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Justin Sunseri's

Polyvagal Intro

Your in-depth introduction to the Polyvagal Theory, with loads of links to more resources to deepen your learning. 

Anatomy Drawing
Image by National Cancer Institute

The basic idea

The Polyvagal Theory, in essence, is the science of how mammals connect, but also how they respond to danger.

You've probably heard of the theory in relation to trauma and behavior, but inherently, the Theory is a biological one. PVT connects biology to emotion, thought, relationships and more.

A core piece of the Theory is the hypothesis that our bodies can exist in three distinct evolutionary survival states: safety & social engagement, flight & fight mobility and shutdown immobility.

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Safe & social

(aka "ventral vagal") parasympathetic

Allows for social connection, executive functioning, play, stillness, health, growth and restoration.

Active when the external & internal worlds are perceived as safe.


Polyvagal Safety & How to Use it >

100% Ventral Safety is Not the Goal >

The Difference Between Active & Passive Safety Cues >


Safety & Social Engagement >


Safety & Social Engagement of the Polyvagal Paradigm >

Image by Emmanuel Akinte
Image by Ekaterina Shakharova

Flight & fight

(aka "sympathetic")

Survival mode - allows for legs to be used for evasion and arms for aggression.


Active when the internal or external worlds are perceived as being in danger.

Heart rate up, shallow breathing, muscles tense, looking for danger.


What are Flight & Fight? >

Shifting from Fight to Flight Up the Polyvagal Ladder >


Flight & Fight >


The Flight/Fight System of the Polyvagal Paradigm >

Image by engin akyurt
Image by Denny Müller


(aka "dorsal vagal") 2nd parasympathetic

Life threat response - allows for the end of life with little to no pain. Numbing and dissociation allow for possibility of escape.

Active when the internal or external worlds are perceived as life threatening.

Body numbs, dissociation, drop in blood pressure and heart rate.


What is Polyvagal Shutdown? >


Shutdown >

Stuck in Shutdown - Stop Fighting it! >

Why is Coming out of Shutdown so Difficult? >


The Shutdown System of the Polyvagal Paradigm >

Image by Andrew Neel
Image by Joshua Rawson-Harris

Connect the PVT to trauma


Sign up for my email list to get my eBook on the connection between trauma & the Polyvagal Theory.

Mixed states

Those 3 are just the primary states. It's also possible to have "mixed states," a combination of two primary states active at the same time.


Safe /Social + Flight/Fight

To be play, both mammals need to have access to their safe/social state as well as their flight/fight state. If the flight/fight energy becomes too much, it's not play anymore.


Play or Flight/Fight? Polyvagal Theory Quiz >


Play >


The Play Mixed State of the Polyvagal Paradigm >

Image by Komang Gita Krishna Murti
Image by Cinnamon roll


Safe/Social + Shutdown

This is the ability to immobilize - to be still - without fear. Including laying down to sleep, practicing yoga or meditation, being intimate and using the restroom, plus more.


Stillness or Shutdown? Polyvagal Theory Quiz >


Stillness >


The Stillness Mixed State of the Polyvagal Paradigm >

Image by Yoann Boyer
Image by Eli DeFaria


Sympathetic + Shutdown

Freeze is a distinct thing, not just another word for "shutdown."  Freeze is a tense, rigid immobilization compared to a collapsed one in shutdown.


Panic & Rage as Freeze >


Freeze >


Shutdown vs Freeze >

Image by Simran Sood
Image by Joice Kelly
Image by David Marcu

Get relief from your stuck state

The Polyvagal Trauma Relief System takes you from desperation to hope. From disconnection to self-compassion. From shutdown to safety.

Relief in three phases:

1. Learn the Polyvagal Theory clearly

2. Build the strength of your safety state

3. Actively relieve your stuck defensive state

Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory

...we are not voluntarily controlling whether we shift in or out of these states.

Dr. Stephen Porges

Porges' website

the Autonomic nervous system

The PVT has everything to do with the Autonomic Nervous System.  The ANS is responsible for regulating all the internal stuff you don't need to think about, like: breathing, digestion and heart rate.  When we go into the different primary or mixed states, there are autonomic shifts that take place. 

For example, our breathing changes significantly if we are in our safe/social system (calm, deep & into the belly) versus our flight/fight system (faster, shallow & into the chest area).  And changes significantly again when we go into a shutdown state (very shallow and small).

Central to the PVT and how the ANS works is neuroception and the Deb Dana concept of the Polyvagal Ladder.


Autonomic Responses vs Behavioral Adaptations >

Image by National Cancer Institute
Image by Nhia Moua

the Polyvagal Ladder

A metaphor of how the autonomic pathways evolved and function in the mammalian body. Autonomic shifts happen in a sequence, not as conscious choices.

