Using polyvagal theory to understand our nervous system

Updated: Feb 6


The autonomic nervous system or ANS controls our involuntary responses – it’s our survival system. It has two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.


1. The sympathetic branch regulates the fight-or-flight response. This is a defensive state.

2. The parasympathetic branch looks after aspects like slowing and regulating our breathing and heart beat; it lowers our defensiveness, and regains calmness.


The parasympathetic system is coordinated by the vagus nerve, which starts at the base of the skull, and winds its way down the body to the abdomen.


It has two pathways - the ventral vagal, which responds to cues of social engagement and safety, and the dorsal (a reptilian-like, more primitive pathway), which responds to cues of life-threat, causing us to shut down, become numb and disconnect from others.

You can imagine driving your ANS like a car – you can use your gas pedal to accelerate into a heightened zone, or slow down with your footbrake into a calmer zone.


Using a traffic light analogy for the ANS, green is a socially engaged state – you're engaged, and may feel curious and playful. You will have an expressive face and will freely smile.

Amber is flight or flight (the sympathetic branch) – you may feel angry, confrontational or fearful. (Or ready for action, perhaps if you have to quickly save someone from danger). Here, you may experience tight facial muscles or a frown, and may experience physical sensations like tummy butterflies or a tight throat.

Red is disengagement - you may feel numb, hopeless or shut down – people may say that your face seems 'spaced out'.


If you’re in the red zone, that’s a big red flag that your nervous system needs some self-care. To help regulate yourself, you can become more mindful of your breathing, your body's muscle tension, your facial expression and any negative thoughts that can trigger this response. It’s really important to learn how to relax, to influence your ANS. Watch this space for focussed attention exercises, and breathing patterns to try!

#polyvagaltheory #ventralvagal #TherapistsConnect #stepintoyourpower


Kathy Carter


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