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The Book of Human Emotions. An Encyclopedia of Feeling, from Anger to Wanderlust – Tiffany Watt Smith.

“Our emotions are evolved physical responses, and they are affected by the play of our unconscious minds.”

As early as the 1830s, Charles Darwin was treating emotions as a topic worthy of serious scientific attention.

Is your heart fluttering in anticipation? is your stomach tight with nerves? Are you falling in love? Feeling a bit miffed? Are you curious, perhaps about this book? Do you have the heebie-jeebies?

Some emotions wash the world in a single colour, like the terror felt as the car skids, or the euphoria of falling in love. Others, like clouds, are harder to grasp.

A surge of joy or a nervous tremble is the work of the delicate lattice of our nervous system, at the centre of which is a single organ: the brain.

In the 1880s William James argued that our bodily responses ARE the emotion, and our subjective feeling just follows. While ‘common sense says we meet a bear, are frightened, and run,’ he wrote, it is more rational to say that we feel ‘afraid because we tremble’. The physical response comes first, the subjective quality, the ‘feeling’, a byproduct, he called it an ‘epiphenomenon’, a split second later.

Sigmund Freud later said one had also to consider the far more elusive and complex influence of the mind, or ‘psyche’. He spoke of emotions poetically, as ‘feeling-tones’.

The idea that our emotions take circuitous routes through our minds as well as our bodies has been of profound therapeutic importance and left traces on today’s emotional language.

These Victorians are responsible for two of the most influential ideas about our feelings today: Our emotions are evolved physical responses, and they are affected by the play of our unconscious minds.

The Book of Human Emotions is a gleeful, thoughtful collection of 156 feelings, both rare and familiar. Each has its own story, and reveals the strange forces which shape our rich and varied internal worlds. In reading it, you’ll discover feelings you never knew you had (like basorexia, the sudden urge to kiss someone), uncover the secret histories of boredom and confidence, and gain unexpected insights into why we feel the way we do.

Tiffany Watt Smith is a research fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions, Queen Mary University of London, and was also a 2014 BBC New Generation Thinker. Before beginning her academic career she worked as a theatre director, including as an Associate Director at the Arcola Theatre and International Associate at the Royal Court. She lives in London.

“And how delightful other people’s emotions were! much more delightful than their ideas, it seemed to him.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Look up. Look up at the clouds. Are they grey and solemn in a windless sky? Or wisps floating carelessly on a breeze? Is the horizon drenched in a hot red sunset, angry with desire?

To the painter John Constable, the sky was full of emotion. He called it, in a letter written in 1821, the ‘key note’ and ‘chief organ of sentiment in painting’. it is for this reason that he dedicated much of his time to collecting and classifying the clouds. Walking out from his house in Hampstead, at that time a village near London with a bundle of papers, and a pocket full of brushes, he would sit for hours on the heath rapidly painting the changing shapes above him, the wind rustling his papers, rain drops pooling the colours. Once home, he arranged his sketches according to the latest meteorological classifications, noting the date, time and weather conditions.

Constable wanted to master the language of the sky and when you look at his paintings, it’s clear that he did. But he also lived in an age obsessed with the desire to label and put into categories, a passion for taxonomy that would always sit uneasily with the melting, drifting skies. Clouds are so hard to fix. Arranging them into groups, as the art critic John Ruskin discovered forty years later, was always a matter ‘more of convenience than true description’. The clouds fold into one another and drift away. They switch allegiances until it’s hard to tell them apart.

Look at the clouds, and you might see an emotion colour everything for an instant but then the skies will rearrange themselves and it’ll be gone.

Recognising and naming our emotional weather can be just as peculiar a task. Try to describe exactly how you feel right now. Is your heart fluttering excitedly for the person who’ll be waiting when you step off the train? Or your stomach tight at the thought of tomorrow’s deadline? Perhaps it was curiosity which nudged you towards this book. Or reluctance, studded with giddy defiance, that is making you linger over its pages in the shop rather than returning home. Are you feeling hopeful? Surprised? (Are you bored?)

Some emotions really do wash the world in a single colour, like the terror felt as the car skids, or the euphoria of falling in love. Others, like clouds, are harder to grasp. Plan a surprise for a loved one and you might feel anticipation crinkled with glee and creased at the edges with a faint terror what if they hate it? Storm off during an argument and it might be hard to tell the precise moment at which your indignation ends and your clammy selfloathing begins.

There are some emotions which are so quiet that they slip past before we’ve even had a chance to spot them, like that momentary sense of comfort which makes your hand reach out for a familiar brand at the supermarket. And then there are those that brood on the horizon, the ones we hurry away from, fearing they will burst upon us: the jealousy which makes our fingers itch to search a loved one’s pockets, or the shame that can goad us into self-destruction.

Sometimes it feels more like we belong to our emotions, than they to us.

But perhaps it’s only by paying attention to our feelings, by trying to capture them as Constable did the clouds, that we can truly understand ourselves.

What is an emotion?

Deep inside each of our temporal lobes is a tearshaped structure called the amygdala. Neuroscientists call this the ‘command centre’ of our emotions. It assesses stimuli from the outside world, deciding whether to avoid or approach. It triggers a clatter of responses, raising the heartbeat, instructing the glands to secrete hormones, contracting the limbs or making an eyelid twitch. Recall a sad story or look at a picture of your newborn baby while lying in a brain scanner and the amygdala will be one of the areas that will appear to ‘light up’ on the resulting computer generated image.

