It feels like there’s a new “theory” or “system” that’s supposed to explain our whole lives every few months. Sometimes, they end up becoming a big part of how we understand the world individually and collectively; sometimes they’re just a pop psych fad that we forget about after a few Instagram infographics. So if you’ve seen the term “polyvagal theory” before but skimmed past it, no one can blame you. Many people find that understanding more about polyvagal theory, and what it explains about our human experience, is enormously helpful — and sheds light on their relationships in a major way. Here’s what you need to know about it.
What’s polyvagal theory?
Polyvagal theory is a way of understanding how our body’s nervous system responds to different situations. It’s like a guide that explains why we react the way we do when we’re stressed or calm.
The polyvagal theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, a neuroscientist and psychologist. Dr. Porges was studying the nervous system and wanted to better understand why people respond the way they do in various situations, especially when it comes to stress, anxiety, and social interactions.
What he found was this: inside our bodies, we have an automatic nervous system that controls things we don’t have to think about, like our heartbeat and digestion. Through his work, Dr. Porges proposed the polyvagal theory, which suggests that the autonomic nervous system has three distinct response levels: the ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal systems. Each of these systems corresponds to different physiological and behavioral responses. The ventral vagal system is associated with feeling safe and connected, the sympathetic system is related to fight or flight responses, and the dorsal vagal system is linked to shutdown or freeze reactions.
- Social Engagement Mode: This is when we feel safe and connected to others. Our body functions normally, and we’re able to interact and communicate without any trouble.
- Fight or Flight Mode: When we sense danger or a threat, our body goes into this mode. Our heart rate increases, our muscles tense up, and we’re ready to react quickly to face the challenge.
- Freeze or Shutdown Mode: If things get really tough or overwhelming, our body might enter this mode. Our heart rate might slow down, and we might feel dizzy or faint. It’s like our body is conserving energy and preparing for the worst.
Which mode our body goes into depends on signals from our surroundings and our inner feelings. Polyvagal theory helps us understand these reactions and why we respond in certain ways in different situations.
What does this have to do with dating?
On the surface, this doesn’t necessarily seem like it has anything to do with relationships. After all, unless we’re in a Speed (1994) situation, sensing threats shouldn’t overlap much with our dating life, should it?
In a way, our dating life is all about navigating threats, at least if you ask our nervous system. This is where understanding attachment styles come into play. Researcher Donald Winnicott studied babies’ relationships with their caregivers and found that the consistency and stability of our early relationships impacts how we navigate new experiences and experience them as safe or dangerous.
These early experiences can influence whether we’re anxiously, avoidantly, or securely attached as adults — and these configurations continue to impact whether we perceive ourselves as safe or at risk, even in adulthood. Because we’re so dependent upon our caregivers for our literal survival as helpless infants, our nervous systems interpret our closest emotional attachments as an important indicator of our safety and continued survival; and our early childhood experiences influence what kinds of emotional connections we experience as safe and what we experience as dangerous.
Anxiously attached people will feel safest when they’re extremely close and connected with loved ones, and feel unsafe or vulnerable if they’re alone; avoidantly attached people are likely to experience ultra-close connection as a threat or a risk, and feel safer when they’re alone and don’t need to depend on others and potentially be let down.
This means that our nervous system is actually always assessing and re-assessing whether we’re safe or not in our most intimate relationships — and that’s where polyvagal theory comes in. For instance, if you’re an anxiously attached person, you might have experienced something that feels similar to a genuine panic attack if the person you’re dating doesn’t text back quickly, or if they seem distant or “off” on a date.
This can feel confusing and frustrating — but polyvagal theory helps us see that your heart rate is skyrocketing and head is spinning because your nervous system is perceiving a threat based on the behavior of the person you’re emotionally attached to, and so you’re entering fight or flight. Our nervous system is constantly trying to help us navigate danger, and in modern life where we aren’t hunting game or being chased by bears, that danger may be perceived within our high-stakes intimate relationships.