiration.

The Two Branches

The vagus nerve branches, consisting of the ventral vagal complex (VVC) and the dorsal vagal complex (DVC), have distinctive roles in our stress response and emotional regulation (1).

Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC)

The VVC helps regulate social engagement, emotional regulation, and our ability to feel safe and connected with others (1).

Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC)

The DVC controls our primal 'freeze' response to extreme stress. When activated, the DVC triggers a shutdown of bodily functions, leading to feelings of disconnection, numbness, and helplessness (1).

Mental Health Implications

The Polyvagal Theory suggests proper functioning of the vagus nerve, particularly the VVC, is crucial for emotional well-being and resilience. Issues with the vagus nerve, such as reduced vagal tone, have been linked to various mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

The Polyvagal Theory and Trauma

When we apply the Polyvagal Theory to trauma, we comprehend how traumatic experiences can alter our autonomic nervous system, leading to the chronic activation of 'fight, flight, or freeze' responses. These physiological reactions, inherently linked to feelings of danger, can contribute to conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Trauma therapy often employs principles of the Polyvagal Theory, supporting the healing process by helping individuals understand and manage these automatic responses to stressors. Simultaneously, it underscores the autonomic nervous system's role in our behavior and emotional state during stressful situations. This holistic approach aids in the restoration of a sense of safety, enabling the individual to self-regulate their responses and build resilience (3).

Polyvagal Theory Exercises From a Chiropractor’s Perspective

Chiropractic care primarily focuses on the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system. However, understanding the connections between chiropractic care and polyvagal theory exercises can provide valuable insights into a more holistic journey to overall well-being. Here are some potential connections between the polyvagal theory and chiropractic care:

Breathing and Relaxation Exercises

Diaphragmatic breathing, which can help activate the vagus nerve, may complement the benefits of chiropractic adjustments in promoting relaxation and well-being. Deep breathing, humming, or mindfulness exercises, after chiropractic care, may also enhance the experience and benefits of the adjustments.

Mindfulness-based Movements (MBM)

Mindfulness-based movements (MBM) rooted in polyvagal theory can facilitate healing for individuals. Physical activity involving social engagement allows for a safe transition from aroused states to calmer ones. Through social engagement, the autonomic nervous system can be regulated, promoting relaxation and overall wellness (4).

Gentle Movement or Stretching

Gentle movement or stretching promotes relaxation and emotional well-being. Activities like yoga and tai chi stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the ventral vagal complex (VVC), fostering feelings of safety and social connection. These exercises strengthen the mind-body connection, which enhances emotional regulation.

The Benefits of Polyvagal Theory Exercises

Polyvagal theory exercises offer numerous benefits, including improved emotional regulation, stress reduction, increased resilience, and a stronger mind-body connection. Through practices like diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness-based movements, and gentle movements, these exercises contribute to a balanced mental state and a sense of calm in daily life.

The Polyvagal Theory provides powerful insights into our physiological responses to stress and safety. It holds significant promise in trauma therapy and healing, offering a new way to understand and navigate our mind-body connection.


  1. Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine, 76(Suppl 2), S86–S90. Retrieved from
  2. Kok, B. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85(3), 432-436. Retrieved from
  3. Grossman, P., & Taylor, E. W. (2007). Toward understanding respiratory sinus arrhythmia: Relations to cardiac vagal tone, evolution, and biobehavioral functions. Biological Psychology, 74(2), 263-285. Retrieved from
  4. Heller, D. (2021). Polyvagal Theory Exercises: Benefits & Examples. The Human Condition. Retrieved from

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