Polyvagal Theory & Emotions

Polyvagal Theory & Emotions

Like many folk I hugely benefit from talk therapy. It helps me understand who I am. It clarifies how I navigate my relationships and my work.

But for mental and emotional pain, I benefit more from body-oriented therapies — becoming aware of the actual physical sensations of hurt and tension, and working directly with my body to shift them.

Teaching a holistic approach to personal development, I have sometimes sounded over-enthusiastic and judgmental, asserting that talk therapists need to better understand what is going on in the body. In the tea breaks at workshops psychotherapists and counsellors have asked me to be less critical of talk therapy.  I have apologised.

In my twenties I experienced three years of psychoanalysis with one of the founders of talk therapy in the UK, Edward Glover, a wily eighty-year old. I remember halfway through our first session, when he gently paused me and pointed out that I had just contradicted myself. I almost wept that someone was really listening to me. I loved him. I was his last client. Shortly after ending our relationship, he died and I went on two years retreat.

And then my best friend, Allen, brought me to California where I experienced body-based therapies. Massage. Shiatsu. Breath-work. Feel the sensations of tension and pain. Drop down into them and then follow a strategy of movement and release to bring them into flow and healing. I was startled by — and grateful for — how well they worked.

With all this background I am obviously an enthusiastic advocate for both talk therapy and body therapy.

My grumble is when either of them does not acknowledge the validity of the other. Mainstream medicine also has its fundamentalists. Imagine a three-way argument between fundamentalist talk therapists, body therapists and medical clinicians. Groan. What does that mean? Here, have a pill.



This is why the discoveries and theories of scientists such as Candace Pert and Steven Porges are so crucial. They give us grounded, evidence-based maps for how physiology and psychology, body and mind integrate.

Candace Pert’s research described and explained how human moods, feelings and emotions are mediated and experienced through hormones/neuro-peptides. For example, anxiety is a physiological experience mediated by the neuropeptides of cortisol and adrenalin. The physiological experience triggers and loops with the psychological. Candace Pert’s research explained how human beings can experience ‘stews’ of mood, as neuropeptides mix with each other and flood the body. Have you ever experienced lust, hunger, enjoyment and anxiety at the same time? This is not unusual. It is a physiological, hormonal state, which we usually describe in purely emotional language, ignoring the biology. (Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion. My The Endorphin Effect.)

Steven Porges’ explanation of polyvagal theory presents another profoundly useful perspective. Deeply embedded in our biology are three states, which from birth are continuously responding to our circumstances.


State One: Safe, cooperative, relational, social



State Two: Threatened, aroused, energised to fight or flee



State Three: Traumatised, petrified, immobile, dissociated



Depending on our circumstances, on our personal history and specific triggers (inner and outer) we move unconsciously between these three states. Think of a row with a family member or colleague, how it starts, escalates, triggers and subsides.

In the therapy world, polyvagal theory has been particularly influential in its understanding of trauma and trauma treatments. It focuses on the biology of immobility and dissociation, appreciating that the frozen state of trauma victims, such as victims of torture, is an evolutionary survival response to insurmountable threat, injury and pain. From this perspective therapists can then carefully explore the strategies of safety that may enable the victim to return to health.

(If you want to explore the therapeutic strategies associated with polyvagal theory then for the general reader I recommend Deb Dana The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy and for therapists Porges & Dana (eds) Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory.  For the pure science avoid Porges’ original work unless you are a postgrad biologist and read his The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory.)

My own interest in polyvagal theory is more focused on how it explains our every day behaviour, as the three vagal states unconsciously influence how we feel and think and behave. (My original doctoral research was in identity politics and how biological imperatives for a secure sense of identity work out through the individual into society and world politics. See my Personal Identity, National Identity, International Relations.)

In particular I am focused on how these understandings of the body, its neurology and hormones, can support holistic personal development and spiritual growth — more love, more consciousness, more ethics and compassion, here and now, in action.


So to the three states of polyvagal theory and to the stew of emotions I want to add a Fourth State.

