Does Polyvagal Theory depatholigise many of the mental health disorders?

Share This Post

Polyvagal Theory is an evolutionary neuroscientific and psychological concept in the field of mental health that when applied has the capacity to depatholigise many mental health disorders listed in the DSM5

It was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges in 1994, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and a distinguished university scientist at the Kinsey Institute.

This  theory proposes that the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system provides neurophysiological substrates for adaptive behavioral responses to social and environmental challenges.

What does Polyvagal Theory suggest?

The Polyvagal Theory suggests that our bodies are wired to respond to both positive and negative social cues, and it is our ability to interpret these cues that determines how we react in any given situation. By understanding how our bodies are wired to respond to social cues, we can better understand how different environments can affect our mental health and well-being.

PVT suggests that our autonomic nervous system evolved in order to help us survive in dangerous situations. In these moments, we would either fight or flee depending on the situation. However, if neither of these options was available, we would enter a state of immobilisation  – essentially shutting down until the danger had passed. This response is still seen in humans today when we experience fear or trauma, and it can have serious implications for our mental health.

This theory has been used to explain how our bodies react to different situations, and how our behavior is shaped by this response. It has been found to be particularly useful in understanding and reframing pathology, as it offers us a way to look at disorders from an evolutionary perspective.

Are psychological diagnoses always helpful?

Applying the principles Polyvagal Theory also suggests  psychological diagnoses are unhelpful – primarily because they assume that the person has conscious control over all their decisions. However, polyvagal theory through neuroception states that most of our behavior is driven by our unconscious.

The presupposition that most of our choices are unconscious has considerable  impact on how one views the cause and cure of mental illness.This means that instead of viewing certain behaviors as symptoms of a disorder, we can view them as adaptive responses to environmental stressors. 

Understanding Evolution

By understanding this evolutionary response, we can begin to reframe pathology in terms of how it relates to our autonomic nervous system rather than simply labeling it as “abnormal” or “dysfunctional”. For example, if someone is struggling with anxiety or depression, they may be experiencing a heightened sense of fear due to their autonomic nervous system being stuck in a state of fight-or-flight. By recognizing this underlying cause, we can then work towards helping them find ways to regulate their nervous system and move out of this state.


Just because we can apply PVT to a case and depathologise some conditions (and heal and repair in the process) it does not mean that PVT explains all pathology.  One way of a reframe could be that in some cases damage to Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) are so extreme – they cannot be changed or reversed. 

It is also important to remember that PVT is one  “model” of the nervous system”  currently at least 4 popular models exist. 

Ultimately, while the Polyvagal Theory does offer us a way to understand and reframe pathology, it does not benefit us entirely to throw out pathological profiles altogether. Instead, by using this theory as a tool for understanding why certain behaviors occur and how they relate back to our autonomic nervous system, we can gain valuable insight into mental health disorders and develop a more effective understanding  of  them.


The Science 

Neurophysiological substrates

Neurophysiological substrates are the biological processes that underlie neurological activity in the brain and nervous system. They can include neurotransmitters, hormones, proteins, and chemicals that are responsible for transmitting signals between neurons. In other words, neurophysiological substrates are the biochemical pathways that allow neurons to communicate with each other.

Neurological activity
Neurological activity is the electrical signals generated by neurons in the brain. It is responsible for controlling and coordinating all of the body’s functions, from breathing to thinking. It can be measured using a variety of techniques, such as electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and single-neuron recording. EEG is probably the most widely used technique for measuring neural activity, as it records electrical signals from the brain in real time. fMRI measures blood flow in the brain, which can be used as a proxy for neuron activity. Single-neuron recording allows scientists to examine the relationship between neural activity and behavior on an individual neuron level. Neurological diagnostic tests and procedures are also available to assess living brains and monitor nervous system activity.

Neurons, also known as neurones or nerve cells, are the fundamental units of the brain and nervous system. They are responsible for receiving sensory input from the environment and transmitting signals to other cells in the body. Neurons have three distinct parts: a cell body, axon, and dendrites. The cell body contains the nucleus and other organelles that provide energy to the neuron. The axon is a long projection that carries electrical impulses away from the cell body while dendrites receive incoming signals from other neurons. Together, these three parts help neurons to communicate with each other and form networks within the nervous system.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Get updates and learn more about how you can become a #Polyvagalfam

About the author: Yasmin Shaheen-Zaffar

With a passion for improving the emotional wellbeing of young people, adults and parents, she is  the founder and creator of Polyvagal Teen®, she has developed an innovative approach to helping teens recognise and manage stress and anxiety through becoming “Polyvagal Aware”. In addition, Yasmin is also the founder of World Let’s Stop Shouting Day, which aims to promote peaceful communication and reduce conflict and aggression in our daily interactions. Neurosloth™ and The Hearts Whisper®

She also runs a small private practice providing counselling and neurofeedback  to young people and adults in North Yorkshire.

More To Explore

Don`t copy text!


Out March 15th On Amazon

235 page workbook journal £17.99

Join Waitlist

Our Polyvagal World

Join The Conversation: BOOK NOW
Wed. 7th of Feb 2004 7.15PM GMT
Live With Dr Stephen PORGES

Sorry You Missed This Event! Follow Us On Eventbrite To Get Notified Of Future Events!