Your “Automatic” Self

According to Stephen Porges, author of the Polyvagal Theory, safety does not come from the elimination of threat. The world is a dangerous place.  My purpose in providing you with education is so that you can learn how to become response-able, to survive and thrive, during the time you are here, alive on this planet. If you can “know yourself” as a nervous system, a system of tubes and what you are made of and how you function, then you can learn how to better allow life/experiences to flow throughout your tubes without blockages or resistance.


Your nervous system is a social engagement system and an alert system continually scanning your inner and outer environments for threat and safety. This is happening all of the time, rather automatically, i.e. without your conscious awareness or your conscious consent. This “natural” and “automatic” functioning has implications for the decisions you think you make and the behaviors and choices you enact. In other words, by better understanding your own nervous system, your mind-body system and its synergy will teach you how you function both automatically and consciously in response to your experiences on your inner and outer landscapes of your life. And when you understand this is how you function, you can better understand and empathize with how others function!


According to -Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score (2014), Polyvagal Theory teaches us “how nurture is the very foundation of our nature.”

According to Deb Dana’s Introduction in her Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (2018):

“Polyvagal Theory provides a physiological and psychological understanding of how and why [people] move through a continual cycle of mobilization, disconnection, and engagement..[and] we see the role of the autonomic nervous system as it shapes [peoples’] experiences of safety and affects their ability for connection.”

“The ANS responds to the challenges of daily life by telling us…how we are. The ANS manages risks and creates patterns of connection by changing our physiological state. These shifts are slight for many people, and in the moments when large state shifts happen, their system is resilient enough to help them return to a regulated state.

Trauma interrupts the process of building the autonomic circuitry of safe connection and sidetracks the development of regulation and resilience. Clients with trauma histories often experience more intense, extreme autonomic responses, which affects their ability to regulate a feel safe in relationships. These behaviors are autonomic actions in service of survival– adaptive responses ingrained in a survival story that is entered into automatically.”

“The patterns of connection and engagement with others is replaced with patterns of protection.”

“The drive to survive competes with the longing to connect with others. “

“The ANS is the neural platform beneath every experience. How we move through the world–turning toward, backing away, sometimes connecting sometimes isolating — is guided by the ANS. “

“Supported by co-regulating relationships we become resilient. In relationships awash in experiences of mis-attunement, we become masters of survival.”

“While early experiences shape the ANS, ongoing experiences can re-shape it. just as the brain is continually changing in response to experience and the environment, our ANS is likewise engaged and can be intentionally influenced.”


“Through a Polyvagal lens, we understand that actions are automatic and adaptive, generated by the ANS well below the level of conscious awareness. This is not the brain making a cognitive choice. A working principle of the ANS is that “every response is an action in service of survival– always an adaptive survival response; it acts to manage risk and seek safety.” (Deb Dana)

“Become curious about what your cues of safety and danger that you are sensing in your nervous system, and begin to understand your responses as adaptive and courageous survival responses– you’ll have less shame and more self-compassion when you understand your ANS and its role in why you (and others) behave as you do.” (Deb Dana)

Information below all taken from The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges (Norton, 2017)

The Conclusion of The Neurobiology of Feeling Safe

Polyvagal theory provides an understanding that feeling safe is dependent on autonomic state, and that cues of safety help calm our autonomic nervous system.

The calming of physiological state promotes opportunities to create safe and trusting relationships, which in themselves expand opportunities to co-regulate behavioral and physiological state. This “circle” of regulation defines healthy relationships in which the relationship supports both mental and physical health. In this model, our bodily feelings (i.e.  autonomic state) function as an intervening variable contributing to our reactions to others.

When we are in a mobilized state characterized by sympathetic activation, we are “tuned” for defense and not for promoting cues of safety or for responding positively to cues of safety. However, when the autonomic state is regulated by ventral vagal pathways, our social engagement system coordinates cues of safety through voice and facial expression to down-regulate defense in ourselves and in others. The coordination between social engagement systems facilitates social connectedness.

The theory provides an understanding of how treatment models not only need to respect bodily feelings but also need to support physiological states that optimize the “positive” attributes of the human experience.

Polyvagal theory leads to an understanding that to connect and co-regulate with others is our biological imperative. We experience this imperative as an inherent quest for safety that can be reached only through successful social relationships in which we co-regulate our behavior and physiology.

As we ponder the importance of feeling safe in our lives, we realize that understanding the physiological signatures of feelings and the cues that trigger feelings may guide us in improving our relationships and in providing support for our clients, family, and friends. Thus, to fulfill our biological imperative of connectedness, our personal agenda needs to be directed toward making individuals feel safe.”

(From the conclusion of the neurobiology of feeling safe in The PocketGuide to Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges, p. 50 – 51).

Terms for Understanding Polyvagal Theory

Parasympathetic nervous system: the PNS is one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system. The primary neural pathways of this system are vagal and primarily support health, growth, and restoration; however, Polyvagal Theory emphasizes that under certain life-threatening conditions, specific vagal pathways, which would normally support homeostasis and health, can respond defensively and inhibit health-related functions (Porges, p.21).

