Counseling theory matters. This is comically illustrated in the 90s sitcom Frasier. The Cheers spinoff features Kelsey Grammar playing the role of Dr. Frasier Crane, a psychologist by training and host of a radio talk show where listeners are invited to call in and receive counsel over the air. In one episode, Frasier falls ill. Thankfully, his brother Niles is also a trained psychologist and is willing to fill in and host the radio show. He opens the show this way: “This is Dr. Niles Crane, filling in for my ailing brother, Dr. Frasier Crane. Although I feel perfectly qualified to fill Frasier’s radio shoes, I should warn you that while Frasier is a Freudian, I am a Jungian. So there’ll be no blaming mother today.”
One might have assumed that psychology is a unified field where everyone agrees on best practices and counseling theory. However, as Niles points out, his brother holds to Sigmund Freud’s teaching and so traces a person’s behavior to unconscious memories—so maybe mommy is to blame. Niles bought into the teaching of Freud’s protege turned rival, Carl Jung—so try getting in touch with your feminine side. As a result of their adherence to divergent theories, they have completely opposing views on how to help people.
These types of theories diverge because embedded in each one is assumptions about human behavior, thinking, purpose, and motivation. That is one reason I was concerned when my son’s school sent home a letter announcing a new series of classes designed around Polyvagal Theory (PVT) to help students combat anxiety, depression, and learning loss. While I’m thankful for the attention given to these important issues, I’m concerned about the nature of the help that is being proposed.
I am grateful for the school’s communication with parents including their explanation of what will be taught and providing the option for parents to opt their child(ren) out of the program. Further, I don’t desire to impugn anyone’s character or motives. I’m sure that everyone involved desires to help young people respond to the pressures of life in helpful ways.
Good motives are commendable, they matter. But, as Dr. Niles Crane pointed out, theories matter too. Specifically, psychological theories matter because they implicitly seek to answer some of the most fundamental questions we can ask about ourselves: Who are we? What is our greatest problem? How do we change?1
So, what is PVT and how does it address some of life’s most pressing questions?
Defining Polyvagal Theory
Polyvagal theory seeks to understand and apply how the nervous system regulates social connection and responds to stress.2 To state it simply: due to evolutionary adaptations, your nervous system is unconsciously evaluating the safety of your environment. Depending on the level of safety, your body exists in one of three states: social (you feel safe enough to engage others socially), mobilized (you feel endangered so you either fight or flee), or shutdown (You cannot fight or flee forever, so you eventually “faint or freeze”).3
If your nervous system senses that you are safe from harm then your body responds to that assessment. You will be able to engage others socially without fear. This state is the most desirable. This is where you will be open to relationships, be willing to share with others, and be able to give and receive communication. However, if your nervous system senses danger, your body moves into a fight-or-flight response. Whether the danger is real or perceived has very little to do with how your body responds. This is sometimes referred to as an elevated state of mobilization—you are on high alert, ready to fight the danger, or use your energy to flee from it. If real danger is present, this can be a good thing, you should flee from someone trying to harm you. However, according to adherents of PVT, you don’t want to remain in this state continuously because it begins to shape your reality. You will begin to assume that everyone and everything is a threat to you. The presence of anxiety is often linked to remaining in this mobilized state for too long. Lastly, your body will not allow you to remain on high alert forever. Eventually, your body will compensate by shutting down, called the faint or flee response. This is likened to playing possum. Again, this can be good or bad. It might be a helpful response in the instance of a grizzly bear attack but can also cause immobilizing fear, social isolation, lethargy, depression, or an unwillingness to act when you should.
The goal of implementing PVT is to help people understand how their nervous system controls their behavior and thinking. The letter that came home to us as parents read: “The students will be learning about how their nervous systems function to keep them safe and how our nervous systems influence or control our thoughts and our behavior.” The goal becomes to notice what state you are in and learn to regulate these constantly shifting stages more effectively.
Much more could be said about the origins, developments, studies, and critiques associated with polyvagal theory, but this overview will allow us to answer briefly the fundamental questions we proposed earlier.
Who are we?
Foundational to PVT is the assumption that these responses/states were developed over hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary development.4 Essentially, the earliest mammals needed a body capable of surviving in dangerous environments, thus the adaptation of defensive strategies like fight or flight or playing dead became evolutionary advantages. However, as mammals continued to evolve, there was an additional advantage passed down through random mutation and survival of the fittest; that is, a nervous system capable of responding to social behavior. So, a third state eventually came into being as the nervous system evolved and allowed for the development of social interaction, trust, and relationships.5 The “fight or flight” response or “faint or freeze” response wasn’t advantageous when it would be beneficial for a group of mammals to team up against dangerous enemies (or procreate for that matter). In the end, PVT is tied directly to the theory of evolution. You are the product of chance mutations and survival of the fittest.