With their glowing tapestries of magenta and emerald, studies of the brain can be seductive. They can even seem like the final word on how and why we feel the way we do. But to think of our emotions purely as biochemical fireworks in the brain is, in the words of the writer Siri Hustvedt, ‘rather like saying that Vermeer’s Girl Pouring Milk is a canvas with paint on it or that Alice herself is words on a page. These are facts, but they don’t explain my subjective experience of either of them or what the two girls mean to me.’

More than that, I think, approaching emotions as first and foremost biological facts misrepresents what an emotion actually is.

The invention of emotions

No one really felt emotions before about 1830. Instead, they felt other things ‘passions’, ‘accidents of the soul’, ‘moral sentiments’ and explained them very differently from how we understand emotions today.

Some ancient Greeks believed a defiant rage was carried on an ill wind. Desert dwelling early Christians thought boredom could be implanted in the soul by malignant demons. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, passions were not exclusive to humans, but could work their strange effects on other bodies too, so that palm trees could fall in love and yearn for one another, and cats become melancholic.

But alongside this intangible realm of souls and supernatural forces, doctors also developed a complex approach to understanding the body’s influence on the passions. Their insights were based on a theory of humoral medicine from the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, which spread via the physicians of the medieval Islamic world, and flourished ultimately in the writings of the court doctors of the European Renaissance. The theory held that each person had a balance of four elemental substances in their bodies blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. These humours were thought to shape personality and mood: those with more blood in their veins were quick tempered, but also brave, while a dominance of phlegm made one peaceful but lugubrious.

Physicians believed strong passions disrupted this delicate ecosystem by moving heat around the body and rousing the humours in turn. Rage sent blood rushing from the heart to the limbs, readying a person to launch an attack. Once black bile was heated, by contrast, it sent poisonous vapours curling up to the brain and crowded it with terrifying visions.

Traces of these ideas still linger: it’s why we speak of people being phlegmatic or in an iII-humour, or say their blood is boiling.

The origin of our modern concept of emotion can be traced to the birth of empirical science in the mid-seventeenth century. Thomas Willis, a London anatomist who dissected hanged criminals, proposed that a surge of joy or a nervous tremble was not the work of strange liquids and fumes, but of the delicate lattice of the nervous system at the centre of which was a single organ: the brain. A hundred or so years later, physiologists studying reflex responses in animals went further and claimed that bodies recoiled in fright or twitched in delight because of purely mechanical processes no immaterial soul substance was necessary at all.

In a draughty Edinburgh lecture hall in the early nineteenth century, the philosopher Thomas Brown suggested this new way of understanding the body required a new vocabulary, and proposed using the word ‘emotion’. Though already in use in English (from the French émotion), the term was imprecise, describing any movements of bodies and objects, from the swaying of a tree to a hot blush spreading across the cheeks. The coinage indicated a novel approach to the life of feelings, one which used experiments and anatomical investigations to focus on observable phenomena: clenched teeth; rolling tears; shudders; wide eyes.

This provoked a flurry of interest among Victorian men of science in understanding how the body’s smiles and frowns expressed and even stimulated internal emotions. One man in particular stands out: Charles Darwin. As early as the 1830s, Darwin was treating emotions as a topic worthy of serious scientific attention. He sent out questionnaires to missionaries and explorers across the globe asking how grief or excitement was expressed by the indigenous people they encountered. He experimented on himself, trying to isolate the muscles used when he shuddered or smiled. He even studied his infant son, William, meticulously charting his responses: ‘at his 8th day he frowned much when little under five weeks old, smiled’.

In 1872 Darwin published his findings in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and made the audacious claim that our emotions were not fixed responses, but the result of millions of years of evolutionary processes which were still ongoing. As basic and important as breathing or digestion, as much animal as human, our emotions were there because they had helped us survive, preventing us from ingesting poisons, as in disgust, or helping us form bonds and cooperate, like love or compassion.

By the 1880s, the view that emotions were inherited reflexes was so established among scientists that the philosopher William James could argue that the bodily responses were the emotion, and the subjective feeling just followed. While ‘common sense says we meet a bear, are frightened, and run,’ he wrote, it was more rational to say that we feel ‘afraid because we tremble’. He thought the physical response came first, the subjective quality, a byproduct he called it an ‘epiphenomenon’ a split second later.

What is an Emotion? William James, 1884

Not everyone approached emotions in this way. The year after Darwin published his theories on the evolution of emotional expressions, Sigmund Freud began his medical training in Vienna. By the early 1890s however, Freud had abandoned his career as a neurologist, believing that it wasn’t enough to talk about prolonged sorrow or excessive suspicion in terms only of the brain and body: ‘it is not easy to treat feelings scientifically,’ he wrote.

One had also to consider the far more elusive and complex influence of the mind, or psyche.

Although he never set out a comprehensive theory of what he considered emotions to be, he spoke of them, poetically, as ‘feeling-tones’ Freud’s work added depth and complexity to the vision of emotions as biological twitches and jerks. It’s through his work that many of us have come to think of emotions as things which either can be repressed, or else build up and require venting. And that some particularly those urgent terrors and furious desires of childhood can sink down and hide in the deepest recesses of our minds only to emerge years later in dreams, or compulsions, or even physical symptoms like an aching head or cramping stomach.

It’s also from Freud that we have inherited the idea that we might not even recognise some of our emotions, but that our anger or jealousy might be ‘subconscious’, springing up like a jack-in-the-box accidentally (‘Freudian slips’), or in the jokes we tell, or in habits such as persistent unpunctuality.

Although many of the technical details of Freud’s theories have long since been discredited, the idea that our emotions take circuitous routes through our minds as well as our bodies has been of profound therapeutic importance and left traces on today’s emotional language.

