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  • Victoria Giles-Vazquez

Exploring Polyvagal Theory: A Path to Mitigating Implicit Bias

Understanding and addressing biases is crucial for fostering inclusivity, empathy, and social justice. While biases often operate on a subconscious level, they can have profound impacts on our interactions with others and contribute to systemic inequalities. 

Biases have evolved as a foundational way in which our nervous system categorizes stimuli from our environment as "safe" or "unsafe" to ensure survival. The nature of evolution is constant change! 

Human beings need community, connection, and a sense of belonging in order to survive and thrive. And yet, we exist in systems that benefit from and perpetuate systemic violence through oppression and inequality that removes us from the inherent medicine of community and connection. I believe that our ability to mitigate implicit bias through engaging in our own internal work to promote social justice is evolution at its finest. 

We can begin to connect with our nervous system by learning the language of the body. I think of the Polyvagal Theory as the “Rosetta Stone” of somatics and my hope for this post is to explore what Polyvagal Theory is and how it  can be applied to mitigate biases and promote social justice.

Understanding Polyvagal Theory:

Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, provides insights into the autonomic nervous system's role in regulating social behavior and emotional responses. According to the theory, the autonomic nervous system consists of three subsystems: the Social Engagement System (SES), the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).

The Three Levels of the Autonomic Nervous System:

  • The Social Engagement System (SES): This system is responsible for promoting feelings of safety and connection. When activated, it allows us to engage socially with others, express emotions, and build relationships.

  • The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): Often associated with the "fight or flight" response, the SNS mobilizes the body's resources to respond to perceived threats. It increases heart rate, blood pressure, and prepares the body for action.

  • The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): The PNS is further divided into two branches: the ventral vagal complex and the dorsal vagal complex.

  • The Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) is involved in calming the body and promoting relaxation. It helps regulate functions such as digestion, breathing, and heart rate variability.

  • The Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC) is associated with immobilization and shutdown responses. It can lead to feelings of dissociation, numbness, and disconnection from the environment.

Biases and the Nervous System:

We are experience bias. Biases, whether explicit or implicit, can trigger physiological responses within the autonomic nervous system. 

For example, encountering a person in public may activate the body's stress response, leading to increased sympathetic arousal and decreased social engagement. These physiological changes can contribute to feelings of defensiveness, discomfort, or avoidance in social interactions. This shows up as a tendency to look avoid eye contact, tension in our shoulders, impulse to clutch our belongings, or cross the street to avoid another person. These are all cues that we are experiencing a sympathetic nervous system (SNS) response. And when this is reaction is triggered due to perceiving a person from a different racial or cultural background as a "threat", then we are perpetuating racial bias, whether we agree with it or not. 

Not so fun fact, the more we believe that we are immune to bias, the higher risk we are to hold more implicit bias. 

Mitigating Bias Through Polyvagal Theory:

Polyvagal Theory offers strategies for promoting social engagement and regulating physiological responses, which can help mitigate biases in interpersonal interactions. Here are some ways to apply Polyvagal Theory to address biases:

  • Cultivating Awareness: By cultivating awareness of our own physiological responses and emotional reactions, we can identify when biases are activated and take steps to regulate our responses.

  • Engaging the Social Engagement System: Actively engaging the social engagement system through practices such as active listening, empathy, and perspective-taking can foster connection and understanding across differences.

  • Building Empathy: Developing empathy for others' experiences and perspectives can help counteract biases and promote greater compassion and inclusivity in our interactions.

  • Seeking Diverse Perspectives: Actively seeking out diverse perspectives and experiences can broaden our understanding of the world and challenge ingrained biases and stereotypes.


What brings me the most hope is that we can actually change the way our nervous system perceives relational threat by understanding and working with our brilliant nervous system. We can practice social justice by attuning to our bodies and work with our internal systems to heal our external systems. 

Polyvagal Theory offers valuable insights into the physiological underpinnings of biases and provides practical strategies for promoting social engagement and understanding. By applying Polyvagal Theory principles in our interactions, we can work towards mitigating biases and creating more inclusive and empathetic communities. 

Hope this helps. 


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