Anxiety: A Polyvagal Perspective

Anxiety: A Polyvagal Perspective

By Sabrina Brient.

Anxiety can manifest as excessive worry and rumination about potential or perceived threats. There are physiological symptoms of anxiety as well, which include: a fuzzy head or dizziness, rapid heartbeat, sweating, agitation or shakes, and a sick feeling in the stomach. These are all messages from your brain and body that it feels threatened or unsafe. However, anxiety can also lead to us shutting down completely.

Our nervous system is constantly scanning our environment and assessing safety or danger. This comes from our history of being hunter-gatherers and living in tribes, needing to constantly be on the lookout for dangerous predators, enemies, or unsafe food. In today’s Western society, this does not exist, however, the body is still always on the lookout.

To better understand anxiety, and how our body keeps us safe, let’s look at the three states in the nervous system. These three states are controlled by the nervous system, which is made up of two distinct parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic.

Sympathetic (Fight/ Flight):

The sympathetic part of the nervous system is that section that responds to danger and prepares us to act and is called the “fight/flight” response. It is the first response to danger and is when we feel the typical symptoms of anxiety described above, and can also be experienced as panic attacks, anger, and feelings of distress.


The second part of the nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system, which is made up of the vagus nerve and has two parts:

  • Dorsal Vagal (Freeze):

The dorsal vagal or “freeze” response is what occurs when “fight/flight” does not keep us safe and is the body’s last rest when taking action against the danger has not helped. This is an extreme response to stress and anxiety, and when it occurs, our body shuts down and collapses. In this state, we experience feelings of numbness, fog, exhaustion, and despair. This can often be experienced as dissociation, depression, and a complete lack of energy.


  • Ventral Vagal (Safe/ Rest and Digest):

The final state experienced is the ventral vagal, or “safe” state. This is the part of us that is active when we feel safe, socially engaged, and able to enjoy life. In this state, we can feel happy, connected, relaxed and calm. When we are in our safe state, we can be productive, enthusiastic and engage in self-care, work, and play.


What does it all mean?

We move between these three states during our day depending on our experiences. And when we are in a state of well-being, the nervous system works together to keep us regulated and healthy. However, when we are in an anxious or stressed state, we have an overactive or hypervigilant nervous system, constantly scanning for danger, and often perceiving it in everyday, normal situations or experiences. This can result in us spending more time in the fight/flight or freeze state.


So, what now?

By understanding how stress and anxiety works, and the role of our nervous system in it, we can start to learn how to move between the states and move into a state of safety when we feel threatened, stressed, or anxious. This begins by:

  • Understanding what puts us into the fight/flight and freeze response,
  • Learning how to recognise when we are in each of the states
  • Beginning to explore what helps us feel safe.
  • Using these strategies to move out of fight/flight and freeze mode when in them.

Whilst it can be helpful to explore this with a professional, in general, some things that can help include:

  • Grounding and mindfulness.
  • Deep breathing.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Exercise and self-care.
  • Connection with people who help you feel safe.
  • Engaging in activities that bring you joy.


This blog was written by Sabrina Brient, to learn more about Sabrina’s experience, click here.

To book an appointment with Sabrina or one of our other Psychologists, click here

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