In this way, the Victorians are responsible for two of the most influential ideas about our feelings today: that our emotions are evolved physical responses, and that they are affected by the play of our unconscious minds.

Emotional cultures

In fact, the answer to the question ‘what is an emotion?’ lies not only in our biology or private psychological histories. The way we feel is also enmeshed in the expectations and ideas of the cultures in which we live. Hate, anger or desire can seem to come from the most untamed, animal parts of ourselves. Yet they can also be aroused by those things which make us distinctly human: our language and the concepts we use to understand our bodies; our religious convictions and moral judgements; the fashions, even the politics and economics, of the times we live in.

The seventeenth century nobleman Francois de La Rochefoucauld recognised that even our most ardent urges can be conjured by the need to keep up with conventions: ‘Some people,’ he quipped, ‘would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.’ And just as talking, watching and reading can incite emotions in our bodies, they can quieten our feelings too. The Baining people of Papua New Guinea leave a bowl of water out overnight to absorb awumbuk, the gloom and inertia which descend when a much-loved guest departs. The ritual is reported to work every time.

The influence of our ideas can be so powerful that they can sometimes shape those biological responses we think of as the most natural. How else is it possible that in the eleventh century, knights could faint in dismay or yawn for love? Or that 400 years ago people could die of nostalgia?

The idea that emotions might be shaped by our cultures, as well as by our bodies and minds, was enthusiastically taken up in the 1960s and 703. Western anthropologists living in remote communities became interested in the emotional vocabulary of different languages. For instance song, the outrage felt on receiving a less than fair share, is held in high esteem in the cooperative culture of the Pacific islanders of Ifaluk.

It became clear that some cultures take very seriously certain feelings which in English speaking cultures might seem petty. What’s more, some emotions seemed to be so significant that people were fluent in its many subtle tastes and textures, like the fifteen distinct sorts of fear the Pintupi of Western Australia are able to feel. Other emotions which might seem fundamental to English speakers were missing in some languages: there is, for instance, no word which precisely captures the meaning of ‘worry’ among the Machiguenga of Peru.

This interest in emotional languages was intriguing: if different people have different ways of conceptualising their emotions, might they feel them differently too?

Historians had long suspected the importance of passions to understanding the mindsets of the past. However, a decade or so after these initial anthropological studies, they began excavating long-dead emotional cultures in earnest. Of course, they couldn’t interview Roman slaves or medieval lovers about their feelings. But they could uncover the ways people of the past had understood their passions or sentiments by looking at diaries and letters, conduct manuals and medical regimens, even legal documents and political speeches.

They began to ask the questions which have become so familiar to those who work in this field today. Was boredom invented by the Victorians? What made American presidents start smiling in their official portraits? Why did self-help authors in the sixteenth century encourage people to be sad, where today they’d exhort us to be happy? Why, in the eighteenth century, did artists want to broadcast the fact that they’d felt shocked? How could some emotions disappear such as the combination of listlessness and despair the early Christians called ‘acedia’ and others like ‘ringxiety’ suddenly pop into existence? To study the emotions of the past wasn’t only to understand how rituals of love and grief had changed over time, or why in different historical periods some emotions could be publicly expressed, while others were hidden, or restrained through penance or prayer. The new field of study asked how these cultural values imprinted themselves on our private experiences. It asked whether our emotions were entirely our own.

Even accounts of those emotions which are sometimes thought to be ‘basic’ or ‘universal’, such as fear or disgust, vary across times and places. The idea that some emotions are more fundamental than others is a very old one. The Li Chi, a Confucian collection of precepts and rituals which can be dated back to at least the first century BCE, identifies seven inherent feelings (joy, anger, sadness, fear, love, dislike and fondness). The philosopher René Descartes thought there were six ‘primitive passions’ (wonder, love, hatred, desire, joy and sadness). In our own time, some evolutionary psychologists argue that between six and eight ‘basic’ emotions are expressed in the same way by all people. The list usually includes disgust, fear, surprise, anger, happiness and sadness though not ‘love’, whose displays we expect to be tangled up in the rituals of different cultures.

These ‘basic’ emotional expressions are thought to be evolved responses to universal predicaments: a disgusted grimace ejects poisons from our mouths when we stick out our tongues; the rush of energy which comes when we are enraged may help us fight off a rival. But does it really follow that these emotions must feel the same way to all people in all places? Imagine a New York trader on the stock-exchange floor with sweating palms, a thumping heart and a prickling scalp. Then think of the same sensations experienced by a thirteenth-century Christian kneeling in a cold chapel in prayer, or by a Pintupi in Australia on waking in the dead of night with a stomach pain.

The trader might call those feelings ‘an adrenaline rush’ or ‘good fear’ (or, on a bad day, ‘stress’). The second might view them as ‘wondrous fear’, an awestruck terror alerting them to the presence of God. The third might feel ngulu, a particular sort of dread the Pintupi experience when they suspect another person is seeking revenge. The meanings we charge an emotion with change our experience of it. They determine whether we greet a feeling with delight or trepidation, whether we savour it or feel ashamed. Ignore these differences and we’ll lose most of what makes our emotional experiences what they are.

It comes down to what you think an emotion is. When we talk about emotions, I think we need what the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz in the 1970s called ‘thick description’. Geertz asked an elegant question: what is the difference between a blink and a wink? If we answer in purely physiological terms and speak of a chain of muscular contractions of the eyelids then a blink and a wink are more or less the same. But you need to understand the cultural context to appreciate what a wink is. You need to understand playing and jokes, and teasing and sex, and learnt conventions like irony and camp. Love, hate, desire, fear, anger and the rest are like this too.

