Blog Post

Why the Polyvagal Theory is so Controversial

SMJ: “My therapist recently suggested that he’d like to employ a theoretical therapy based on the polyvagal theory. However, when I looked it up online, a lot of the practitioners were very New Agey and Wikipedia called it ‘unproven’. Is this something I should get involved in?”

Although we are not qualified to give out mental health care advice, we can say that the polyvagal theory is very controversial, even among qualified health care providers, and is also being peddled by “polyvagal coaches” who are often unqualified in the mental health field and are involved in other questionable services.

For those who never heard of it, the polyvagal theory (PVT) is based on the three states of the autonomic nervous system: 1) safe mode; 2) fight or flight mode; 3) shut down or immobilized mode. Safe mode is the most desirable because this is when we’re feeling good, safe, and happy. Fight or flight is when we are reacting to some kind of danger and the body starts to release all kinds of chemicals such as epinephrin, dopamine, into the bloodstream. Body functions such as digestion cease and our anxiety level rises. This is what happens to people when they suffer a PTSD episode. The last state, shutdown, is when we’re in extreme danger and may actually shut down or freeze. Some of the worst types of PTSD episodes can put a person into this state.

Enter the vagus nerve, which is a major bundle of nerves coming down from the brain through the neck and out into the chest and abdomen. These nerves are responsible for putting you into one of these three states.

All of the above is accepted, verifiable science; however, in 1994, things went off the rails. This is when a behavioral neuroscientist named Stephen Porges gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research in which he proposed that the parasympathetic nervous system was split into two separate branches – the ventral vagal system which supports social engagement and the dorsal vagal system which supports immobilization behaviors. In essence, he was creating a third type of nervous system response which has never been widely accepted and is not endorsed by current social neuroscience.

As science writer Brian Dunning writes in this article appearing on Skeptoid, whenever there’s a rift like this in a profession, “the charlatans come charging in to take advantage.”

Dunning writes, “These charlatans come in the form of — as they call themselves — polyvagal coaches. What these coaches sell is something that should be of grave concern to the psychological profession — and by extension, to everyone.”

This is because Porges’ idea, although not accepted scientifically, was put forth to help victims of trauma, which is one of the most common reasons why people seek professional mental health services. Using the buzzword “trauma” on a website will inevitably bring in plenty of customers from our wounded society – much to the delight of New Age alternative medicine practitioners.

Like Dunning, when I searched for “polyvagal coaches” I found websites for people who were selling this theory alongside yoga and eastern meditation, somatic coaching, Breema, inner child work and other New Age practices. This is possible simply because New Age medicine providers need little or no experience before hanging out their shingle.

“To be a coach? No experience needed at all, and no guidelines,” Dunning writes. “‘Coach’ is not a recognized psychological or medical profession, so nobody regulates it. Many polyvagal coaches sell certifications to one another through contrived institutes, allowing them to deceive clients by calling themselves ‘certified’ polyvagal coaches or whatever; but such certifications are legally meaningless, they're simply marketing gimmicks invented by the coaches themselves.”

Even though many of these certification programs offer professional guidelines, they are not legally binding and provide no meaningful protection to the general public.

“And so when we find trauma victims being detoured away from mental health practitioners and funneled into offices of unqualified people practicing under the meaningless title of ‘polyvagal coach’ — it can be a much more serious danger than it might seem at first glance,” he concludes.

My advice is to resist getting involved in polyvagal theory no matter what glowing terms and testimonials your therapist uses to convince you to try it. If he/she does not respect your choice to pass on this controversial treatment, find a therapist who will.

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