What Is Our Greatest Problem?
Our greatest problem is a lack of safety or feelings of a lack of safety. The use of the word “feel” is not incidental. A Psychology Today article states that it is our “bodily felt sense of safety” which determines our state of stress and therefore our thinking and behavior.6 So, you not only need to be safe, but you need to feel safe. If the recent emphasis on safe spaces, trigger warnings, and trauma has perplexed you, this view of man is part of the reason for this emphasis. Certainly, many have suffered significant trauma and experience flashbacks to those events and should be warned if they are going to see or experience something that might cause them distress. However, if the discussion moves from being safe to feeling safe, then theoretically nearly any circumstance can be labeled traumatic and triggering.
If your nervous system is determinative in your thinking and behavior, then your greatest problem lies outside of you. It is dangerous people and stressful circumstances that are the primary issue. Since the nervous system is continually and unconsciously evaluating your safety and directing your thoughts and behavior accordingly, the greatest need you have is to feel safe. Again, the letter that came home: “When our nervous systems feel unsafe we act out or shut down… We pull away from each other or run away …”
How do We Change?
The goal of implementing PVT is not necessarily to change your character or thinking. Instead, it is to learn to recognize which neuropsychological state you are in so that you might seek to regulate it. If you can learn to regulate your nervous system, then you will be controlled by feelings of safety and be able to engage in beneficial social activity. Technically, according to PVT you aren’t growing or regressing, you are simply responding to your environment out of evolutionary instinct. Since behavior and thinking are biologically driven, it is not surprising that most of the suggestions for regulating your nervous system are physiological. Deep breathing and various stretches are often recommended. One counselor suggested that the fight or flight energy must be expended by running in place or punching a pillow.7 A physiological problem requires a physiological answer and that is by and large what is provided by counselors directed by this theory.
Evaluating Polyvagal Theory
Polyvagal theory has grown in popularity since it was first proposed in 1994. Besides professional practitioners implementing PVT, it is becoming quite popular among life coaches and social media influencers.8 Dr. David Ley wrote, “Polyvagal Theory is one of these latest psychological fads, with lots of buzz and attention from therapists and [life] coaches.”9
Dr. Ley’s use of the word “fad” is not incidental. In fact, it is the lack of scientific data supporting PVT which leads him to that label. He argues, “Psychology fads often have little objective scientific research supporting them. PVT has very few empirical studies examining whether applications of polyvagal theory generate measurable positive clinical outcomes.”10 Another neuroscientist insists, “Scientifically, the Polyvagal Theory isn’t experimentally verified.”11 Due to its lack of empirical data supporting PVT, Dr. Ley concludes that the use of it in counseling is highly experimental and should be clearly communicated as so to patients.12 It is hard to imagine how a theory like PVT could ever empirically demonstrate that thoughts and behavior are driven by a particular nerve that runs throughout the body.
Though it is commonplace to accept the latest fads as trustworthy scientific findings, it is dangerous to confuse theories with empirical data. Dr. Charles Hodges, a physician and biblical counselor, warns, “Not every study will have a good design or be well conducted, and the researcher’s biases can sometimes influence the interpretation of data.”13 The existence of hundreds of different and contradicting psychological theories points to its faulty scientific standing. Elyse Fitzpatrick explains:
“Because psychology, unlike chemistry, is not “hard” science, it has failed to produce one overarching, unifying system that deeply and clearly describes man and his problems… Most if not all psychologists will gladly admit that there is no absolute truth when it comes to their field and that the practice of psychology is like eating in a cafeteria – one chooses whatever system happens to appeal to him and then combines it with others. There is not one unified theory that any psychologist can point to and say, ‘This is absolute truth.’”14
Though often confused, there is a significant difference between the hard science of observable, repeatable data and the soft science of behavioral theory. Science is a gift from God and is profitable for humanity and our world. We should thank God for those advancements in medicine and technology that have saved lives and improved living conditions. However, Christians have always held that there is only one fully reliable source of absolute truth, the Word of God. As we search its pages, we find a much different set of answers to the most fundamental questions of life.
Who Are We? The Bible Provides a Better Understanding of Man.