Without context, you only get a ‘thin description’ of what’s going on, not the whole story and it’s this whole story which is what an emotion is.

This book is about these stories, and how they change. It’s about the different ways emotions have been perceived and performed from the weeping jurors in Greek courts to the brave, bearded women of the Renaissance; from the vibrating heartstrings of eighteenth-century doctors to Darwin’s selfexperiments at London Zoo; from the shell-shocked soldiers of the First World War to our own culture of neuroscience and brain imaging. It’s about the different ways our sorrowful, frowning, wincing, joyous bodies inhabit the world. And how the human world, with its moral values and political hierarchies, its assumptions about gender, sexuality, race and class, its philosophical views and scientific theories, inhabits us in return.

Emotion-spotting: a field guide

Today, emotional health, and the necessity of recognising and understanding our feelings to achieve it, is a stated goal of public policy in many countries, from Bhutan to the UK. Turn on a TV or open a newspaper, and there’ll be, somewhere, tips on how to achieve lasting happiness, or why crying can be good for us. The idea that it’s important to pay attention to our emotions is not new. The Stoics of ancient Greece taught that noticing the first stirrings of a passion gave you the best chance of controlling it. Catch the precise moment the hairs on the nape of your neck began to tingle, they thought, and you could remind yourself not to let blind panic set in.

In the seventeenth century the scholar and great anatomist of melancholy Robert Burton also found noticing his emotions helped him, though his approach was rather different. He became curious about his feelings of despair and worry, and tried to understand them in conversation with other writers and philosophers, particularly those of the past. Eventually, his melancholy, which had once seemed so senseless, became filled with meaning and started to loosen its grip.

Today’s enthusiasm for taking our emotions seriously can largely be traced back to psychological research first popularised in the mid 1990s under the catchy heading of emotional intelligence, aka emotional quotient or EQ. Its proponents argued that being able to identify your own and other people’s emotions, and to use them as a guide to making decisions, was as important in determining success as the traditional measure of IQ. Awareness of emotions has been shown to be strongly correlated with greater resilience in times of stress, with improved performance at work, with better management and negotiation skills and with more stable relationships at home. Today EQ, or some version of it, is a concept familiar to educators, business leaders and policy makers alike.

Whether you greet this excitement about emotions with a wide smile or a raised eyebrow, I hope you will agree that there are intriguing connections between our feelings and the words we use to describe them. Some emotions can fade into a smile when you know what to call them, such as ‘umpty’ (the feeling that everything is ‘all wrong’) or matutolypea (a sadness which only strikes in the morning). Some reveal themselves to be a greater part of our experience once we learn their name, such as basorexia (a sudden desire to kiss someone) or gezelligheid (the cosy feeling which comes from being inside with friends on a cold night).

And sometimes, identifying and reading about other people’s emotions can make our own seem less peculiar and isolating. In the course of writing this, many of the stories I encountered offered the consolations of shared experiences. Others resonated for different reasons, helping me to see some of my more wayward feelings from new perspectives. Most of us avoid thinking about some emotion or other. Perhaps you’re ashamed of your resentfulness or scared about your apathy, or struggle with your embarrassment. But given half a chance to think about where our attitudes towards these feelings come from, we might discover they’re not always the bogeymen we’re sometimes led to believe. I hope some of these stories resonate with you too.

But this book is not really about helping yourself become a happier, or more successful (or even a richer!) individual. Though they are full of intriguing curiosities, understanding the cultural stories of our emotions above all helps us uncover the tacit beliefs about what ‘natural’ (or, worse, ‘normal’) emotional responses might be. If our emotions are so important to us today, if they are measured by governments, subject to increasing pharmaceutical intervention by doctors, taught in our schools and monitored by our employers, then we had better understand where the assumptions we have about them come from and whether we really want to keep signing up.



The Book of Human Emotions. An Encyclopedia of Feeling, from Anger to Wanderlust

by Tiffany Watt Smith

get it at Amazon.com


The Vagus Nerve, State and Story. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy and the Autonomic Nervous System – Deb Dana * Stimulating the pathway connecting body and brain can change patients’ lives – Zoe Fisher and Andrew H Kemp.

“The mind narrates what the nervous system knows. Story follows state.”

“Our Autonomic Nervous System fires muscular tensions, triggered by feedback signals from the external & internal world at millisecond speeds below conscious awareness. These muscles tensions fire our Thoughts.”

In her new book, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation, Deb Dana offers a window into the inner life of a traumatized person and a way out of trauma and back to finding joy, connection, and safety through enlightening theory, rich experiential practice, and practical steps.

Developing present moment awareness and the ability to detect autonomic nervous system states opens the door for clients to experience state and story as separate experiences and ultimately reshape their nervous system.

The explanatory power of the Polyvagal Theory provides therapists with a language to help their clients reframe reactions to traumatic events. With the theory, clients are able to understand the adaptive functions of their reactions.

The hope polyvagal theory offers is that, in time, clients feel attuned to their autonomic nervous systems, develop a sense of self-compassion that allows them to see their responses as attempts at survival and not simply clinical diagnoses, and honor the innate wisdom of the autonomic nervous system to find their way back to safety, connection, and the rhythm of regulation.

In each of our relationships, the autonomic nervous system is “learning” about the world and being toned toward habits of connection or protection. Hopefulness lies in knowing that while early experiences shape the nervous system, ongoing experiences can reshape it.

The theory transforms the clients narrative from a documentary to a pragmatic quest for safety with an implicit bodily drive to survive. Through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, we see the role of the autonomic nervous system as it shapes clients’ experiences of safety and affects their ability for connection.

