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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 stylescome 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.