Joined at the hip to evolutionary thought, PVT relies on the assumption that the driving force behind a person’s behavior is his or her nervous system. Quoting again from the letter that came home to parents: “Our thoughts and behaviors come from the changing states of our nervous system.” Notice the logic: your nervous system is unconsciously evaluating your safety, this evaluation determines your thoughts and behaviors. There is little to no room for conscious, thoughtful, responsible decision-making.
God’s Word presents a much different estimation of us. The Bible treats both the body and soul, the material and immaterial, with importance. In the opening pages of the Bible, God creates man from the dust of the ground (material) and breathes into him the breath of life (immaterial). Beyond that, man is distinguished from the rest of the animal world in that every person is created in the image of God. We get a clue as to what that means in Genesis 1:26, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’” Adam and Eve, and every person who has ever lived, is a morally responsible person designed to use their God-given capacities of thinking, feeling, choosing, creating, loving, communicating, and acting to reflect God’s character (his likeness).
The Bible doesn’t minimize either the body or soul, both form an important part of who you are. However, when it comes to the source of our thoughts and actions, the Bible emphasizes that immaterial part of us. Consider Jesus’ words in Matthew 15:18-19, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” Our thoughts and behaviors don’t flow from the nervous system but from our hearts. This is not from our physical hearts, instead, the Bible uses the word heart as a comprehensive term for everything in us that is immaterial. The heart is the center of who we are. It is our control center. The heart consists of what we know, what we love, and what we choose. In other words, the heart involves the mind, desires, affections, and will. The heart is the source of “motives; the seat of passions; the center of the thought processes; the spring of conscience,” wrote the Puritan John Owen.15 Craig Troxel points out the centrality of the heart: “as goes the heart, so goes the man.”16 These words from Jesus are fundamentally at odds with “as goes the nervous system, so goes the man.”
As people created in the image of God, we are responsible for our words and actions because they flow from within us. Our circumstances and our bodies play an important role in influencing us, but they are not determinative or uncontrollable powers over us.
What Is My Greatest Problem? The Bible Provides a Better Understanding of What Ails Us
Is man fundamentally deprived or depraved? If we are deprived, say, of safety then our greatest need is to fill that felt need. However, if we are fundamentally depraved then our greatest need must lie outside of ourselves. We are not able to accomplish the sort of rescue that we need.
Depravity sounds like such an ugly word, but if we are to find help for our greatest problem then we must begin by being honest about ourselves. If our behavior flows from our hearts, and our behavior is oftentimes selfish and unloving, then we are forced to conclude that selfishness and unloving attitudes are bound up in our hearts. The Bible refers to this as our sin, transgression, or lawlessness (1 John 3:4). It is tempting to want to place the blame elsewhere for our behavior. In one sense, being responsible for our thoughts and actions is a hard pill to swallow. However, when we are willing to admit that sin is our biggest problem (we have repeatedly failed to exercise our God-given capacities to serve him), we are in a position to look to Jesus who can save us from both the judicial consequences of sin and the powerful influence it exercises over us.
Jesus said that the reason he came was to serve others by giving his life as a ransom. Our selfish and unloving thoughts, words, and actions are such a grave offense against God that it cost Jesus his very life to purchase our forgiveness. The gospel is that Jesus paid the debt we owed so that we might be treated as if we’d never sinned. In light of the work of Jesus, “He does not deal with us according to our sin, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10; cf. Romans 3:21ff.). At the cross, we see that God the Father dealt with God the Son “according to our iniquities,” so that he might deal with us like sons and daughters. Jesus got what was coming to us so that we might get the rich reward that was coming to him.
For those who rely on Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is a second benefit of his work—We are freed from sin’s domination. Sin is not only described in the Bible as actions and thoughts but is spoken of as a power from which we need to be rescued. The Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:15, “…and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” One of the purposes of Christ’s death was to set us free from living for self and empower us to grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
How we define our problem determines where we look for our solution. If the fundamental problem is that we unconsciously feel safe or not then we will be forced to look for changes in our bodies, circumstances, or relationships. If these cannot be changed, then we are stuck. There is a better way. If we will admit that sin is our biggest problem, then we will look to Jesus, the one who exemplified perfect love in willingly laying down his life for us.
How Do I Change? The Bible Provides Real Hope for Change
Whereas PVT pushes for the regulation of bodily states, the Bible provides hope for transformation into the image of Christ even while suffering. As a result of the work of Christ, his followers seek to love God and love others in the same way that they have seen the love of Jesus displayed. More than that, followers of Christ are commanded to love even their enemies. Radically, Jesus commands his followers not to fight or flee, but to move toward their enemies in loving service.
