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What is Polyvagal Theory?

This is the brilliant work of Dr. Stephen Porges and is translated into everyday application by the wonderful Deb Dana. It explains the science of our autonomic nervous system and gives us a map for navigating life with much greater empowerment and emotional well-being. 

Very simply put, the autonomic nervous system (A.N.S.) can be said to be in one of 3 different states:

1) Safe and social (known as Ventral)

2) Fight or flight (known as Sympathetic)

3) Shutdown (known as Dorsal)

The movement between these 3 states can be understood by imagining the A.N.S. as a ladder.

Andie Dutton Coaching Autonomic Ladder.png

At the top of the ladder is:


Ventral is our natural home and these are some examples of what this state can feel like:


Happy, joyful

Calm, relaxed, peaceful, still

Playful, excited

Safe, trusting

Interested, motivated, engaged

Compassionate, kind, grateful

This is the state where we feel connected to ourselves, to others, to the world and to spirit.

If our A.N.S. picks up cues of threat or danger, something is too much for our nervous system, it automatically moves us down the ladder into the mobilising state of... 


This is the place of fight or flight (anger or fear) that most of us know well! These are some examples of what the fight state can feel like:

Frustration, irritation

Rage, the desire to argue

These are some examples of what the flight state can feel like:

Anxiety, alarm

Worry, panic

If we can't run or fight the threat, our nervous system takes us further down the ladder into the immobilising state of...


This is a state of shutdown, disconnection and collapse, and can feel like:

Exhaustion, hopelessness, depression

Fogginess, numbness

It's normal human experience for our nervous system to travel this ladder in small or large ways many times a day. Cues of threat or danger move us down the ladder, and cues of safety move us up the ladder to ventral well-being.

It's very empowering to know that 'story follows state'. We can have 3 very different internal stories about ourselves, our lives and the world depending on which nervous system state we are in. It's not because anything else has changed but simply because we are looking through the lens of a different nervous system state!


Our A.N.S. is constantly scanning inside our bodies, in our external environment and in between nervous systems for cues of threat or safety (warnings or welcomes). This process is called neuroception. 


As neuroception is happening below conscious awareness, we can't work directly with it but we CAN grow our awareness of this process. This gives us so much helpful information and the possibility to reflect and respond instead of unconsciously react.

The final principle to introduce is:


We are inherently social beings and wired for connection. We need co-regulation: interaction with safe, compassionate, welcoming others. This is such an essential ingredient for our well-being and one of the best ways to restore or enhance the regulation of our nervous system. 

The goal is not for our nervous system to always be in ventral, but for it to move flexibly between the states when genuinely needed for our protection, and to regulate effectively back to ventral once the threat has passed. 

Unfortunately, past experiences and the stresses of everyday life can shape our nervous systems so they have a tendency to get stuck in self protective fight/flight or shutdown states or alternating between the two, with only brief visits to ventral well-being. In fact, we can spend so much time in low-level fight or flight, it can feel like normal to us. We can forget what a calm nervous system feels like!

The great news is it's absolutely possible to reshape our nervous system. This is such an empowering life skill and a path to much more emotional well-being and creative living. 

It takes some time and some practice, but the practices are simple, nourishing and full of self-compassion.

If you would like to find out more, please be in touch :-)

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