Understanding your behavioral states

Practicing a polyvagal perspective allows us to recognize our bodies behavioral states as reactions to our environment. There are no “good” or “bad” states, each reaction is part of our evolutionary and biological development. Remember we are tuned for survival, so there are reasons why we feel fear, anger, anxiety, and depression. These emotions and the corresponding physiologic and psychologic reactions are our bodies way of keeping us safe. If our society was set up in a way to support healthy development, then we would only experience these behaviors in times of threat to our safety and survival. 

Many of us (myself included) struggle to keep our fear, anxiety, anger, and depression at bay. Human nervous systems allow us to ruminate on past events, and fixate on the future and because our mind and body are so integrated, our thoughts shape our experience. Simply thinking about a stressful situation produces the same physiological response in the body as if we were actually experiencing that stressful situation. These events can be big or small and can occur once or repeatedly. They are the building blocks of trauma, they disrupt our understanding of how safe we are in the world we live in. 

Everyone responds differently to situations based on their developmental experiences and interactions*. Beginning at infancy, we learn what will keep us safe. If we have positive co-regulation we explore the world from a safe and social ventral vagal state. New experiences may mobilize us toward a sympathetic arousal state but because of the positive co-regulation, we are more easily able to return to our safe and social state. 

If we grow up and don’t have positive co-regulation, we learn that the world is a scary place and at all times we need to be ready to flee or fight. If this continues then it will be harder for us to reach and maintain a safe and social state because we’ve had less experience with it, we never learned how to positively self-regulate. A sympathetic state of arousal becomes our “new normal” and movement away from this state will be unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable. 

We use our past experiences to make predictions about experiences that engage and reinforce certain behaviors. It’s automatic - until we start to become aware of it. Once we start to recognize our behaviors and associate them with specific states we can start to analyze and address our reactions. Often this leads to a change in our environment, because we are not broken or unhealthy, we are organisms having healthy responses to a broken and unhealthy world.


Some things are beyond our control (which is one reason for many of us experiencing the fear, anxiety, anger, and depression we feel in the first place). Some things we can control. Having an understanding of your behavioral states is something you can control. Once you understand why you behave the way you do, you can begin to explore ways to affect your behaviors which, will lead to a happier, healthier you.

In health, Stephanie Devito

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