3 Ways Polyvagal Theory Can Help You Improve Financial Communication

Feb 09, 2024

Our relationship with money is often laden with emotions, stress, and unexplored territories. Polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, offers a fascinating lens through which we can understand and improve our connection with money. In this blog post, we will explore three essential concepts of polyvagal theory and how its insights can guide us toward a healthier, more balanced relationship with our finances.


Understanding Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory delves into the intricate web of our autonomic nervous system, which governs our body's responses to stress and safety. Dr. Porges proposed that our nervous system operates on three levels, each associated with distinct physiological and behavioral responses:

  1. Social Engagement (Ventral Vagus Nerve): This is the state of safety and connection. When activated, it promotes feelings of trust, connection, and engagement with others.
  2. Fight or Flight (Sympathetic Nervous System): This is the mobilization state, triggered in response to perceived threats. It prepares us to fight or flee, activating stress hormones.
  3. Shutdown (Dorsal Vagus Nerve): This is the immobilization state characterized by feelings of withdrawal, dissociation, and a sense of helplessness. It is the body's response when fight or flight fails to resolve a threat.

Now, let's explore how these three states relate to our financial well-being.

  1. Social Engagement in Financial Conversations (Ventral Vagus Nerve):

Money conversations often evoke feelings of vulnerability and stress between intimate partners. Being self-aware of our current level of arousal can be a big help in knowing if we are open to having a conversation with our partner about money. 

If we are not in a state of social engagement, then it is very likely that our money conversations will not go well. We want to focus on finding ways of getting into a state of social engagement so that we can have productive money conversations.


How do you know when you're in a state of social engagement?

  • You feel a sense of openness in your body
  • Your mind is open and curious
  • You can breathe easily 


  1. Fight or Flight in Financial Conversations (Sympathetic Nervous System)

When faced with financial stressors, our sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, triggering the fight or flight response. There can be a wide range of financial stressors and they can be different for different people. Polyvagal theory encourages us to recognize when we're in this mobilization state and explore strategies to bring ourselves back to a state of social engagement.


When you’re in fight-or-flight mode, you probably feel that you or your partner are thinking, feeling, or acting irrationally. If we keep in mind the level of stress associated with the response, we can understand these responses are not irrational but rather a product of the activation of their nervous system. 


A fight-or-flight response in money dynamics might look like:

  • Talking very fast about money topics
  • Not considering the whole picture
  • Unable to see other perspectives
  • Emotions like anger, sadness, fear, etc.


By acknowledging and addressing financial stressors from a polyvagal perspective, we empower ourselves to navigate challenges with a more regulated and centered approach.


  1. Shut Down (Dorsal Vagus Nerve):

The most primitive response to money conversations is when the dorsal vagus nerve is activated. Often, this is connected to shame and a sense of personal worthlessness. Once we collapse into shame, money conversations are stalled and done. 


When all other survival and connection strategies have failed us, we will automatically go into shutdown mode. We need to feel a sense of safety and connection before we can consider talking about money again. 


  A shutdown in money dynamics can look like:

  • Quitting work
  • Inability to look at current finances
  • Financial flashbacks and intrusive thoughts
  • A sense that life and/or money hold no meaning or value


As a couple, if we are not experienced in recognizing this state for what it is, it can be very hard to connect with our partner. This is a time when financial therapy (and likely general therapy) will be needed to help work past this response to money and relationships. 


The Rhythm of Regulation and Money Conversations

Our nervous system plays a crucial role in decision-making. When in a state of safety and social engagement, our decisions are likely to be more thoughtful, relational, and aligned with our long-term goals. Conversely, the fight or flight response can lead to impulsive choices driven by fear. 


Our level of physiological arousal ebbs and flows. When we experience mental and relational health, we can stay within the window of tolerance and social engagement


If we have a history of trauma and insecure attachment, it makes this process more difficult to manage. Learning to recognize when we are outside the window of tolerance or we have the fight-or-flight response aroused can help us develop adaptive strategies for returning to a state of social engagement where it is safe to bring up financial topics.  


Remember — when we talk about money, the outcomes of what we say will be influenced by our nervous system. Take time to fully understand your nervous system so you can engage in meaningful money conversations with your loved ones to improve your financial communication. 


Final Thoughts

Polyvagal theory offers a unique and insightful framework for understanding and improving our relationship with money. By applying the principles of safety, connection, and regulation, we can foster a healthier financial dynamic, navigate stressors with resilience, and make decisions that align with our long-term goals. The key lies in understanding our nervous system's responses and actively choosing pathways that lead to financial empowerment and fulfillment.


Do you need help putting this into action?

Schedule a 30-minute consultation to learn how Therapy-Informed Financial Planning™ can help you. 


Ed Coambs

Therapy Informed Financial Planning



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