Traumatic stress and the autonomic brain-gut connection in development: Polyvagal Theory as an integrative framework for psychosocial and gastrointestinal pathology

Dev Psychobiol. 2019 Jul;61(5):796-809. doi: 10.1002/dev.21852. Epub 2019 Apr 5.


A range of psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder frequently co-occur with functional gastrointestinal (GI) disorders. Risk of these pathologies is particularly high in those with a history of trauma, abuse, and chronic stress. These scientific findings and rising awareness within the healthcare profession give rise to a need for an integrative framework to understand the developmental mechanisms that give rise to these observations. In this paper, we introduce a plausible explanatory framework, based on the Polyvagal Theory (Porges, Psychophysiology, 32, 301-318, 1995; Porges, International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42, 123-146, 2001; Porges, Biological Psychology, 74, 116-143, 2007), which describes how evolution impacted the structure and function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The Polyvagal Theory provides organizing principles for understanding the development of adaptive diversity in homeostatic, threat-response, and psychosocial functions that contribute to pathology. Using these principles, we outline possible mechanisms that promote and maintain socioemotional and GI dysfunction and review their implications for therapeutic targets.

Keywords: Polyvagal Theory; autonomic nervous system; brain-gut axis; stress; trauma.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiopathology*
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology*
  • Vagus Nerve / physiopathology*