The Science Behind our Behaviors

Updated: Apr 7, 2020

Human beings are complex organisms. Our bodies are designed to receive inputs from the outside world and our nervous system processes these inputs and based on this information as well as our experiences, we react or respond with certain behaviors. Like any animal, we are tuned for survival. Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the automatic system that regulates our heartbeats, digestion, and respiration. The vagus nerve plays an important role helping to regulate the ANS. 

According to the polyvagal theory, there are 3 primary survival states we can find ourselves in. Much like a ladder, we can ascend and descend into these states depending upon the situation, our experiences, and our self-awareness. At the top of the ladder we find ourselves in a safe and social state in which we can relax and interact with others without fear of danger. The next phase of the ladder is when our sympathetic chain is activated as a result of perceived danger and we exhibit flight or fight. Due to the danger we feel, our bodies are amped to react, so our behavior enforces our desire to escape, fight and win, or freeze and hide. At the very bottom of the ladder is Shut Down. Shut-down occurs in times of a life-threatening situation OR after repeated or multiple traumas occur. 

These are physiological survival states, automatic in our bodies processing of stimuli. The only way to consciously move up the ladder is to first recognize the behaviors associated with each state. The more aware you are of when you or someone else is in a specific state the better you will be able to address the behavior for positive change. 

Safe and Social 

The safe and social state is a ventral vagal state in which we are relaxed and engaged. Our heartbeats and respiration are steady and slow. We are able to make eye contact and communicate our thoughts and feelings to another. Our immune system is functioning well and our digestion and bowel movements are regular. Laughter happens easily. 

Flight or Fight

When we enter into flight, fight, or freeze we leave the parasympathetic state and enter a sympathetic aroused state. 

Flight: Here we feel varying degrees of panic, fear, anxiety, worry/concern. Our primary instinct is to avoid the situation. Our immune response is lowered, our digestion is impacted. Pupils dilate and adrenaline and oxygen are directed to the vital organs of survival, those responsible for helping us survive in the situation (increased heart beat, change in respiration-shorter quicker breaths, increased muscle tone). 

Fight: If we cannot escape the situation we will move into a state of feeling the need to fight the situation. We become more aggressive in tone, words, and behavior. There is movement towards irritation, frustration, and anger. In this state it is difficult to slow down and have constructive communication. 

Freeze/Shut Down

Persistent arousal of the sympathetic chain eventually hits a threshold and the body returns to a parasympathetic state ( dorsal vagal), this time in an emergency shut down mode. In this mode there is a decrease in almost everything: heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, muscle tone, facial expressions, eye contact, intonations, awareness of the human voice, immune response, sexual response, and social behavior. There are feelings of dissociation, numbness, depression, helplessness, hopelessness, feeling trapped, and shame. The body is shutting down and preparing for death at this point. A person in this state can still move up the ladder but it usually requires more help from others (co-regulation).


I appreciate the polyvagal theory because it is a much more empathetic way of viewing and interacting with people. If you are interested in learning more about the polyvagal theory, I highly recommend listening to the Polyvagal Podcast

Society has been drastically changed by this pandemic. As we all (hopefully) are now practicing social distancing there are going to be a lot of fluctuating feelings. No one knows how this will play out, no one knows how long this will be going on. We have been forced into the opportunity of slowing down, of having to live day to day. 

For now, this is our new normal. The best thing we can do is find a routine that helps engage our minds and our bodies throughout the day. It’s important to address how we are feeling, because ignoring our feelings will not make them go away. How we feel will affect how we behave and communicate with each other. We are not going through this alone, our family members are also experiencing the symptoms of social distancing. When we speak with each other it can be easy to take offense or judge, but if we are aware of how our nervous system actually operates and the behaviors associated with each state, it becomes easier to see people and hear their words with more understanding and compassion and less judgement. Having a polyvagal perspective creates opportunity for real connection with others, and isn’t that what we all really want?  

Awareness is the first step in addressing and modifying behavior/feelings. Please reach out if you recognize you need help, we are in this together and I will help in any way I am able. 

In health, 

Stephanie Devito 

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