Social engagement system consists of special visceral efferent pathways that regulate the striated muscles of the face and head. It also involves the myelinated supra diaphragmatic Vegas that regulates the heart and bronchi. Functionally, the social engagement system emerges from a heart face connection that coordinates the heart with the muscles of the face and head. The initial function of a system is to coordinate sucking swallowing breathing vocalization. Atypical coordination of the system early in life is an indicator of subsequent difficulties in social behavior and emotional regulation ( Porges, p.27).

Sympathetic nervous system: one of the two main divisions of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions to increase blood flow throughout the body to support movement. Polyvagal theory focuses on the role that sympathetic nervous system has an increase in cardiac output to support movement and fight flight behaviors. (Page 29 Porges).

Ventural vagal complex. This is an area of the brain stem involved in the regulation of the heart, bronchi, and the striated muscles of the face and head. It also includes muscles of mastication, middle ear, face, larynx, pharynx, and neck three special visceral efferent pathway is

The Vagus is the 10th cranial nerve and the primary nerve in the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system. Vagus functions as a conduit containing motor pathways. Vegas connects brainstem areas with structures throughout the body including the neck, thorax, and abdomen.

Vagal tone, more accurately cardiac vagal tone is usually associated with the more tonic influence of the myelinated ventral vagal pathways on the heart as frequently index for the amplitude of respiratory sinus arrhythmia.

Vagal break: Reflects the inhibitory influence of vagal pathways on the heart which slow the intrinsic rate of the heart pacemaker.

Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal theory focused on the vagus nerve, the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system. This 10th cranial nerve connects brainstem areas to several visceral organs. The theory emphasizes the difference between two motor (efferent) pathways that travel through the vagus; each pathway originates in a different area of the brain stem i.e. dorsal nucleus of the vagus and nucleus ambiguus. The primary motor pathways from the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus i.e. dorsal vagus are unmyelinated and terminate in visceral organs located below the diaphragm. The motor pathways from the nucleus ambiguous are myelinated and terminate in the visceral organs located above the diaphragm. Polyvagal theory uses a more inclusive definition of the autonomic nervous system that includes sensory pathways and emphasizes the brain stem areas regulating autonomic function.

The theory links the brainstem regulation of the ventral vagus to the regulation of the striated  muscles of the face and head to produce an integrated social engagement system.

Polyvagal theory emphasizes autonomic reactivity. 

Polyvagal theory accepts the traditional model of interpreting chronic autonomic influences on visceral organs as the sum of a paired antagonism between vagal and sympathetic pathways. However, Polyvagal Theory proposes a phylogenetically ordered hierarchy in which autonomic subsystems react to challenges in the reverse of the evolutionary history consistent with the principle of dissolution.

The theory postulates that when the ventral vagus and the associated social engagement system are optimally functioning, the autonomic nervous system supports health, growth, and restoration. During this ventral vagal state, there is an optimal “autonomic balance“ between the sympathetic nervous system and the dorsal vagal pathways to subdiaphragmatic organs.

When the function of the ventral vagus is dampened or withdrawn, the autonomic nervous system is optimized to support defense and not health.

According to the Polyvagal Theory these defense reactions may be manifested as either an increase in sympathetic activity that would inhibit the function of the dorsal vagus to promote mobilization strategies such as fight and flight behaviors or as a biobehavioral shut down manifested as depressed sympathetic activation and a surge of dorsal vagal influences that would result in fainting, defecation, and an inhibition of motor behavior often seen in mammals feigning death.” (Porges, 2017, p.5-6)

Autonomic state: Within Polyvagal Theory, autonomic state and physiological state are interchangeable constructs.

3 Circuits You Should Know 

Polyvagal theory describes three primary circuits that provide neural regulation of autonomic state; these states are selectively regulated by ventral vagal, dorsal vagal, and sympathetic pathways. Autonomic state reflects activation of these pathways. In general, there is a focus on each circuit providing the primary neural regulation for a specific state. This would result in:

the ventral vagal circuit supporting social engagement behaviors (connection)

the sympathetic nervous system supporting mobilized defensive (fight/flight) behaviors,

and the dorsal vagal circuit supporting immobilized defensive behaviors (Freeze/fawn)

**When the social engagement system (connection, trust, safety) is coupled with each of the other two circuits, this mediates defensive behaviors.***

Autonomic state can support mobilization and immobilization behaviors that are not defensive when coupled with activation of the ventral vagal circuit in the social engagement system… Thus, by coupling the social engagement system with the sympathetic nervous system there is an opportunity to mobilize without moving into defense. *This is observed and play in which aggressive movements are contained by social engagement behaviors.

Similarly, when the social engagement system is coupled with the dorsal vagal circuit, cues of safety (e.g. prosodic voice and facial expression) enable immobilization to occur without recruiting defense for example shut down, behavioral collapse, dissociation. *This is observed during intimacy and entrusting relationships.

Thus, through the coupling of social engagement with mobilization and immobilization, the three autonomic circuits support five states associated with different classes of behavior: social engagement, fight/fight, play, shut down, and intimacy.

All the information above is from The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe by Stephen Porges (Norton, 2017)


%d bloggers like this: