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the Play Mixed State of the Polyvagal Paradigm

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

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Safe/Social + Flight/Fight = Play

Play is a combination of the safe and social circuitry being used along with sympathetic arousal of flight/fight. When we play, we’re active, but we’re safe. We use our faces and voice to signal safety to the other participant(s) in the play.

My children and I love to run around chasing each other. We play fight, we wrestle, we throw things, we scream and yell. All of these things are potentially danger cues in and of themselves, but when you see our faces, you’ll see smiles, eye crinkles, upright eyebrows and eye contact. Our ears are attuned to the human voice still, so discussing the rules of the game or creating new ones on the fly aren’t an issue. Our voices have a lot of range along with laughter.

Play can also be where two nervous systems are sharing attention. Doing a puzzle together is a safe and social activity, but doesn’t require a whole lot of eye contact. It’s two people working on a project together. The back-and-forth turn-taking rhythm of these activities is essential in play. Play is shared and turn-taking is integral to that.

Working on a project with a co-worker can be a form of play. My co-worker and podcast guest Mercedes Corona and I have a great time working on the podcast or developing curriculum for work together. It’s a lot of work, but the two of us genuinely enjoy the shared experience and consistently provide cues of safety to each other. We exchange ideas back and forth, challenge each other and encourage each other. For all intents and purposes - we’re playing.

Play also extends into sports - a mobilized, shared activity that involves cues of safety. Of course, the other team is not looking to provide cues of safety. But there’s a significant difference between an opposing player using intimidation and one that actually wants to hurt you. In fact, intimidation, trash talking and being overly aggressive can be seen as well within the rules/norms of many sports. Acting within the confines of those norms doesn’t trigger a distinct neuroception of danger. But acting outside of those norms can.

Players on the defensive side of the football are supposed to tackle the quarterback on the opposing side, the offense. If they tackle the quarterback before he throws the ball, this is called a “sack” and has no penalty. Conversely, if the same player tackles the same quarterback after he has thrown the ball (after a couple of steps), this is not a sack and is actually a penalty for the defensive team (“roughing the quarterback”). It can be the same tackle, in the same spot, with the same players, but one type of tackle is okay and the other is not. The sack is considered fair play and part of the norms of the shared activity. Everyone agrees to it. But the penalty isn’t. In fact, it can often be seen as a direct insult, threat or attack on the quarterback and his team. The offense will often come to the quarterback’s aid and use physical and verbal intimidation on the offending defensive player. It’s neurocepted as a cue of danger since it’s outside of the norms of play. Especially if the offending player is trash-talking or indifferent to the well-being of the quarterback.

As we can see from the football example, play is reciprocal and synchronous. “Reciprocal” means it’s back and forth. It’s shared. There’s an agreement between the playing parties. “Synchronous” just means at the same time and in the same bodily state, which would be safe/social and flight/fight. If one party drops too far into flight/fight, it’s no longer play. It becomes something else.

The importance of play

Play is important because it exercises the ability to shift up and down the ladder. While playing, we are using mobility with safety. We’re going down the ladder while staying firmly in our social engagement system. Or we’re using the shutdown system, like with hide and seek, while still being planted in our safety system.

Since we are anchored in safety, we can actually travel up and down the ladder, building our resiliency to being able to handle doing so. We’re also going to be strengthening our social engagement system at the same time, developing a stronger anchor in safety.

This is essential in children. Play is not just play to them. It's how they build the strength of their social engagement system. This is true for any of us, but the importance in childhood shouldn't be undercut. Setting children up with a healthy play history is a strong foundation for their future functioning.

Play in video games

Play can look many different ways: dance, sports, competition, puzzles, role-playing, theater… and I'd argue even video games. There’s a huge competitive component to video games, while also having a huge social component. If you can work with a teammate in a video game, you’re going to be using strategizing and problem solving. You need to be anchored in safety to use these cognitive skills. But you also need the competitive edge that comes from being in a fight state. You will also be sharing vocal and intermittent facial cues with your teammates, like between rounds of the game.

Are video games the same as dance or baseball? I don’t think so, but I think there’s value to gaming. Especially if that’s the best option you have at your disposal. If you’re a parent that can’t mobilize on a sunny day due to a chronic illness, then maybe you can play video games instead. Or a puzzle, or coloring in a coloring book, sure. But video games are… fair game, in my opinion. (Sorry for that.)

In my home, Mario Kart is a common way for my family of four to connect through play. We're able to soothe each others' high arousal states through social interaction, eye contact and vocal prosody.

Online gaming is different. The players don't see each others' faces. There is some vocal exchange, but not much and not necessarily. Many players don't use their mics and prefer to play in silence. While others do use their mics... unfortunately. It's commonplace for vocal danger cues to come from players, including yelling, groans and insults.

