The Polyvagal Theory

Steve Goldstein pic

By Budiman Minasmy, adapted by Steve Goldstein

Have you ever felt your heart race in the presence of danger, or experienced a calming sensation when surrounded by loved ones? Our body’s responses to different situations are not solely driven by conscious decisions, but rather by an intricate web of signals within our nervous system. One fascinating theory that delves into this phenomenon is the Polyvagal Theory, which sheds light on how our autonomic nervous system orchestrates our reactions and emotions.

Imagine this theory as a key that unlocks the secrets of our physiological responses. It unravels the enigma of why our body sometimes seems to act in contradictory ways under different circumstances. This theory is often introduced with a paradox: how can the same nervous system both calm us down and trigger life-threatening reactions?

The Basics of the Polyvagal Theory

The Polyvagal Theory, formulated by Dr. Stephen Porges, introduces us to the autonomic nervous system (ANS), a control center within us that regulates functions we don’t consciously control, like heart rate, digestion, and even our emotional responses. This theory suggests that the ANS operates through a set of neural pathways, dictating how we react based on the perceived level of safety or danger in our environment.

The Paradox: Calm and Threat in the Same Nerve

The heart of the paradox lies in the vagus nerve, a crucial part of the ANS that runs from our brainstem to various organs. The vagus nerve is a multidimensional player. It can either slow our heart rate, inducing a calming effect, or prompt our heart to race and activate our defense mechanisms.

Three Organizing Principles

The three organizing principles according to Porges is:

  1. Hierarchy
  2. Neuroception
  3. Co-Regulation

Hierarchy represents the earliest evolution of our autonomic nervous system from dorsal vagal to sympathethic onto ventral vagal.

Beyond its role in our survival instincts, the vagus nerve also plays a significant role in social interactions. The ventral vagal complex, a neural circuit formed by the migration of cardioinhibitory neurons, facilitates behaviors such as swallowing, breathing, and vocalizing. This circuit forms the foundation for our social engagement system, enabling us to connect and interact with others.

The resolution of this paradox lies in recognizing the distinct functions of vagal cardioinhibitory fibers originating in different brainstem areas: the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus and the nucleus ambiguus. Unlike ancestral vertebrates, mammals have evolved with cardioinhibitory fibers originating from both these areas, making the vagus nerve “poly” vagal.

Neuroception: The Instinctive Sentinel

A pivotal concept in the Polyvagal Theory is neuroception. This is the subconscious ability of our nervous system to detect signals of safety or danger in our environment. It’s like a silent sentinel scanning the surroundings and guiding our physiological responses accordingly.


Article based on original by Budiman Minasi, owner of Terra Rosa in Australia. Also, he has authored an article on Unwinding:

Understanding the Process of Fascial Unwinding, INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF THERAPEUTIC MASSAGE AND BODYWORK—VOLUME 2, NUMBER 3, SEPTEMBER 2009

And this recent article: Characterising a common class of spontaneous movement 
International Journal of Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork—Volume 15, Number 3, September 2022
Joel Begin, DPT, PT,1* Luiz Fernando Bertolucci, MD,2 Dorothea Blostein, PhD,3
Budiman Minasny, PhD4

A fuller version of this article appears in the Members’ Area. To find out more about membership click here.


Steve will be leading our Members’ Webinar on Thursday 18th July.

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Steve Goldstein

Steve Goldstein

Steven Goldstein, with a B.A. Education 1984, B.H.Sc. Musculoskeletal Therapy 2007, is an American émigré to Australia residing in Melbourne, Australia since 1999.

An innovative massage educator since 1992, instructing his unique blend of direct myofascial, indirect osteopathic releasing methods and somatic approaches internationally since 1995, known as Integrative Fascial Release IFR (1995), then Integrative Soft-Tissue Release ISTR (2009), and now known as Fascial Therapy FT (2015) www.fascialrelease.com, Steven is director of the Fascial Therapy Institute Australia.

His origins as an instructor began with Seattle Massage School in Seattle, Washington 1992-1998 along with Andrew Biel (Trail Guide to the Body), Marty Ryan (Love Your Guts) and Diana Thompson (Hands Heal), then moving onto Melbourne, Australia in 1996 and spending 2001-2012 with Endeavour College of Natural Medicine, and Southern School of Natural Therapies SSNT (2012-2017) instructing in higher education and vocational remedial massage.

Steven in the past chaired the Australian Association Massage Therapists AAMT National Education Subcommittee from 2004-2010, continued as a member of the Conference Committee for Massage and Myotherapy Australia until 2017.

Steven has been a frequent presenter at conferences in North America, the United Kingdom (Ireland, Scotland), and two British Fascial Symposiums in 2016 & 2018. Europe (Poland-Warsaw, Krakow & Poznan), South Africa (Cape Town, Johannesburg), Middle East (Dubai), India (Mumbai 2016, Dehli & Bangalore 2018). Invited to present at the MyoPain India in October 2018 in Bangalore, India and for various associations including: NHP Canada 2009, SMTO Scotland 2011, in Australia with AMT 2015, AAMT, ATMS, IRMA 2004, 2006 Myotherapy Association, Olympic Soft-Tissue Injury Forum in Melbourne and the Bowen Federation of Australia BTFA 2008.

A regular contributor to AAMT/MMA Journal 2002-2018, AMT In Good Hands 2015, NHP Canada’s Connections 2009, and Bodywork Professional Development UK SMTO journals 2010-2012.

Dynamic, playful, profound and informative is his trademark as an educator.

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