Polyvagal Theory demonstrates that even before the brain makes meaning of an incident, the autonomic nervous system has assessed the environment and initiated an adaptive survival response. Neuroception precedes perception. Story follows state.

The clues to a client’s present-time suffering can be found in their autonomic response history.

“The autonomic nervous system,” Deb writes, “responds to challenges in daily life by telling us not what we are or who we are, but how we are.”

Informing, guiding, and regulating our experiences, the autonomic nervous system tells us when we are safe and can proceed forward and when we are under threat and should retreat.

However, when trauma disrupts our experience, it also disrupts the autonomic nervous system, and the result is dysregulation, the interruption of the ability to feel safe.

“Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection,” Dana explains.

Because our lived experience relies on our autonomic nervous system’s ability to detect safety, a term known as neuroception, when the autonomic nervous system becomes disrupted, it affects everything about how we move through the world, interact with those around us, and attune to ourselves and the world around us.

Yet trauma survivors are often judged by their actions. Dana writes, ”We still too often blame the victim if they didn’t fight or try to escape but instead collapsed into submission. We make a judgement about what someone did that leads to a belief about who they are.”

The polyvagal theory, however, sees every response as an action in service of survival. In trauma, safety has been threatened, and the system that helps to regain a sense of safety is no longer able to regulate, detect safety, or restore connection.

Dana writes, “If we think of trauma as Robert Macy (president of the International Trauma Center) defined it, ”an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system,” then we immediately consider the autonomic nervous system.”

And because the autonomic nervous system is shaped over time through the experiences we have, we develop a habitual pattern known as a personal neural profile that then guides our actions and responses.

“We live a story that originates in our autonomic state, is sent through autonomic pathways from the body to the brain, and is then translated by the brain into the beliefs that guide our daily living. The mind narrates what the nervous system knows. Story follows state,” writes Dana.

A Polyvagal theory describes the neural experience as well as the expectations for reciprocal connection it holds. When those connections are violated, the result is what is known as “biological rudeness” and an immediate feeling of threat.

The work of the therapist using polyvagal theory is to interrupt the traumatized client’s neural expectations in positive ways.

Dana writes, “Repeatedly violating neural expectations in this way within the therapist-client dyad influences a client’s autonomic assumptions. As a client’s nervous system begins to anticipate in different ways, the old story will no longer fIt and a new story can be explored.”

Humans are social animals dependent on connection and coregulation for a sense of safety. Yet trauma makes connection dangerous and interrupts the process of coregulatory development.

While trauma can make clients feel as if they no longer need or want connection, their autonomic nervous system relies on connection, and it suffers.

“Chronic loneliness sends a persistent message of danger, and our autonomic nervous system remains locked in survival mode,” writes Dana.

Through mapping their autonomic states, clients begin to understand what triggers move them into a state of sympathetic activation and perception of danger, and what glimmers help restore them to a state of safety, hope and growth.

Developing present moment awareness and the ability to detect autonomic nervous system states opens the door for clients to experience state and story as separate experiences and ultimately reshape their nervous system.

The nervous system is relational in nature and Dana describes how therapists can help clients build their capacity for connection, reciprocity and repair: “When a rupture in the therapeutic relationship occurs, look for the moment when the work became too big of an autonomic challenge, name it for your clients, and take responsibility for the misattunement.”

Ruptures, much like trauma itself, can be opportunities for change, growth, and a deeper understanding. While the experience can feel uncertain and the path unknown, the ability to intertwine states and disrupt the all-or-nothing responses so common in trauma is crucial to experiencing play, intimacy, awe, and elevation.

The hope polyvagal theory offers is that, in time, clients feel attuned to their autonomic nervous systems, develop a sense of self-compassion that allows them to see their responses as attempts at survival and not simply clinical diagnoses, and honor the innate wisdom of the autonomic nervous system to find their way back to safety, connection, and the rhythm of regulation.

Psych Central


Deb Dana

We come into the world wired to connect. With our first breath, we embark on a lifelong quest to feel safe in our bodies, in our environments, and in our relationships with others. The autonomic nervous system is our personal surveillance system, always on guard, asking the question “Is this safe?” Its goal is to protect us by sensing safety and risk, listening moment by moment to what is happening in and around our bodies and in the connections we have to others.

This listening happens far below awareness and far away from our conscious control. Dr. Porges, understanding that this is not awareness that comes with perception, coined the term neuroception to describe the way our autonomic nervous system scans for cues of safety, danger, and life-threat without involving the thinking parts of our brain.

Because we humans are meaningmaking beings, what begins as the wordless experiencing of neuroception drives the creation of a story that shapes our daily living.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is made up of two main branches, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic, and responds to signals and sensations via three pathways, each with a characteristic pattern of response. Through each of these pathways, we react “in service of survival.”

The sympathetic branch is found in the middle part of the spinal cord and represents the pathway that prepares us for action. It responds to cues of danger and triggers the release of adrenaline, which fuels the fight-or-flight response.

In the parasympathetic branch, Polyvagal Theory focuses on two pathways traveling within a nerve called the vagus. Vagus, meaning “wanderer,” is aptly named. From the brain stem at the base of the skull, the vagus travels in two directions: downward through the lungs, heart, diaphragm, and stomach and upward to connect with nerves in the neck, throat, eyes, and ears.

The vagus is divided into two parts: the ventral vagal pathway and the dorsal vagal pathway. The ventral vagal pathway responds to cues of safety and supports feelings of being safely engaged and socially connected. In contrast, the dorsal vagal pathway responds to cues of extreme danger. It takes us out of connection, out of awareness, and into a protective state of collapse. When we feel frozen, numb, or “not here,” the dorsal vagus has taken control.

Dr. Porges identified a hierarchy of response built into our autonomic nervous system and anchored in the evolutionary development of our species. The origin of the dorsal vagal pathway of the parasympathetic branch and its immobilization response lies with our ancient vertebrate ancestors and is the oldest pathway. The sympathetic branch and its pattern of mobilization, was next to develop. The most recent addition, the ventral vagal pathway of the parasympathetic branch brings patterns of social engagement that are unique to mammals.

When we are firmly grounded in our ventral vagal pathway, we feel safe and connected, calm and social. A sense (neuroception) of danger can trigger us out of this state and backwards on the evolutionary timeline into the sympathetic branch. Here we are mobilized to respond and take action. Taking action can help us return to the safe and sociaI state. It is when we feel as though we are trapped and can’t escape the danger that the dorsal vagal pathway pulls us all the way back to our evolutionary beginnings. In this state we are immobilized. We shut down to survive. From here, it is a long way back to feeling safe and social and a painful path to follow.

The Autonomic Ladder

Let’s translate our basic knowledge of the autonomic nervous system into everyday understanding by imagining the autonomic nervous system as a ladder. How do our experiences change as we move up and down the ladder?

The Top of the Ladder

What would it feel like to be safe and warm? Arms strong but gentle. Snuggled close, joined by tears and laughter. Free to share, to stay, to leave . . .

Safety and connection are guided by the evolutionarily newest part of the autonomic nervous system. Our social engagement system is active in the ventral vagal pathway of the parasympathetic branch. In this state, our heart rate is regulated, our breath is full, we take in the faces of friends, and we can tune in to conversations and tune out distracting noises.

We see the “big picture” and connect to the world and the people in it. I might describe myself as happy, active, interested and the world as safe, fun, and peaceful. From this ventral vagal place at the top of the autonomic ladder, I am connected to my experiences and can reach out to others. Some of the daily living experiences of this state include being organized, following through with plans, taking care of myself, taking time to play, doing things with others, feeling productive at work, and having a general feeling of regulation and a sense of management. Health benefits include a healthy heart, regulated blood pressure, a healthy immune system decreasing my vulnerability to illness, good digestion, quality sleep, and an overall sense of well-being.

Moving Down the Ladder

Fear is whispering to me and I feel the power of its message. Move, take action, escape. No one can be trusted. No place is safe . . .

The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system activates when we feel a stirring of unease, when something triggers a neuroception of danger. We go into action. Fight or flight happens here. In this state, our heart rate speeds up, our breath is short and shallow, we scan our environment looking for danger, we are “on the move.” I might describe myself as anxious or angry and feel the rush of adrenaline that makes it hard for me to be still. I am listening for sounds of danger and don’t hear the sounds of friendly voices. The world may feel dangerous, chaotic, and unfriendly.

From this place of sympathetic mobilization, a step down the autonomic ladder and backward on the evolutionary timeline, I may believe, “The world is a dangerous place and I need to protect myself from harm.”

Some of the daily living problems can be anxiety, panic attacks, anger, inability to focus or follow through, and distress in relationships. Health consequences can include heart disease; high blood pressure; high cholesterol; sleep problems; weight gain; memory impairment; headache; chronic neck, shoulder, and back tension; stomach problems; and increased vulnerability to illness.

The Bottom of the Ladder

I’m far away in a dark and forbidding place. I make no sound. I am small and silent and barely breathing. Alone where no one will ever find me . . .

Our oldest pathway of response, the dorsal vagal pathway of the parasympathetic branch, is the path of last resort. When all else fails, when we are trapped and action taking doesn’t work, the “primitive vagus” takes us into shutdown, collapse, and dissociation.

Here at the very bottom of the autonomic ladder, I am alone with my despair and escape into not knowing, not feeling, almost a sense of not being. I might describe myself as hopeless, abandoned, foggy, too tired to think or act and the world as empty, dead, and dark.

From this earliest place on the evolutionary timeline, where my mind and body have moved into conservation mode, I may believe, “I am lost and no one will ever find me.”

Some of the daily living problems can be dissociation, problems with memory, depression, isolation, and no energy for the tasks of daily living. Health consequences of this state can include chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, stomach problems, low blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and weight gain.

The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation

The polyvagal theory presented in client friendly language.

Deb Dana

This book offers therapists an integrated approach to adding a polyvagal foundation to their work with clients. With clear explanations of the organizing principles of Polyvagal Theory, this complex theory is translated into clinician and client-friendly language. Using a unique autonomic mapping process along with worksheets designed to effectively track autonomic response patterns, this book presents practical ways to work with clients’ experiences of connection. Through exercises that have been specifically created to engage the regulating capacities of the ventral vagal system, therapists are given tools to help clients reshape their autonomic nervous systems.

Adding a polyvagal perspective to clinical practice draws the autonomic nervous system directly into the work of therapy, helping clients re-pattern their nervous systems, build capacities for regulation, and create autonomic pathways of safety and connection. With chapters that build confidence in understanding Polyvagal Theory, chapters that introduce worksheets for mapping, tracking, and practices for repatterning, as well as a series of autonomic meditations, this book offers therapists a guide to practicing polyvagal-informed therapy.

The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy is essential reading for therapists who work with trauma and those who seek an easy and accessible way of understanding the significance that Polyvagal Theory has to clinical work.


