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Polyvagal Intro

Your in-depth introduction to the Polyvagal Theory, with loads of links to further learning.

the basic idea.

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


vintage brain illustration
man playing with his dog
biology diagram of the nervous system
close up on man's eyeball
What "Safety" means
Primary source article
Polyvagal safety & how to use it
Can you identify your safety state?

safe & social

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

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

man training his dog
older couple cuddling on park bench
2 people in love
teen friends hanging out
Polyvagal Theory for total beginners
Primary source article
Download Polyvagal One-Pagers
What everyone gets wrong about...

flight & fight

Survival mode - allows for legs to be used for evasion and upper body 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.

mountain lion
dog running through water
man raising his fists to box
man tying his shoes before run
What are flight/fight?
Flight & Fight
Flight/Fight of the Polyvagal Paradigm


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.

sad woman on window seat
sad man on therapy couch
sad woman looking out the window
man facing the wall
What is shutdown?
Is coming out of shutdown possible?
Sitting with shutdown

Connect the Polyvagal Theory to Trauma

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

Mixed states

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


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.

men playing music in band
2 men playing chess
mom and son playing
kids running through park
Play or Flight/Fight?
Play: 1 Page Lesson


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.

child with headphones on laptop
woman relaxing side profile
woman laying outside in polyvagal stillness
mom kissing her child
Stillness or Shutdown?
the Danger in Meditation
Stillness: 1 Page Lesson

Primary States

Mammals can be prepared for safety, mobilization or immobilization. These are the 3 primary states.


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

woman having panic attack on the floor
woman in panic attack fingers in her hair
man screaming in frustration
anxious woman in job interview
Panic & Rage as Freeze
Shutdown vs Freeze
Avoiding Freeze
woman walking into sunset after trauma recovery

Get relief from trauma.

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

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. It's 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. 

closeup on eyeball pupil
man sweating looks stern
vintage anatomy illustration polyvagal theory

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

a sequence of shifts.
not a menu of options.

We climb up or down the Polyvagal Ladder in order. These are biological instincts, not conscious choices. 

If we detect 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.

woman in a polyvagal theory shutdown
man angry with hands on his head
woman frustrated
woman smiling in happiness
PVT Basics
Don't get lost in the biology
Book chapter on ANS
primary source article
Neuroception webinar
Not the Spidey-sense
Healthy & Unhealthy
Primary source article
States are not good or bad


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.

fingers gently touching the water
deers or something looking off
close on face looking up to the sky
Moving up the Ladder
Ladder sheet
ANS and Ladder

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

the vagal brake

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.  Minor problems become highly triggering events. Think of "the window of tolerance," basically.

The vagal brake is the focus of Building Safety Anchors.

man breathing out in the sun with a tree behind him
heart vein stuff
woman meditating in peace
webinar clip
top-down regulation
one-page lesson

story follows state

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.

man looking out the window with his coffee cup
woman looking off into the distance
man at work distracted
Self & Co-Regulation
Pets & Co-regulation

mental health &
behavioral adaptations

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 - what we commonly call "depression" may just be someone stuck in a shutdown state.

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

gamer with headphones gaming
coffee cup on a small plate
man in therapy
man looking skeptical
& Attachment
& the Vagus
& Distress Tolerance
in Trauma Survivors


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

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.

grandma consoling her sick grandson
grandpa playing basketball with his grandson wrong
spouse touching the pregnant belly of her wife
man with his big dog
Porges interview
Autonomic vs behavior a stuck state

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

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:

1. 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. This would be associated with PTSD and the freeze mixed state.

  • war

  • school shooting

  • car crash

  • assault

  • ...