The biological spacesuit (body) comes with a handy feather-O-meter. There are 3 main states: GREEN, YELLOW, and RED. You might recognize these as the states describe in The Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. He describes three distinct physiological states that are associated with different patterns of autonomic activity and behavioral responses. AND… let’s not forget the 2 special blended states and fight or flight on hold and dorsal collapse. There are no bad states. These states help us stay alive and thrive (in that order). In a healthy, typical nervous system we are smoothly moving through all these states throughout the day… Just like when driving we need all the lights to (A) stay safe and (B) get to where we want to go (thrive and have adventures).
Safe — GREEN (Ventral Vagal)
Looking for an easy way to remember ventral vagal? Hold up 2 peace signs:
GREEN Feather mode is the Social Engagement State. This state is characterized by feelings of safety and connectedness. The ANS is in a balanced state, with the parasympathetic branch (specifically the ventral vagal complex) playing a dominant role in regulating physiological responses. In this state, individuals are able to engage in social interactions, communicate effectively, and experience positive emotions.
Safe — BLENDED STATE: GREEN-YELLOW
(The safety and connection of GREEN, plus some mobilization; e.g. sports and playing around)
Threat — YELLOW (Sympathetic)
In the face of threat (or perceived threat) YELLOW Is the Fight-or-Flight State. This state is associated with a perceived threat or danger. The sympathetic branch of the ANS becomes dominant, preparing the body for action. Physiological responses such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and heightened arousal are observed. This state is adaptive in situations where a response to threat or danger is required.
Fight or flight on hold (freezing):
This is not (to my knowledge) called out in Polyvagal Theory, but I like to include this type of freeze here. Update: As of Fall 2023, the Polyvagal Institute added what amounts to a YELLOW-RED blended state called the freeze state of defense. Check out their sharable graphic at the end of this blog post.
Safe — BLENDED STATE: RED-GREEN
(The safety and connection of GREEN plus some immobilization)
Threat — RED (Dorsal Vagal)
Disappear. This is the Shutdown State. It occurs when the body perceives extreme danger or is overwhelmed by the threat. It is characterized by immobilization, dissociation, or a collapse response. The parasympathetic branch of the ANS is dominant, leading to decreased physiological activity and a state of conservation. This state is thought to be a defensive mechanism to protect oneself from further harm.
Collapsed Immobility (extreme reactions that occur when faced with an unavoidable danger after all other attempts at active defense have been unsuccessful)
Neuroception – Co-Regulation
Neuroception preceded perception. Neuroception is our nervous system’s way of deeming a person, situation (internal or external… interpersonally, etc) as “threat” or “safe.” One thing we can do for each other is to do our best to show up in GREEN and give off the cues of safety and connection. Check out this “When their storm meets our calm,” from NorthStarPaths.com.
It’s important to note that while the states described in the Polyvagal Theory have physiological underpinnings, they also encompass psychological and behavioral aspects. What is the story about the world when we are in GREEN feather mode vs YELLOW, etc? What mindset sis available? What kinds of thoughts do we have? (What IFS parts pop up?) What emotions are available to us. Using the birds helps to portray an accurate picture.
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Recommended reading on the different varieties of freeze: