November 2019

Click here for PDF of these Notes 



Stephen Porges – psychophysiologist – first proposed polyvagal theory in 1994 following his research on what is going on in critically ill new-borns who become passive. Interestingly his wife, Sue Carter, identified the significance of oxytocin in bonding relationships (working mainly on voles.)


Three core states

Safe & Cooperative           Parasympathetic — Ventral Vagus — Heart/head, face muscles, ear drum


Aroused, Fight, Flight       Sympathetic  — animals fight/flight/survive


Petrified                     Parasympathetic — Dorsal Vagus — Reptile/worm, gut


Our subconscious awareness (not conscious) responds to triggers and moves us through the three states.

Trauma Therapy

Polyvagal theory has been mainly taken up by therapists working with trauma, because it provides a coherent map and method for the stages of healing.




What goes on in the mind –> Triggers nervous system –> Triggers endocrine system

Conversely what goes on in the body (neuro-endocrine system) –> Triggers the mind

Emotions are feelings.

Feelings are physiological sensations.

Physiological sensations are based in body chemistry and mediated by neuropeptides (hormones.)

The three vagal states are also Hormonal

Safe & Cooperative           Endorphins/oxytocin/etc  — cocktail of feel-good hormones

Aroused, Fight, Flight       Adrenalin/cortisol as fuel

Petrified                     Adrenalin/cortisol as stress; endorphins as anaesthetic



CARE — connect, nurture

FEAR  — humiliation, defeat

HUNGER — Food – survival

LUST — Procreation – sex

PANIC — frozen, petrified

PLAY— cooperative, fun, humour, joy

RAGE — violence

SAFETY — fear, anxiety

SEEKING — Enquiry – curiosity – make sense of

SPACE — territory

STATUS — pecking order, identity


We hurt each other: big Traumas –  little traumas

We hurt ourselves with self-judgement and thwarted desires.

Buddha: Desire is the source of suffering.


Traumas and traumas sit in the body as memories

Medical science is unclear about where memory resides.

Holistic therapists know/feel that it resides in body tissue as tension, suffering and pain. They intuitively enquire, feel into and follow clues.

Triggers and depth of trauma depend on • inherited traits • DNA • Conditioning • Karma



Releases tension, suffering and pain

Brings tissue, feelings and emotions into open flow

Takes people from Petrified –> Safe/cooperative

Takes people from Frozen adrenalin/cortisol –> Endorphins, cocktail of wellbeing hormones


Q:  What enables someone to feel safe, move, ‘exorcise’ tense tissue and come into wellbeing?

A: It always depends on the unique history, character and circumstances of the individual.



First identified in 1974 by teams in Aberdeen and John Hopkins universities. Researchers looking to find a substitute for morphine. Became well known via the work of one of the main researchers at John Hopkins, Candace Pert author of Molecules of Emotion.

Endo — produced internally

Morphine — the opiate

Endorphin — the opiate produced internally (inside the body)



  • Opiate hormones/neuropeptides produced in every cell of the body. The body’s natural morphine.
  • Production can be small and local, or cascading/flooding whole body.
  • Function – kill pain, relax tissue, create feelings of pleasure, allow healing agents into affected region.
  • Continuously present and ‘humming’ in the background for children and good-humoured people.
  • Can be guided by the mind into particular body regions or triggered into increased production.


Five Triggers

  1. Ongoing physical movement. (Tissue needs to open to allow more oxygenated blood.)
  2. Any pleasurable event, activity or thought.
  3. A kind focus given to your own body or any area of tension or distress. ‘Inner Smile’
  4. A good rest or purposefully guiding the body into the sensation of a pleasant rest. ‘Curled deer’
  5. Biophylia – connection with natural world, beauty of the universe, spiritual dimension


Production and Effect Increased by

  • Mental pause.
  • ‘Soaking.’ Allowing any good feeling to sink into you (like a warm bath).
  • Letting chest and stomach sink.
  • Long, quiet, calm, soft, deep breaths.
  • Extended focus on pleasurable thoughts.
  • Amplified kind attitude towards your own body.
  • Increased awareness of earth, nature, sun, universe.
  • Doing things you enjoy.


When ‘Endorphinated’ it is natural to

  • Feel good and connected to the things that matter.
  • Feel positive and optimistic.
  • Be fully present to challenges and suffering.
  • Feel strong and flexible.
  • Extend one’s own charisma to ‘hold’ people so as to encourage and support them.
  • Have a kind and ‘holding’ attitude towards one’s own distress and foibles.


William Bloom, The Endorphin Effect and Feeling Safe

Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Candace Pert, Molecules of Emotion

Stephen Porges, The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory

Porges & Dana (eds) Clinical Applications of Polyvagal Theory


I found the following image in Corrigall, Payne & Wilkinson (eds), About a Body: Working with the embodied mind in psychotherapy.