This is not to say that people should deliberately put themselves in dangerous situations. Certainly, we want every person to be in a truly safe environment, particularly children. The hope for Christians, however, as we’ve evaluated the assumptions behind PVT, is that our feelings of safety don’t truly determine our thoughts or behavior. Instead, they flow from within us. At first, this feels like a weight we can’t bear, but ultimately, there is hope in taking responsibility. It is the only way to make sense of passages in the Bible that command us to rejoice in fiery trials (1 Peter 4:12); or, to count it all joy in various trials (James 1:2-3). There is real hope for Christians in the midst of suffering because we can trust that God is using these trials to make us like Christ. We don’t cling to the regulation of bodily states, but to the transformation of our hearts.
David Powlison sums up the problem of tying our thoughts and behavior to our physiology. He writes,
“What the Bible says about people will never be destroyed by any neurological or genetic finding. The Bible is the anvil that has worn out a thousand hammers. Neurology and genetics are finding lots of interesting facts. New findings will cure a few diseases, which is a genuine good. But biopsychiatry cannot explain, nor will it ever explain, what we actually are. All people are in the image of God and depend on God, body and soul.”17
Some will choose to root their lives in the shifting sands of psychological theory. I will choose to root myself and my family in the Word of God, the anvil that has worn out a thousand hammers.
- Polyvagal might more accurately be called a physiological psychological or biopsychiatrical theory as it primarily seeks to understand how the body drives behavior rather than the mind.
- The prefix “poly” means “many,” while the root “vagal” is a reference to the human vagus nerve which runs from the lower brain stem and branches out into various parts of the body.
- These three neurophysiological states are referred to as 1) Ventral Vagal Social Engagement; 2) Sympathetic Nervous System Activation; 3) Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. The Ventral Vagal Social Engagement state is really the unique contribution of polyvagal theory to the broader field of psychological theory. Prior to polyvagal theory, the latter two states were already being taught and well accepted in the field of biopsychiatry.
- Dr. Stephen Porges, the founder of Polyvagal Theory wrote the following for the National Institute of Health: “The human nervous system, similar to that of other mammals, evolved not solely to survive in safe environments but also to promote survival in dangerous and life-threatening contexts. To accomplish this adaptive flexibility, the human nervous system retained two more primitive neural circuits to regulate defensive strategies (ie, fight–flight and death-feigning behaviors). It is important to note that social behavior, social communication, and visceral homeostasis are incompatible with the neurophysiological states and behaviors promoted by the two neural circuits that support defense strategies. Thus, via evolution, the human nervous system retains three neural circuits, which are in a phylogenetically organized hierarchy. In this hierarchy of adaptive responses, the newest circuit is used first; if that circuit fails to provide safety, the older circuits are recruited sequentially.”See Porges, Stephen H., The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/
- The fight or flight and shutdown modes are sometimes referred to as the more primitive states since they evolved first.
- Springer, Shauna H. Polyvagal Theory: How Your Nervous System Works:https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/free-range-psychology/202203/polyvagal-theory-how-your-nervous-system-works. It is not hard to see the connection here between the need to feel safe and the demand for “safe spaces” and the need for parents to affirm their child in their gender and sexual identity.
- Wagner, Dee, Polyvagal Theory in Practice: https://ct.counseling.org/2016/06/polyvagal-theory-practice/#
- “This is especially apparent on social media platforms like TikTok, where the #polyvagal hashtag is extremely popular, with dancing, music, and body movements all recommended as interventions for everything from depression to trauma.” David J. Ley, Polyvagal Theory—Useful Narrative but Still Just a Theory, Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/202209/polyvagal-theory-useful-narrative-still-just-theory
- Dr. Maxwell Pearl, The Problem with the Polyvagal Theory, https://medium.com/@maxwellbpearl/the-problem-with-the-polyvagal-theory-c70f55ca6b2e
- Dr. Charles Hodges, The Importance of Science in Biblical Counseling: https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2021/04/02/biblical-counseling-and-science/
- Elyse Fitzpatrick, Counsel from the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012) 183.
- John Owen, The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, in Temptation and Sin, vol. 6 of The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 170.
- Troxel, A. C., With all your heart: Orienting Your Mind, Desires, and Will Toward Christ. (Wheaton, Crossway, 2020).
- David Powlison, Biological Psychiatry (JBC 17:3) 4: http://8fceb942096fcf9407d2-20c5ff882b477b20529d08a30bc17c49.r85.cf2.rackcdn.com/uploaded/b/0e4830618_1453918937_biological-psychiatry.pdf