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Most of you by now will have heard of Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory. But you might be unclear about what it actually means and its implications. The actual biology and science are a tad complex, so here is my take on the core practical insights of polyvagal theory.  I’m being cheeky and stripping away the science to reveal what, for me, are its core insights that are practically useful for personal development. (For an introduction to the science of polyvagal theory, the Wikipedia article is a good start.)

Three Primal States: Petrified, Aroused, Cooperative

This, for me, is the essence of polyvagal theory: Embedded in all human beings are three primal states. These are evolutionary survival mechanisms and embedded parts of our biology. They are below our threshold of consciousness – they function without us being aware of them.

Polyvagal theory helps us to be aware of them and manage them.

These three states are:

  1. Frozen, petrified, inert
    This is what we do when experiencing traumatic threat.
  1. Aroused and ready to fight or flee
    This is what we do when we perceive threat that does not traumatise or overwhelm us.
  1. Cooperative
    This is what we do when we are not threatened.

Polyvagal Theory suggests that we move through these states almost as if we are reliving the primal evolution of our nervous systems.
Petrified —> Aroused —> Cooperative


What I find useful about the polyvagal model is:


It is realistic and useful to accept that these three states are an intrinsic part of our biology. To be petrified is normal. To be aroused is normal. To be cooperative is normal.

So they don’t need psychological analysis to understand them. For example, we all experience being petrified not because we were mismanaged by our parents but because it’s a natural state. To be petrified is a normal biological state and sits in all of us.


I don’t buy that we move in a linear direction from one state upwards to another. I think it is more realistic to suggest that all three states are happening simultaneously in us. For example, if we go to an awkward social event or a shop assistant is rude to us – then simultaneously a part of us freezes, another part is aroused and wants to attack or run, and a third part wants to cooperate. This is the way we operate as human creatures.

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction

Body Aware Self-Management

I like the polyvagal model because it suggests how we can better self-manage ourselves and develop healthily. For example, if I am going into a meeting where there are authority figures who make me uncomfortable, I could go psychoanalytic and explore what these people represent for me and what needs healing; or I can simply say to myself: Ah ha my evolutionary nervous system is behaving normally. Let’s see how I can soothe and manage it.

This then points to all the strategies of body awareness, meditation, emotional intelligence, mindfulness, qi gong, internal martial arts and so on – which work directly into the nervous, endocrine and gut systems.

To do this self-management requires — roll of drums, fanfare of trumpets — consciousness. Yay for consciousness!


So where I go is:

Petrified + Aroused + Cooperative = Normal human interaction


I hope that is helpful. If you want a very readable book that introduces polyvagal theory and therapy have a look at Deb Dana’s The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.