By Stephen W. Porges

Since Polyvagal Theory emerged in 1994, I have been on a personal journey expanding the clinical applications of the theory. The journey has moved Polyvagal concepts and constructs from the constraints of the laboratory to the clinic where therapists apply innovative interventions to enhance and optimize human experiences.

Initially, the explanatory power of the theory provided therapists with a language to help their clients reframe reactions to traumatic events. With the theory, clients were able to understand the adaptive functions of their reactions.

As insightful and compassionate therapists conveyed the elements of the theory to their clients, survivors of trauma began to reframe their experiences and their personal narratives shifted to feeling heroic and not victimized.

The theory had its foundation in laboratory science, moved into applied research to decipher the neurobiological mechanisms of psychiatric disorders, and now through the insights of Deb Dana and other therapists is informing clinical treatment.

The journey from laboratory to clinic started on October 8, 1994 in Atlanta, when Polyvagal Theory was unveiled to the scientific community in my presidential address to the Society for Psychophysiological Research. A few months later the theory was disseminated as a publication in the society’s journal, Psychophysiology (Porges, 1995). The article was titled “Orienting in a Defensive World: Mammalian Modifications of Our Evolutionary Heritage. A Polyvagal Theory.” The title, crafted to crypticaIIy encode several features of the theory, was intended to emphasize that mammals had evolved in a hostile environment in which survival was dependent on their ability to down regulate states of defense with states of safety and trust, states that supported cooperative behavior and health.

In 1994 I was totally unaware that clinicians would embrace the theory. I did not anticipate its importance in understanding trauma-related experiences. Being a scientist, and not a clinician, my interests were focused on understanding how the autonomic nervous system influenced mental, behavioral, and physiological processes. My clinical interests were limited to obstetrics and neonatology with a focus on monitoring health risk during delivery and the first days of life. Consistent with the demands and rewards of being an academic researcher, my interests were directed at mechanisms.

In my most optimistic dreams of application, I thought my work might evolve into novel assessments of autonomic function. In the early 1990’s I was not interested in emotion, social behavior, and the importance of social interactions on health and the regulation of the autonomic nervous system; I seldom thought of my research leading to strategies of intervention.

After the publication of the Polyvagal Theory, I became curious about the features of individuals with several psychiatric diagnoses. I noticed that research was reliably demonstrating depressed cardiac vagal tone (i.e., respiratory sinus arrhythmia and other measures of heart rate variability) and atypical vagal regulation of the heart in response to challenges. I also noticed that many psychiatric disorders seem to share symptoms that could be explained as a depressed or dysfunctional Social Engagement System with features expressed in auditory hypersensitivities, auditory processing difficulties, flat facial affect, poor gaze, and a lack of prosody.

This curiosity led to an expanded research program in which I conducted studies evaluating clinical groups (e.g., autism, selective mutism, HIV, PTSD, Fragile X syndrome, borderline personality disorder, women with abuse histories, children who stutter, preterm infants). In these studies Polyvagal Theory was used to explain the findings and confirm that many psychiatric disorders were manifest in a dysfunction of the ‘ventral’ vagal complex, which included lower cardiac vagal tone and the associated depressed function of the striated muscles of the face and head resulting in flat facial affect and lack of prosody.

In 2011 the studies investigating clinical populations were summarized in a book published by Norton, The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation.

The publication enabled Polyvagal Theory to become accessible to clinicians; the theory was no longer limited to the digital libraries linked to universities and research institutes. The publication of the book stimulated great interest within the clinical community and especially with traumatologists. I had not anticipated that the main impact of the theory would be to provide plausible neurophysiological explanations for experiences described by individuals who had experienced trauma. For these individuals, the theory provided an understanding of how, after experiencing life threat, their neural reactions were retuned towards a defensive bias and they lost the resilience to return to a state of safety.

This prompted invitations to talk at clinically oriented meetings and to conduct workshops on Polyvagal Theory for clinicians. During the past few years, there has been an expanding awareness of Polyvagal Theory across several clinical areas. This welcoming by the clinical community identified limitations in my knowledge. Although I could talk to clinicians and deconstruct their presentations of clinical cases into constructs described by the theory, I was not a clinician. I was limited in how I related the theory to clinical diagnosis, treatment, and outcome.

During this period, I met Deb Dana. Deb is a talented therapist with astute insights into trauma and a desire to integrate Polyvagal Theory into clinical treatment. For Deb, Polyvagal Theory provided a language of the body that paralleled her feelings and intuitive connectedness with her clients. The theory provided a syntax to label her and her client’s experiences, which were substantiated by documented neural mechanisms.

Functionally, the theory became a lens or a perspective in how she supported her clients and how she reacted to her clients.

The theory transformed the client’s narrative from a documentary to a pragmatic quest for safety with an implicit bodily drive to survive.

As the theory infused her clinical model, she began to develop a methodology to train other therapists. The product of this transition is the current book. In The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Deb Dana brilliantly transforms a neurobiologically based theory into clinical practice and Polyvagal Theory comes alive.


Deb Dana

When I teach Polyvagal Theory to colleagues and clients, I tell them they are learning about the science of safety, the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living. Polyvagal Theory provides a physiological and psychological understanding of how and why clients move through a continual cycle of mobilization, disconnection, and engagement.

Through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, we see the role of the autonomic nervous system as it shapes clients’ experiences of safety and affects their ability for connection.

The autonomic nervous system responds to the challenges of daily life by telling us not what we are or who we are but how we are. The autonomic nervous system manages risk and creates patterns of connection by changing our physiological state. These shifts are slight for many people, and, in the moments when large state changes happen, their system is resilient enough to help them return to a regulated state.

