The Autonomic System

For those of us struggling with anxiety, particularly when we have struggled for years, and it has brought us to the point of feeling paralyzed, our autonomic system has been taxed to its limits.

It’s also known as our sympathetic system and parasympathetic system, OR dorsal vagal activation and ventral vagal activation OR fight-flight-freeze-fawn.

For the most part, these terms are interchangeable.

Our autonomic system is actually quite an exquisite system.

It protects us from threats by putting us on guard at a moment’s notice. Shutting down what we don’t need or have time for in the moment, and amping up all the stuff we do need. And it can be activated on a hair trigger. Without us even realizing it has already been activated.

Quite helpful when we may be in danger and need to react rather than respond.

The downside is that it can be activated by perceived threats as well as real threats. The system does not differentiate real from perceived. It doesn’t have the time. All it knows is a threat is imminent and we must be ready. It will act now, and ask questions later.

It is our prefrontal cortex which differentiates real from perceived threats. However, our prefrontal cortex comes offline when our sympathetic system is activated. So you can see how it can be felt as a good thing and a bad thing when our autonomic, sympathetic system is activated.

It could be what saves our lives. Or it could be nothing.

Anxiety developed over time means that our autonomic system is being constantly activated. And constant activation of this system is not an ideal state.

When the autonomic system is activated, it shuts down several systems, like digestion and reproduction, putting the focus and energy on others systems like our respiratory system and our muscles, in order to flee or fight.

Having your digestion system shut down for extended periods of time, especially when that time becomes years and years, can lead to disorder and illness.

Same goes for the activation (and acceleration) of our respiratory system. It’s why people with anxiety often have high blood pressure, breathing difficulties, and high heart rates.

It’s also why people with autonomic dysfunction in turn develop autonomic disorders.

Either way, extended, constant activation is not an ideal state to be in.

Ideally we would be in our social engagement system, or ventral vagal system, where our systems are not being amped up or shut down. We are able to digest food. We are able to engage. We are able to breathe at a normal rate. And we would only use our sympathetic, dorsal vagal system when we are actually in imminent danger.

These are three states of the autonomic system

Depending on what you read, the current knowledge on vagal activation is that there are actually four states of our autonomic system, and that it is typically a graduated reaction that moves from one state to the next as the danger increases and we find ourselves having to act.

The four states from rest to activation are:

Our ideal state, where we would prefer most of our time, is with our vagal brake activated, in our Social Engagement System. Where all our systems are functioning at a resting and/or productive rate.

As danger enters the picture, we would move to ventral vagal activation, where we are on alert but able to either turn to others for aid or react for ourselves. Our digestion and reproductive systems will move to the background of priority, and our respiratory and circulatory systems move to highest priority, and start to amp up.

If the danger increases, and aid can still be offered here, we would move to dorsal vagal activation. This is the most primitive of our systems, and has one goal in mind, survival. That’s it. Nothing else.

Survive this moment, whatever it takes.

And whatever system doesn’t serve surviving this moment and danger, i.e. digestion and reproduction, will be shut down, and everything that can help us survive, i.e. fighting or fleeing, will be activated to full strength.

The final state, typically following dorsal vagal activation of fight or flight, is dorsal vagal activation of freeze or fawn. When we are unable to flee, and aid is either unavailable or unhelpful, we will freeze or fawn in order to preserve our survival. This is the same tactic used by many animals, it’s also known as “playing dead”.

While it may seem a logical transition from one state to the next, this is by no means written in stone. Some people may go straight to freeze or fawn, particularly when in abusive, violent situations on a regular basis.

Some people don’t move from the fight or flight state. Some people may swing from state to state in a matter of seconds. Some never leave the freeze or fawn state and will often completely move to chronic dissociation. It really depends on the person and the situation. Every person is different and how they react will be as different and unique as they are.

There is no “right” or “wrong” way to react or respond. You react how you react.

Those with chronic trauma, particularly in abusive, violent situations, will typically find one state preferable to another in order to survive the moment. Your body and brain will learn what works, and stick with that, no matter what state that might be.

When our autonomic state is constantly activated at the dorsal level, it is tiring and can take all of our time, effort, and energy. There is nothing left for anything else. Literally.

People with high activation often find themselves in a state of depression as well. Which can be most confusing to be both anxious as well as depressed. And it IS possible. It’s also tiring as hell. Well, exhausting actually.

There is only so much the body can take in a state of activation, and how the body responds to that, is to shut down, and most likely, depression. However, with the threat still feeling imminent, the dorsal vagal will still do its job.

So our body moves constantly from a state of swinging between activation and suppression. (I should note, this is not the sole cause of depression, even for those with high, chronic anxiety. However, depression and anxiety are extremely common.) This constant swinging can happen over the course of several minutes, several days, and even weeks and months.

It is a constant, debilitating state.

Recognizing what state you are in, even if it’s just for a moment, and finding ways to try and calm our autonomic response can make a huge difference. It takes practice, and some trial and error, to find what helps you move from a state of activation to a state of engagement and rest.

I found a couple of books that are specifically on autonomic responses and working with vagal activation.

The Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges is a seminal work regarding the vagal (autonomic) system. Most work recently published on the vagus system will most likely be influenced by his work. While this book is important, it can be a difficult, academic read. If you want extensive knowledge on the vagus system then I recommend it.

If you want more practical information with tips and exercises in understanding your autonomic state and how to cope with it, then Deb Dana is who I would highly recommend. She has two books out on autonomic states: The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (2018) and Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection (2020).

Her book from 2018 is good for starting with learning about your autonomic states, and the few posts I have on autonomic states are from her first book. The second book from 2020 is much more extensive in understanding autonomic states and managing them. I highly recommend it, however, it might be overwhelming to start with. So I would recommend it to “graduate” to once you’re more familiar with your own autonomic system and states.

The “Window of Tolerance” is a useful tool in trying to decipher what state you are in, or swinging between different states. Here is my post about the “Window of Tolerance” if you’re interested.

Moving from one state to another starts with first identifying which state you are currently in. It can be an overwhelming practice that at first you may find you can only identify it once you’re no longer in it. Like most things when it comes to healing trauma, it takes dedication and practice.

I’m working on a few posts that will help to identify what state you might be in, or where you spend most of your time, and some ways to help move to a more regulated state.

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