To describe the Fourth State physiologically: The human nervous system and brain is so evolved, sophisticated and adaptable that it can create synapses and connections that transcend the vagal and hormonal states.  Instead of being submerged in these states, the human mind can develop a new faculty, which is able to step back and take an overview. The mind-brain likes narratives. Just as it can watch a movie, it can also watch its own body and behaviour. So its own thoughts, feelings and behaviour are just another narrative.

The mind-brain can develop so that it steps back and observes the three vagal states and the molecules of emotion. It can be a witness to all the stuff of feelings and thoughts. More than that, it can choose to self-manage, influence and guide these states. (Plato said that the rational mind is proof of the soul.)

But this rational, higher, self-managing mind is a new state and a new neural groove and muscle. So the synapses and connections need development and repetition.

Of all people it is meditators who, sitting quietly with themselves, experience this new witnessing state and an ability to self-manage inner sensations and chemistry. Like benevolent white witches and wizards meditators can stir, blend and reformulate the bubbling stuff in the cauldron of their bodies. Always with more love, more wisdom, more consciousness.

Emotional intelligence. Mindfulness. Meditation. These approaches help us develop our higher mind, our detached compassionate witnessing. Not a floating, disembodied balloon of awareness, but a kind awareness that is fully engaged with flesh and blood realities.

Endorphins Make Us Taller!

March 2005
Last week I presented the basic principles of the endorphin effect to an open seminar of 80 students and staff in the Integrated Health Department of Westminster University. Partnered by Val Bullen, a lecturer in the department, she monitored some physical indicators of the group at the beginning and at the end of the 3-hour session.
At the end of the seminar several people were up to an inch taller, as the exercises – mind-body, not physical stretching – had opened them up. Also, two students reported that they had come in with severe eczema, but by the end of the session their skin was clear. Once the session was over, however, it took only 15 minutes for the skin rash to start presenting again.
I’m accustomed now to these ‘startling’ results because I work so much with how intimate the connection between mind and body is. I also keep teaching people, nagging them, to bring their attention back home to their own bodies and not just keep being responsive to external stimuli.
Some observers were stunned by the results. I’m basically philosophical because although I witness hundreds of people achieving great results, I have also witnessed them choosing to avoid the self-discipline and self-management of monitoring their own mind-body attitudes. So they, sadly, stay with their discomfort and pain. Even though they have had a direct in-their-face example of what works – they ignore it!
But many people ignore the miracles and brilliance of life. I remember my mother had a terrible car accident in which she came off a bridge, was trapped upside down in the car with water almost drowning her. In the six hours it took to cut her out she went into what she described as a state of bliss, thinking about and feeling all the beautiful and brilliant things in life. It was a 6-hour full-blown mystical experience. But, after she was freed and recovered, she spoke about the whole event as being interesting, but not significant.
I wonder how often I too miss the brilliance of life.

Endorphin Effect – Practical Psychoneuroimmonology

ENDORPHIN BOOK JACKETPublished in the Journal of Holistic Medicine – Spring 2005

This paper is based on my presentation at the annual conference of the British Holistic Medical Association, Autumn 2004

A short introduction to the Endorphin Effect concepts and approach.

Most holistic practitioners are aware of the mind-body relationship but, in my experience, very few realise just how visceral that relationship is. Also in my experience, very few apply to it themselves as a method of self-healing or of early diagnosis.

So when I teach practical applied PNI, I begin by illustrating just how direct and impacting the psychoneuroimmunological system is. I first ask students what their favourite food is. Let me ask you, the reader, the same question. Whether it is chocolate, brown rice, fish fingers or a lettuce leaf, if you were to spend a short while imagining that food in your mouth – its texture, its aroma, its taste – then almost immediately you would trigger your digestive juices into production.

No need for any training with Pavlov’s bell. Each of us can ring the synapses in our mind-brain and the endocrine system will respond. The unconscious processes of the neuro-endocrine system do not care whether the trigger is imagined or real. There is no food! But despite that, the body responds as if there were. Think of chocolate – or your favourite culinary delight – and your mouth salivates.

We can illustrate the immediacy of this effect with other examples. Spend a little while contemplating your favourite erotic image and you will also feel the stirring of certain endocrinal juices. Think of fearful and horrible things, and your body will begin to produce the hormones of anxiety and tension. Contemplate that which you enjoy and the natural opiates will be stimulated into production.

The point I want to emphasise here is how flesh and blood, how gutsy, juicy and visceral this all is. It is not subtle. The events in the mind directly impinge on the body’s chemical environment. The results are physiologically obvious and also have a huge effect on the mood and psychology of the individual.

I visited a holistic ophthalmologist a decade ago. He asked me to look at the bottom rows on the usual eye test chart. He then began to say very unpleasant, evocative words such as, ‘Auschwitz. Children being tortured. The killing fields.’ Within a few seconds the bottom lines blurred as the unpleasant associations triggered the hormones of anxiety, which tensed up some muscles, which pulled my eye lens askew. He then uttered some pleasant words, ‘Children playing on a friendly beach. Kittens. Fluffy lambs. Happy times.’ And my eye muscles relaxed back into better focus.

Of course, the way in which the mind works is obviously effected by previous conditioning, emotional history and personal preferences. But the crucial issue is to realise the full implications of this. At the most fundamental level, whether our body chemistry is a brewing stew of anxiety and tension (the cause of 80% of middle age and post-middle age illness according to NHS statistics) or a more comfortable, open and flowing system, can to a substantial degree be effected by the ongoing state of our mind and mood.

At the core, then, of practical applied PNI is the idea that we can consciously choose to manage the signals that our psyches send into our bodies. The thoughts and feelings of our mind-brain, and also of our mind-heart(1), are far too important to be left uncontrolled and outside our conscious awareness.

The current popular wave of neuroscience substantially legitimates our focus on mind-body medicine, but it is best to be clear that neuroscience is a young methodology and, in my opinion, has thus far only mapped out ten per cent of the territory. Like much science, however, it is imperialistic and many of its proponents are very assertive and confident. For certain, neuroscientists are pioneering a methodologically rigorous analysis of mind-brain electro-chemical mechanics, but they have little understanding as yet of its practical and immediate consequences.

Traditional holistic healthcare, however, particularly the Taoist and Ayurvedic schools, has a well-tried and thoroughly practiced approach to mind-body medicine (2). My own expertise in the area does not come from my formal academic background as a psychologist or amateur neuroscientist, but as a student and teacher of meditation. In fact, I was first taught how my mind could support my physical health and work with specific healing in a Kabbalistic meditation group. In this tradition, as in many others, a tree of life is visualised and kinaesthetically felt as being in the physical body. The mind then sends messages and moods through the tree into the biological system.

I worked with these methods of healthcare and healing on a daily basis for over twenty years before first hearing about psychoneuroimmunology and endorphins. Because of my experiential background in the field, like other meditators, I was immediately familiar with a territory that the scientific researchers were ‘discovering’. In particular, there was a focus on the importance of endorphins, the body’s natural opiates. These hormones or neuropeptides (the nomenclature of these ‘molecules of emotion’(3) is still not rigorously defined) are implicated in all physical sensations of pleasure and relaxation. In full flood, endorphins – ‘endo’ = made inside the body; ‘orphin’= morphine – can render natural childbirth pain free and pleasurable, and for example open up the whole body to floods of pleasure in full orgasm. They are also responsible for the minor localised sensations of pleasure or relaxation. There are several types of endorphin – also known as enkephelons – and they are produced not only in the brain but also in every cell of the body. This explains why there are localised sensations of pleasure, which seem to exclude any mental perception.

One of the cutting edges of PNI is to map the feedback systems involved in their production, but research in this field is slow because of its costliness. This lack of a coherent ‘scientific’ map does not, however, detract from the rigour of the mind-body strategies whose effect is to release tissue tension, relieve pain, open up tissue and create feelings of pleasure. In fact, their rigour can be found in their repeatability – over millennia! – and the innumerable personal descriptions of their effect. They also provide a foundation, as I have said, of many traditional medical systems and we are, I hope, beginning to trust the wisdom of these traditions even while contemporary science is as yet unable to describe their internal logic within a western intellectual framework.

Over the last ten years I have attempted to clarify and simplify the basic strategies of a practical mind-body approach for inhibiting the production of adrenaline and cortisol, and for triggering the flow of the body’s endorphins. These techniques have been taught in innumerable workshops and are being increasingly used by holistic practitioners.

Although they are very simple, they do require one super-human effort – I now write sardonically – which is that of pausing and monitoring actual physical sensations in the body. I write sardonically, but affectionately, because I keep meeting holistic medical doctors who, for instance, understand the importance of the mind-body connection, but who do not themselves monitor and self-manage their own mental state, moods, physical symptoms and sensations. One medical friend, for example, self-admittedly could have avoided heart surgery if he had given careful awareness to symptoms which presented themselves twelve months ahead of the actual crisis. What we are discussing here is the simple strategy of pausing and turning one’s focus inwards to one’s own body, scanning and giving careful attention to all the internal sensations.(4) Not only does this monitor one’s state of health, it also sends reassuring messages through the neuroendocrinal network.

What holistic medical traditions and applied PNI demand is that individuals take responsibility for their own healthcare and begin with this simple daily monitoring exercise. In essence this is no different from the mainstream preventative suggestion that men and women regularly self-examine to catch early indications of impending illness.

I will now briefly list the five core exercises, which are described more fully in my book The Endorphin Effect.(5) The first technique includes the self-monitoring exercise. All these techniques work to relieve physical sensations of anxiety and engender tissue relaxation and a sense of wellbeing. This opening of the tissue is, of course, a key issue in the maintenance of healthy and free-flowing circulatory systems. From a more holistic or eastern perspective it also engenders harmony with the flow of nature and cosmos.

Exercise 1 – The Inner Smile

In a comfortable position, you allow your chest and stomach to sink and relax. You lower your chin slightly and turn your eyes down as if looking down into the body. You then guide your attitude so that you have an open-hearted and kind-minded mood towards your own body. Like a parent looking after an infant, you look into your body with warm, intelligent eyes and you send reassuring and friendly messages into your physical system. If there is any region that is tense or in pain, you particularly focus down into that region sending it messages of affection and acceptance. You ‘hold’ and ‘cradle’ any pain or discomfort. You demonstrate an excellent bedside manner toward your own physicality.

Exercise 2 – Curled Deer

This name comes from the classic Taoist exercise. It is done concurrently with Exercise 1 Its core feature is to allow and guide the body so that it sinks into the sensation of having a rest or sleep. You see many commuters instinctively going into this strategy, preparing for or recovering from a day at work. The essence of this strategy is to bring your focus fully home into you own body, particularly allowing your awareness to sink down into the area of your lower stomach (tan tien or hara). The trick here is to cut off from external stimuli and disappear down into your own body. You also guide your breath into the regular rhythm of sleep and, like an actor, play-act feeling sleepy until the sensation becomes authentic.

Exercise 3 – Positive Triggers

In this strategy you focus on any thought, memory or activity that gives you pleasure. If you pause and give awareness to the physical sensations that accompany enjoyable thoughts and activities, then you will notice that somewhere in your body there is a pleasurable feeling. You turn your contemplative focus towards this sensation, no matter how small it may be, and then allow, guide and sense it sinking more deeply into the body. You ‘stretch’ and absorb the sensation of wellbeing allowing it to anchor deep in your bones, spinal cord and brain, embedding the enjoyable sensations at a cellular level.

Exercise 4 – Biophilia

The human body is, it seems, hard-wired to respond positively to the natural world in general, including the sky, stars and what may be called the spiritual dimension of life – God, the Tao, the great mystery of existence. So in this exercise you pause and allow yourself to remember that wherever you are and whatever your situation, nature and the cosmos are always there. It is just a matter of allowing your cellular make-up to remember the presence of nature. The sequence that I teach is to allow yourself first to be aware of the Earth. Then Nature. Then the Sun. Then the whole Cosmos and the great wonder of existence. Again, you then notice the pleasurable sensation that goes with this awareness and you allow the feeling to sink more deeply into the body.

Exercise 5 – Exercise

Finally, of course, there is exercise. Sustained movement of at least twenty minutes almost always stimulates the production of endorphins and is responsible, for example, for the ‘runner’s high’. So when you want to lift your mood and nothing else works, move your body. Then, after a while, when the pleasurable feelings start, focus on the enjoyable sensations and allow them to sink into your body and circulate more fully.

Students and practitioners of holistic healthcare will not be surprised by any of the above exercises. In one form or another they repeatedly appear in integrative approaches to healing and health maintenance. They also help to build a general psychological confidence as people who use them become accustomed to effecting and managing their own chemistry.

Over the coming years I expect medical science to map more precisely how these systems work mechanically and I look forward to their insights and stimulation. Growth in wisdom, in mindfulness and in awareness of nature and cosmos, will not however come from laboratories. How to practice applied PNI will, as it ever was, be a journey of personal experience.

* * * *

The important strategic lesson here is that the development of self-awareness, coupled with self-responsibility, is the key to self-managed healthcare.

This needs, in my opinion, to begin with the education of children following the example of their parents, teachers and healthcare practitioners. This is already beginning in British primary and secondary schools with the development of the curricula of emotional literacy and personal and social healthcare. We can begin to see the development of a healthcare culture focused on building and maintaining good health through sustained preventative monitoring, practical PNI, diet, exercise and ameliorating social conditions – a holistic approach in which PNI and the endorphin effect are key elements.

(1) Doc Childre and Howard Martin, The HeartMath Soulution, Piatkus, 1999.

(2) Daniel Goleman Healing Emotions: Conversations with the Dalai Lama on Mindfulness, Emotions and Health, Redwing Books, 1997.

(3) Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion, Simon & Schuster, 1999.

(4) Eugene Gendlin, Focusing, Bantam, 1982.

(5) William Bloom, Feeling Safe, Piatkus Books, Piatkus Books, 2003; William Bloom, The Endorphin Effect, Piatkus Books, 2001.



ENDORPHIN BOOK JACKETBackground and History


The Endorphin Effect is a set of easy-to-use strategies that support holistic health and development.

Endorphins are natural chemicals produced by the body. They are part of the family of chemicals known as hormones and neuropeptides. They are produced in every cell of the body and are involved in the relaxation of tissue, the anaesthetizing of pain and the physical sensations of pleasure. All zoological creatures, including the single-celled, produce endorphins.

A well-balanced state of health includes an ongoing production of endorphins. Babies, toddlers and children are naturally – given a non-violent family and culture – endorphinated. As adolescents and adults we tend to lose our natural wellbeing and tighten up. Adrenalin and cortisol – the hormones of tension and anxiety – begin to predominate.

The Endorphin Effect identifies five strategies that trigger the production of hormones: • Rest • Exercise • Positive Triggers • Attitude of Inner Smile • Connection with Natural World.

It also clarifies the techniques for using and deepening the effect of those strategies whenever someone chooses to, even when exhausted or ill.


These strategies were clarified in the 1990’s by Dr William Bloom, a psychologist and meditator. He became aware of the scientific discovery of endorphins and integrated their function into his personal experience of meditation and teaching meditation. His book The Endorphin Effect was first published in 2001.

The strategies have been integrated into the therapeutic work of many healthcare practitioners. This began with many of the therapy team in Bristol Cancer Help Centre (now Penny Brohn Centre) using the approach.

In the Spring of 2006 a six week experimentation programme took place at Westminster University to examine whether the Endorphin Effect strategies – called “kinesthetic meditation’ in this context – had any effect on cortisol levels.

The results were published in The Journal of Holistic Healthcare Volume 3, Issue 3, 2006 in the paper ‘Salivary cortisol, stress and arousal following kinesthetic meditation’, authors: Valerie Bullen, Cathrine Fredhoi, William Bloom, Jan Povey, Frank Hucklebridge, Phil Evans and Angela Clow. The Summary of the paper concluded: ‘These data confirm that even a brief period of kinesthetic meditation training can improve subjective and objective measures of well-being.’


“It is a pleasure to write to thank you for your contribution to the Silver Jubilee Conference last Friday. Your presentation was received with enthusiasm and gratitude. We have been enjoying the overhwelmingly positive feedback and request for more from many delegates.”

The Endorphin Effect is a profound yet universal and easily applied process for enhancing one’s joy and fulfilment in life. It’s good for your health at all levels.
Dr S Miller, Bristol Cancer Help Centre

This fascinating approach reveals another dimension in healing ourselves, triggered by our own initiative. Intriguing and compelling.
Stephen Covey, author The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

‘The Endorphin Effect is a brilliant, mature, and enlightening strategy that offers participants an opportunity to understand the awesome power that is contributed to the biology of the human body through endorphins. In this superb training, William Bloom provides very engaging insights and inspiration, so that you realise that being a positive individual generates more power than you realise.’
Caroline M. Myss author of Why People Don’t Heal

‘As a training manager working for the Civil Service I have just finished delivering a two day course on managing personal stress. I devoted almost all of today to The Endorphin Effect. They loved it! They felt it was a strategy they could easily incorporate into their daily lives. It is such a good feeling to come away from a group of people knowing I have made a difference.’
Shauna O’ Donnell Feedback from TDU Senior Trainers Ulster after 3-Day Professional Training

I found the endorphin training to be very useful both from a personal and work perspective. The strategies are straightforward and easy to apply and I’m looking forward to incorporating them in my own training. A very worthwhile exercise.
Gina Adams, Training Manager Disability & Carers Training Satellite Team

Endorphin Effect, what can I say!!
Made a lot of sense re Hell state/Bliss state and would be confident delivering this. Learning about the release of endorphins and how we can access this power. Exercises excellent way of demonstrating release of endorphins. Power-Naps are the way of the future!!
June McNaught, Training Manager, Management Development Team

I thought the Endorphin Effect training was excellent! With the backing of scientific evidence it should persuade even the “non-believers” to try it. Personally I feel it is a very useful self management system. In fast pace society full of increasing demands the Endorphin Effect techniques help combat the mounting stresses. The Endorphin Effect is simple and effective and having used it myself I believe they help. When my wife was going for a job interview I had her use the several of the strategies and she felt that it helped her to relax before the interview (she got the job!). Apart from Stress Management, strategies from the Endorphin Effect could be used in various training events for example, managing change, managing difficult situations, customer services skills.
Jim Mallon- Training Manager, Belfast Benefits Delivery Centre

Really good with some useful tips for personal & work place strategies. The course was a mixture of chilling out refocusing and revitalising.
Brenda Curtis, Training Manager, West District Training Satellite

For me, the endorphin strategies are priceless in that:

  • They work
  • Require little effort
  • Are simple and easily understood
  • There is something for everyone
  • I see great scope for utilisation at a personal and business level and given the change in the organisation that is coming down the pipeline, will be a tool to be marketed and taught in a range of different courses.

Julie Anderson, Head of Training & Development Unit for Social Security Agency Northern Ireland

I found this course really good, I have not been involved in anything like this before and was amazed at the effect the relaxation and exercise sessions really do make to how you are feeling and used in the right context and at the right time they could be very useful in the process of training. I am delighted that you gave me the opportunity to attend this course. Thanks.
Viola McGee Training Manager, West District Training Satellite

Loved the Bliss/Hell State and the science behind it. PNI* is great. I am using triggers & pause and reflect techniques and they work for me. The courses made such a lot of sense- I feel enlightened.
* PNI = Psychoneuroimmunology, the scientific term for mind-body healthcare strategies.
Leigh Stewart, Training Manager Incapacity Benefit Training Satellite

I thoroughly enjoyed the 3 days endorphin training with Dr William Bloom as it was well explained, relaxed and informative. I have used the skills and concepts learned in every day life ie: at home, at work and socially. I feel that all staff would benefit from this training as it would help them both personally and professionally. Thanks.
Terry Jordan, Training Manager, Disability & Carers, Training Satellite Team

I enjoyed the course and learnt some very useful strategies in particular the exercises were very useful and I have started to do them most days.
Although I already applied the positive triggers/strawberry strategy it was good to have a name put to it as this has helped me explain it to others.
I used the exercises, strawberry strategy, power nap and explanation of Hell and Bliss states in my managing personal stress course along with your half day session. The feedback from staff was excellent and enjoyable which I would attribute to the introduction of some of these strategies to the course. In particular they commented on:

  • How helpful it was to know the effects of adrenaline and cortisol in Comparison to the effects of endorphins on the body
  • The strawberry/positive triggers strategy
  • The exercises
  • The relaxation sessions

I am in the process of reading Williams book and picking up little tip bits as I go along which I will used personally and consider adding to my courses were appropriate.
Marie-Therese Mcateer, Belfast North & East Antrim Training Satellite