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Play / SNB106

Updated: Mar 19, 2023


  • In this episode, we learn about the next Mixed State of the Polyvagal Theory - Play!

  • My name is Justin Sunseri.

  • I’m a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist obsessed with the polyvagal theory.

  • Welcome to Stuck Not Broken.


If you’re one of the Super Fans, stick around after the main topic, I have:

  • Announcements

  • homework assignments

  • A request/thank you

  • [a letter/email/voice message] from one of your fellow Super Fans.


But before I get into things -put yourself first. I keep every episode as safe as I can, but just by the nature of the topics, you may experience some stuff come up. Take a break if you need to.

This podcast is not therapy, nor intended to be a replacement for therapy.


  • safe/social + flight/fight = Play

  • Ventral vagal + sympathetic

  • It’s energized and activated, but safe and connected

  • Poilyvagal definition specifically involves reciprocal interaction and constant awareness of others involved in the interaction

EXERCISE - music comparison

Deep breath, listen to these two samples

Ramones vs

And again


  • When we play, we use movement

  • Running when we play tag, ride a bike

  • Arms when we play catch

  • Rough and tumble play is mobilized


  • Make eye contact w/each other

    • When this is gone, that’s a good sign it’s not play anymore

  • Smiles are present

    • When these are gone, it’s not play anymore

EXERCISE - vocal discernment

Deep breath, listen to this…

Sample of kids playing


  • So important for developing one’s own capacity to self-regulate

  • So important for exercising the ability to go up and down one’s own ladder

    • Accessing each state

    • Building a tolerance to defensive energy

    • Navigating interpersonal problems when they arise, which they will with winning or losing

  • So important for bonding, attachment

  • A lack of healthy play history in my populations over the years

    • End up connecting with peers and not knowing how to utilize their sympathetic energy

BTW, if you like what I’m doing here, you’ll really like what I am doing at Patreon.

  • Entire other podcast, mostly mini episodes 1-2x/wk

  • Livestream Q&A once a month

  • Priority responses from me

  • Priority questions answered

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  • Only $5 a month!


Awareness of others

  • flight/fight requires some awareness of others but not in a reciprocal way

    • Aware of where the danger or the target is

  • Unconscious awareness and evaluation of the intentionality of the other participants

Restraint on mobilization

  • Can’t be chaotic and pure flight/fight

  • Social engagement allows restraint

Turn taking

  • Reciprocal

  • A rhythm to play

  • shared

Clear rules to follow - top down narrative regulation

  • Spontaneity okay too

    • Kids do well with this, but there are still social norms in spontaneity

    • Some people are really good at eroding social norms and manipulating neuroceptions of safety

  • Rules provide boundaries for sympathetic energy

    • Even when consistent eye contact isn’t there

  • When a QB is tackled too late, it’s a fight even though they are tackled the entire game

    • But those two steps make a big difference

    • Break the rule = break social engagement

      • The rules are the container for safety w/o regular eye contact

  • It’s okay to hit each other in boxing, but not between the bells

    • And no ear biting

Co-regulation is necessary for play

  • The cues of safety we give each other like smiles and eye contact and prosody

  • A reassuring nod or smile when a rule is broken but aggression is not imminent

    • Vs not looking at the person


  • Work

    • Motivation, focus

    • Work can also be stress, pressure and overwhelm w/o safety

  • Puzzles, chess, board games

    • Playful, competitive (sympathetic)

    • But these can turn into something else too


  • Gradations are possible, sure, but basically…

  • Those stuck in a defensive state will have difficulty with play

    • Less access to their safety pathways

    • “Don’t play well with others”

  • When there is too much sympathetic energy, it is not play

    • Like with high excitement, plus hunger or plus pain from falling


  • Give my patreon a shot.

  • Livestreams, podcast


  • I hope you’ve learned something new to help you climb your polyvagal ladder.

  • Bye!

This week’s Patreon episode -

Intro/Outro music & Transition Sounds by Benjo Beats -

National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1 (800) 273-8255

National Domestic Violence Hotline -1 (800) 799-7233

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Crisis Text Line - Text “HOME” to 741741

Call 911 for emergency

This podcast is not therapy, not intended to be therapy or be a replacement for therapy. Nothing in this creates or indicates a therapeutic relationship. Please consult with your therapist or seek for one in your area if you are experiencing mental health sx. Nothing in this podcast should be construed to be specific life advice; it is for educational and entertainment purposes only.

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