Whether we are thinking about conventional medicine or holistic medicine, people usually think that they need to ingest something to feel better. That may be true, but the discovery of the Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges, is a game changer. All doctors know about the autonomic nervous system and its two branches: sympathetic nervous system “fight-or-flight” and parasympathetic nervous system “rest and digest.” That WAS partially true, but the Polyvagal Theory reveals THREE branches of the autonomic nervous system, which you can see in the graphic.

There are two parts to the vagus nerve: Dorsal means “The part of the vagus nerve toward the back. The dorsal vagus nerve is toward the back of the body. The ventral vagus nerve is that part of the vagus nerve that is toward the front of our body.

Each of the three states (dorsal vagus, fight-flight, and ventral vagus) have different functions, different benefits, and different mental states. The dorsal vagus nerve is the only survival mechanism in lizards. Lizards appeared 500 million years ago. Stimulation of the dorsal vagus nerve causes immobility, shutdown, and freeze. A lizard freezes when threatened.

Around 300 million years ago, fight-or-flight physiology evolved. 200 million years ago mammals came into existence, and they all have ventral vagus nerve involved. Ventral vagus nerve stimulation is involved in social engagement, safety, connection, and curiosity. Human beings are mammals, so we have three autonomic nervous system states. The evolution is important to understand. 

Fight-or-flight physiology (sympathetic nervous system) mobilizes us, but too much fight-or-flight causes anxiety and irritability. If fight-or-flight is massively revved up, we experience panic attacks. Panic attacks are not caused by abnormalities in brain neurotransmitters, although our baseline of “anxiety vs. serenity” does depend on the right balance of neurotransmitters and their precursors - amino acids. The sympathetic nervous system is engaged when we are performing or competing, which is why Olympic athletes often break records. Heightened sympathetic nervous system activity helps us run faster and jump higher. Peak performance is an example of a healthy sympathetic nervous system.


Fight-or-flight gets revved up when we “believe” we are in danger. Our body responds to an angry boss the same way we responded to a charging lion millions of years ago. Our Perception is what matters in terms of our autonomic state. If the “enemy” is overwhelmingly powerful, “fight” is not an option. If there are no escape routes, “flight” is not an option. When fight AND flight are not options, our brain decides in 1/20th of a second to turn on the freeze response by revving up the dorsal vagus nerve. 

When human beings freeze, they can feel shutdown, collapsed, dissociated, emotionally numb, depressed, and immobilized. Here’s an example. Let’s say a cheetah has run down an impala and is gripping the impala’s neck by its jaws. The impala can’t run or fight, so it freezes and is immobilized. The impala looks dead. Predators won’t attack a dead animal, so the impala in the freeze may still survive, although in the freeze response, it may be out of its body, feeling no pain. Let’s say that several hyenas charge in, startling the cheetah. The cheetah drops the impala, and instantly the impala is back in fight-or-flight. The impala runs for its life. When human beings are traumatized, they may slip into the freeze response for decades. Knowledge of the autonomic nervous system can help that person recover. Drugs won’t be very useful.

The dorsal vagus nerve innervates all the organs below the diaphragm. It is involved in digestion and resting. When we nap, our dorsal vagus nerve is dominant. After sexual intercourse we slip into a “safe dorsal vagus” state in which we are socially engaged AND resting. The ventral vagus nerve innervates the heart and lungs.

When we are dancing with a partner, we are socially engaged (ventral vagus) and our sympathetic nervous system (activity and mobility) is also active. The same is true for play. Play involves the energy of fight-flight and the connection and curiosity of ventral vagus nerve.

If this is new to you, it may seem too technical, but you can find great videos by Dr. Stephen Porges, his son Seth Porges, and Deb Dana that go into detail. Dr. Peter Levine discovered the freeze response and has been working with the autonomic nervous system for more than 50 years.

Too much fight-or-flight activity causes anxiety and panic attacks.
Too much dorsal vagus nerve activity causes shutdown, collapse, freeze, disconnection,…and depression.
Ventral vagus nerve activity helps us to feel socially engaged and connected in a safe way…and safely connected to our Self.

Balancing the autonomic nervous system is part of my work with everyone. Balancing amino acids and neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA is also important, although at this point it is not clear what the relationship is between neurotransmitters and the autonomic nervous system. 

Fight-or-flight AND dorsal vagus nerve collapse are defensive mechanisms, whose goal is to keep us safe and alive. The ventral vagus nerve is involved in social engagement, connection, safety, and curiosity. It is only in this state that we are able to connect with others, ourselves, and God/Higher Power. When we are stuck in fight-of-flight, we perceive everything through the eyes of danger. When we perceive a threat to be life-threatening, dorsal vagus nerve kicks in and takes us into the freeze response.


Stimulation of the ventral vagus nerve (social engagement and connection) increases the “tone” of the vagus nerve, decreasing fight-or-flight physiology AND decreasing dorsal vagus shutdown. There are dozens of simple techniques that stimulate the vagus nerve. A few simple ways to stimulate the ventral vagus nerve are: yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and earthing (grounding). 


These three autonomic nervous system parts are actually “autonomic states.” They are physical and mental states. People who live in fight-or-flight are anxious and worry a great deal. They process everything in terms of danger. They can learn how to stimulate the vagus nerve, move out of fight-or-flight and INTO ventral vagus Social Engagement and Connection.


Every day, we move through the three autonomic states, without knowing that it’s happening. The autonomic nervous system makes “decisions,” moment by moment that are all about keeping us alive. We may slip into dorsal vagus collapse and then develop a story line about why we are shutdown. Animals don’t have a story line. If we remove the story, we are better able to know which autonomic state we are in, and we are then able to shift to a “higher” state.

We can think of the three states like a ladder with dorsal vagus nerve at the bottom, ventral vagus nerve social engagement at the top, and fight-or-flight on the middle of that ladder. In order to move out of dorsal vagus collapse, we cannot move straight into ventral vagus nerve social engagement and connection. We first move into fight-or-flight, and from there we can move into social engagement. This “healing” ladder is the same as the “evolutionary” ladder.