  • Safety pathways at the top

  • Flight/fight in the middle

  • Shutdown at the bottom


Polyvagal Ladder >


the Polyvagal Ladder >


the Autonomic Nervous System & the Polyvagal Ladder >

Image by Henry Be

A sequence of events,
not a menu of options

In my presentations, I explain that the autonomic states are a sequence of events, not a menu of options.  This means that we climb up or down the Polyvagal Ladder in order.  These are biological instincts, not conscious choices. 

If we neurocept that we are not safe, we drop down the ladder into sympathetic arousal.  Flight first, then fight.  If we cannot run away and we cannot fight, we drop down the ladder further into the shutdown state.

The reverse of this is true as well.  To come out of shutdown, our sympathetic state needs to kick in first.  A powerful fight state followed by flight and then into safety once again.


The unconscious detection of cues of danger or safety in the external or the internal environment.

Neuroception is also responsible for shifting the autonomic states up the Polyvagal Ladder.


Neuroceptive State Shifts >


Polyvagal 101: Neuroception, ANS, Story Follows... >


Neuroception is not the Spidey Sense... >

Neuroception: Healthy, Unhealthy & How Story... >

Image by Ruslan Zh
Image by Aleksander Fox

"Your autonomic state comes to life and then the information is fed up to your brain and it's your brain's job to make sense of what's happening in the body, so it makes up a story."

-Deb Dana, LCSW

Polyvagal Podcast Interview

Story follows state

When we shift up or down the polyvagal ladder, our brains create a narrative to explain why.  Examples include:

  • "I deserve it" or "I shouldn't have been there" or "I shouldn't have said that."

  • "I'm angry because [student x] was staring at me!"

On top of that, the thoughts we have will be a reflection of the autonomic state that we are in.  If we're in a safe and social state, our thoughts will be more compassionate and calm.  Our thoughts in a flight/fight state are going to be anxious or angry, directed at the outside world.  And in a shutdown state, ​our thoughts will be more apathetic and probably directed inward.

the vagal brake

This is the influence of the safe & social system on the heart.  With a stronger vagal brake, there is a higher tolerance to distress.  

Traumatized individuals have a compromised social engagement system.  So minor problems become highly triggering events.  Their heart rate increases, sending them into flight/fight sympathetic arousal.

Think of "the window of tolerance," basically.

The vagal brake is the focus of my course - Building Safety Anchors.


the Vagal Brake & Attachment >


the Vagal Brake & Co-Regulation >


the Vagal Brake & Distress Tolerance >

Why Your Vagal Brake Strength is Important >

Image by Darius Bashar
Image by Robina Weermeijer


Mammals are social.  That includes us.  Humans need safe mammals to provide


Think of a toddler throwing a tantrum.  They're dysregulated.  They need a safe adult to be in their social engagement system to provide cues of safety.  That's co-regulation.

Adults need it too.


Self-Regulation & Co-Regulation >


Regulation: Self & Co >

Pets & Co-Regulation >

Image by Surface
Image by Ashkan Forouzani

"Through the lens of the polyvagal theory, almost every diagnosis in the DSM is a dysregulated nervous system."

-Deb Dana, LCSW

Stuck Not Broken podcast interview

Mental health &
behavior adaptations

The PVT makes it clear that what we consider clinical disorders or psychiatric problems, may simply be a stuck defensive state or a behavioral adaptation to being stuck in a defensive state.  

A stuck defensive state - For example, what we commonly call "depression" may just be someone stuck in a shutdown state.

A behavioral adaptation - For example, substance use could be an individual's best attempt at self-regulating their defensive state.  

2 paths to trauma

Trauma is being stuck in a defensive state.  It's the reaction to the event.  Not the event itself.  This can take two paths:


How does Trauma Connect to the PVT? >

Trauma is Being Stuck in a Defensive State >


Trauma & the Polyvagal Theory >


What Trauma is & the First Path... >

the Second Path to Being Traumatized >

1. An acute life threat reaction

​​the individual survives something or multiple somethings that are basically one-time events, which leaves them in a stuck defensive state.  Some examples would be: war, school shooting, car crash or sexual assault.  This would be associated with PTSD and the freeze mixed state.

2. A chronic disruption of connectedness


the individual's safe and healthy attachment with their caregiver(s) is consistently cut off.  Some examples include: parental neglect, physical or emotional abuse.  This would be associated with C-PTSD and one of the primary defensive states.


Psychology traditionally approaches trauma through its effects on the mind.  This is at best only half the story and a wholly inadequate one.

-Peter Levine, PhD

Ergos Institute

Now that you know it all...


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