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the Autonomic Nervous System - 1 Page Lesson

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

..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.


The Autonomic Nervous System controls everything. It regulates all the internal organs without any conscious direction or effort. It’s autonomic. Breathing, heart rate, sweating, internal temperature regulation, digestion and more.

It’s historically been known as two antagonistic systems: sympathetic and parasympathetic. As if these two were competing against each other for dominance. But Dr Stephen Porges explains that it’s more complex than that in his Polyvagal Theory. It turns out there is actually the sympathetic system and two parasympathetic systems that work in concert to benefit the mammalian organism.

The sympathetic system is the flight/fight mobilization circuitry. This is located in the chest and controls the legs for evasion and the arms for aggression. The mobilization system is ideal for pushing away a danger and then getting to safety. The first parasympathetic system is the immobility system, located in the gut. This circuitry is responsible for the shutdown, collapsed behaviors that we see in a mammal when its life is threatened. And the second and newer parasympathetic system is the social engagement system, located in the face and neck and connected to the heart. This system is active when safe and allows for social connection with other safe mammals.

When autonomic shifts happen, the internal organs and bodily resources are repurposed and used for defensive or connective purposes. For example, when in danger and more sympathetically charged, the mouth may go dry. This is because the body no longer needs saliva for chewing when it’s mobilized for running or fighting. The body prioritizes its processes based on what it neurocepts as safe, dangerous or life threatening. When under life threat, all systems are reduced to support basic life maintenance, such as heart rate and breathing. The entire body slows down, imitating a corpse.

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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