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Tend & Befriend as Applied to the Polyvagal Theory

Updated: Dec 24, 2019

Throughout the podcast, I've been wondering about the tend & befriend state and am interested in how you would break down tend and befriend into flight or fight and shut down.

Hi, thanks for the question. First, I'll break down what "tend" and "befriend" are. Then I'll look at how they correspond to the polyvagal theory. But before all that, I need to clarify what is meant by "state."


When we talk about "state" and the polyvagal theory, we're not talking about behaviors. We're talking about the actual physiological state of the autonomic nervous system. We can tell what state the nervous system is in by the behaviors the person is showing. But the behaviors aren't the state. They're evidence of the nervous system state.

Example: two people getting into a fight are in a sympathetic state. The behaviors are punching and kicking, but the state is sympathetic arousal.

We only have three autonomic nervous system states:

  1. social engagement (ventral vagal)

  2. flight/fight (sympathetic)

  3. freeze (dorsal vagal)


Basically, "...tend' refers to tending to your offspring and 'befriend' refers to seeking out social support during times of stress." (BetterHelp). Interestingly, "...the adaptive value of fighting or fleeing may be lower for females, who often have dependent young and so risk more in terms of reproductive success if injured or dislocated. And females of many species form tight, stable alliances, possibly reflecting an adaptive tendency to seek out friends for support in times of stress" (Pyschology Today). Though the original paper itself says, "men’s social responses to stress are well documented" as well.

What's being described here are general behaviors, not autonomic nervous system states. Just like flop, dissociation, collapse, death feigning or a catatonic stiffening are behaviors, but all of them use the freeze state circuitry of the ANS (dorsal vagal).


What autonomic nervous system state do tend and befriend utilize? When we're safe, we use the social engagement system (ventral vagal) to connect with others. We can also use this system to help others reach a neuroception of safety, which is called "co-regulation." We use the social engagement system to make eye contact, coo to a baby, sing lullabies and breastfeed. Sounds like "tend" to me.

If we neurocept danger, we drop out of the social engagement system and into a sympathetic state. The primary behaviors of sympathetic arousal are flight, then fight, in that order. Flight uses the legs and fight uses the arms, basically. And we lose access to the social engagement behaviors. The tend and befriend theory focuses on "stress," which is a very general term. I'd say that "stress" is the emotional experience of a mild neuroception of danger.

If we feel stress, then we seek out the support of others. This helps us to return to a feeling of safety and back into our social engagement system. Sounds like "befriend" to me. Even though this may be a mild stress, it is enough to trigger some level of the sympathetic state. We mobilize. That's what the sympathetic state is all about - mobilization. We mobilize to seek out support.

In times of actual danger (or perceived), what system and what behaviors does a parent use? Obviously the sympathetic state. In particular, they'll use the flight response in order to scoop up their child and get to safety. And they'll use their fight response to become more aggressive and get the predator to back off, before then moving to flight and getting to safety. In times of actual (or perceived) danger, a parent doesn't stop to socialize. They can't. They still use their flight and fight behavioral responses.

The tend and befriend behaviors are ideal for relieving the stress that accompanies social isolation. That isolation is a cue of danger, experienced as stress, which then triggers us to seek out safe social engagement in order to relieve that stress. Tend and befriend behaviors are also examples of protective co-regulation, which are necessary to get us into our social engagement system, which optimizes our use of resources for health, growth and restoration.

You can read the original "Tend and Befriend Theory" for yourself, of course. I don't think that it actually adds anything new to the Polyvagal Theory, but has a lot of information about things like oxytocin and the importance of attachment. Through the polyvagal lens, it's co-regulation as a way to return to the social engagement state as a first response to mild cues of danger, or "stress."

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Glad you took this on! I am curious why polyvagal theory isn't adapted to accomodate evidence that you can connect while responding to danger. People collaborate and connect in the face of danger even when they are sympathetically activated--I can picture many examples, but what about heroic acts people do in extreme situations like 911, for example. Don't we have to change the theory to fit the empirical observations, rather than say that if you are connecting/collaborating you couldn't possibly be stressed or experiencing a physical threat? Also why the primacy of physical over social stress--both are real threats. Just interested for a while in reconciling these things and not satisfied by polyvagal THEORY in doing so...

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That will be an interesting episode! Talking with clarity about the Polyvagal Theory can be a pretty high stress job in itself. But you seem to have mastered that one 😎


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