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Autonomic State - 1 Page Lesson

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a segment from my Polyvagal One Pagers free PDF in my File Share. There are more short lessons on the fundamentals of the Polyvagal Theory in that PDF as well. These are useful for your own short lessons, classes you might teach or handouts you might give out at a seminar or workshop.


Basically, our autonomic state is going to be either Safe & Social, Flight/Fight or Shutdown. Our state is going to be a reaction to the outside world, the internal world, and our perceptions of either or both. It is of course more complicated than that. These primary states can actually mix and there appear to be degrees of severity for each.

In essence, our state is not just how we behave, but also the filter that we experience the world through. Living in the social engagement autonomic state is more calm, soothing, connected, hopeful and loving. In the flight/fight state, life is more anxious, aggressive and dangerous. And in the shutdown autonomic state, life is very empty, numb and disconnected.

What can trigger shifts in autonomic states is often unpredictable with someone that has been traumatized: the wrong look, the wrong sound, the wrong smell even. Any of these and more can trigger a state shift. Those clients or students that have a meltdown or a crisis out of nowhere? It’s not necessarily out of nowhere. These meltdowns can typically be traced back to a moment of detecting danger and losing access to their social engagement system.

Autonomic shifts have consequences for daily life. Although they have evolved within us to support survival, they kick on and off throughout the normal day: at work, school, home and in relationships. Events that the body detects as dangerous shift the body into a mobilized flight/fight energy even if the event is not actually dangerous. Such as a child saying “no” to a parent. There is no danger in this situation, yet the parent may shift into an aggressive fight energy, which results in the feelings of frustration and yelling to get compliance.

Being in a defensive autonomic state for a prolonged period of time misdirects resources that the body would otherwise use for health, growth and restoration. This is why we see trauma survivors having higher rates of other problems, such as autoimmune disorders, severe obesity, stroke, cancer and more.

For even more information on the Polyvagal Theory, check out these other resources I have:

  • You can download a 1-page Polyvagal Theory resource in my File Share. There's this and many many other one-pagers for you to use.

  • The Polyvagal 101 page

  • the Polyvagal Theory on the Stuck Not Broken podcast, episodes 101-109

  • plus everything else I have in the blog and the Polyvagal 101 course below

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