Mobilization without safety

Individuals who are stuck in a defensive state may not be able to handle the mobilization of play while also accessing their safety system. What ends up happening is that they mobilize, but aren’t able to temper their flight/fight behavior. Play quickly turns into something else. Ever heard of kids that “don’t play well with others”? This is them.

Their defensive systems are being activated simply due to the nature of play. But they don’t have the ability to co-regulate. Either because co-regulation was never a part of their nervous system development, or because they lost access to it from a traumatizing incident.

The kids and adults that push the limit of acceptable play will end up hurting someone. They won’t have guilt over it either. They will blame the person or shame them. In order to empathize and feel sorry for hurting another, you need to have access to the safety state. This individual has less access to the safety state, therefore does not feel empathy or sorrow.

I’m at my son’s first soccer game (which he ended up hating), a field with 12 toddlers on it. There’s a mix of nervous system states present. Many have dropped down the ladder and want their parents, refuse to go on the field or need something like a snack or water or they’re getting worn out. There’s parents on the field and coaches and a couple refs and everyone is telling the kids what to do. It’s a fairly dysregulated state of affairs.

One boy in particular is highly mobilized - on the field when he’s not supposed to be, not following directives from the coach or ref and touching the ball with his hands. He’s just moving around without conscious awareness. His safe and social system is not developed enough to inhibit the impulses to move. He crashes into other kids and falls down repeatedly as well.

There is one thing that I witnessed next that might shed some light on this particular soccer player’s dysregulation. At one point, the child had “fallen” down and stayed on the ground despite the game going on around him and the adults telling him to get up. He’s not in a tantrum or a meltdown, just laying there. His Dad walks onto the field (for the third time) to correct his behavior. The little soccer player gets up with his arms up, waiting to be held by the Dad… but the dad spins the kid around and gives him a little push back out onto the field. The Dad showed no emotion, no expression, didn’t say anything, provided no support, no encouragement and no obvious signals of safety or love to his son. I didn’t see the Dad do anything to help the kid regulate at all.

I have no idea what home life is like. Maybe Dad is typically more supportive of his child. But this little window provides a glimpse into the possible lack of support the little soccer player is getting from his Dad. The lack of emotional development. The lack of safety pathways being nurtured. It made sense to me at that moment why the child was so dysregulated, especially in an environment surrounded by other dysregulated nervous systems, noise, heat and eyes watching.

I recall another time during another soccer game (maybe the same one? I don’t know) where a little girl stood frozen in the middle of the field. She didn’t want to go out and resisted her Mother with a quiet protest. Her body was tense as the Mother carried her out and placed her in the middle of the field. When the initial ball was kicked and the kids started scrambling, this particular little girl just stayed in her spot, frozen in place. Her muscles were tense, her eyes were wide and avoided all potential eye contact. She was apparently deaf (not literally) to the sounds around her in that state. Her Mother and the coach attempted to use their vocal prosody to coax her into participating, but these attempts went nowhere.

This little girl was in a state of mobilization - evidenced by the muscle tension and shallow breathing. But she was also in a state of immobilization - evidenced by being immobile. She was in a freeze state. She was prepared to both run and shutdown at the same time. Not out of excitement, but out of fear. Maybe of the crowd or of failure or of immense pressure from parents. When she was given relief and escorted off the field by her Mom, she softened immediately as her Mom held her in her lap. This child did not have the safe/social pathways active in that moment; the context of the scenario overwhelmed that possibility.

Why is mobilization unsafe?

Well, anything is unsafe without access to the safety state or without the ability to accept co-regulation. The state of flight/fight is used when things aren’t safe. That’s what it’s there for. Mobilization evolved within us in order to survive. The social engagement system is relatively new. So the mobilization system was there before the social engagement system. Thanks to the social engagement system, mammals are able to control their mobilization behaviors. If we didn’t have a safe/social system, we’d all be either immobilized or mobilized. Play wouldn’t exist. There would be no mixed state. If we’re accessing the flight/fight mobilization system to play, without safety activated along with it, we’re simply left with mobilized defensive behaviors - flight/fight by itself.

But it needs the safe/social system to be active to be play. If safety isn’t involved, it’s simply not play. It’s an increased heart rate without the social engagement system necessary to regulate the flight/fight impulses.

If we don’t have the safety system activated, the environment and others become a threat. Our perceptual filter of safety is gone. A person in a stuck defensive state has lost their ability to recognize safe facial cues that are necessary during play. They’re also not providing those same facial cues. This person is not using vocal prosody to suggest they’re having fun. They’ve lost the ability to use their full range of voice, signaling safety to the other parties.


  1. Name one instance from this past week when you felt your play mixed state active.

  2. How do you know it was play?


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