Trauma interrupts the process of building the autonomic circuitry of safe connection and sidetracks the development of regulation and resilience.

Clients with trauma histories often experience more intense, extreme autonomic responses, which affects their ability to regulate and feel safe in relationships. Polyvagal Theory helps therapists understand that the behaviors of their clients are autonomic actions in service of survival, adaptive responses ingrained in a survival story that is entered into automatically.

Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection. If unresolved, these early adaptive survival responses become habitual autonomic patterns. Therapy through a polyvagal lens, supports clients in repatterning the ways their autonomic nervous systems operate when the drive to survive competes with the longing to connect with others.

This book is designed to help you bring Poiyvagal Theory into your therapy practice. It provides a comprehensive approach to intervention by presenting ways to map autonomic response and shape the autonomic nervous system for safety. With this book, you will learn Poiyvagal Theory and use worksheets and experiential exercises to apply that knowledge to the nuts and bolts of practice.

Section I, “Befriending the Nervous System,” introduces the science of connection and creates basic fluency in the language of Poiyvagal Theory. These chapters present the essential elements of Poiyvagal Theory, building a solid foundation of knowledge and setting the stage for work with the clinical applications presented in the remainder of the book.

Section II, “Mapping the Nervous System,” focuses on learning to recognize patterns of response. The worksheets presented in these chapters create the ability to predictably identify individual placement along the autonomic hierarchy.

Section III, “Navigating the Nervous System,” builds on the newly gained expertise in identifying autonomic states and adds the next steps in the process: learning to track response patterns, recognize triggers, and identify regulating resources. A variety of “attending” practices are presented to support a new way of attuning to patterns of action, disconnection, and engagement.

Section IV, “Shaping the Nervous System,” explores the use of passive and active pathways to tone the autonomic nervous system and reshape it toward increased flexibility of response. These chapters offer ways to engage the regulating capacities of the ventral vagal system through both in-the-moment interventions and practices that begin to shift the system toward finding safety in connection.

Through the ideas presented in this book, you will discover how using Polyvagal Theory in therapy will increase the effectiveness of your clinical work with trauma survivors. In this process, not only will your therapy practice change, but also your way of seeing and being in the world will change.

My personal experience, and my experience teaching Polyvagal Theory to therapists and clients, is that there is a “before-and-after” quality to learning this theory. Once you understand the role of the autonomic nervous system in shaping our lives, you can never again not see the world through that lens.



“The greatest thing then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally as opposed to our enemy.” WILLIAM JAMES

If you do a Google search for “Polyvagal Theory,” more than 500,000 results pop up, and if you search for “Stephen Porges,” more than 150,000 results appear. Polyvagal Theory has made a remarkable journey from a relatively unknown and controversial theory to its wide acceptance today in the field of psychotherapy.

Polyvagal Theory traces its origins to 1969 and Dr. Porges’s early work with heart rate variability and his “vision that monitoring physiological state would be a helpful guide to the therapist during the clinical interaction”

(Porges, 2011a, p. 2). As Dr. Porges wrote, at that time he “looked forward to new discoveries applying these technologies to clinical populations. I had no intention of developing a theory” (p. 5). Polyvagal Theory was born out of the question how one nerve, the vagus nerve, and its tone, which Dr. Porges was measuring, could be both a marker of resilience and a risk factor for newborns. Through solving this puzzle, now known as the vagal paradox, Dr. Porges created the Polyvagal Theory.

Three organizing principles are at the heart of Polyvagal Theory.

Hierarchy: The autonomic nervous system responds to sensations in the body and signals from the environment through three pathways of response. These pathways work in a specified order and respond to challenges in predictable ways. The three pathways (and their patterns of response), in evolutionary order from oldest to newest, are the dorsal vagus (immobilization), the sympathetic nervous system (mobilization), and the ventral vagus (social engagement and connection).

Neuroception: This is the term coined by Dr. Porges to describe the ways our autonomic nervous system responds to cues of safety, danger, and life-threat from within our bodies, in the world around us, and in our connections to others. Different from perception, this is “detection without awareness” (Porges, n.d.), a subcortical experience happening far below the realm of conscious thought.

Co-regulation: Polyvagal Theory identifies co-regulation as a biological imperative: a need that must be met to sustain life. It is through reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states that we feel safe to move into connection and create trusting relationships.

We can think of the autonomic nervous system as the foundation upon which our lived experience is built. This biological resource (Kok et al., 2013) is the neural platform that is beneath every experience. How we move through the world-turning toward, backing away, sometimes connecting and other times isolating, is guided by the autonomic nervous system. Supported by co-regulating relationships, we become resilient. ln relationships awash in experiences of misattunement, we become masters of survival. In each of our relationships, the autonomic nervous system is “learning” about the world and being toned toward habits of connection or protection.

Hopefulness lies in knowing that while early experiences shape the nervous system, ongoing experiences can reshape it. Just as the brain is continually changing in response to experiences and the environment, our autonomic nervous system is likewise engaged and can be intentionally influenced.

As individual nervous systems reach out for contact and co-regulation, incidents of resonance and misattunement are experienced as moments of connection or moments of protection. The signals conveyed, the cues of safety or danger sent from one autonomic nervous system to another, invite regulation or increase reactivity. In work with couples, it is easy to observe the increased reactivity that occurs when a disagreement quickly escalates and cues of danger communicated between the two nervous systems trigger each partner’s need for protection. In contrast, the attunement of the therapist-client relationship relays signals of safety and an autonomic invitation for connection.

Humans are driven to want to understand the “why” of behaviors. We attribute motivation and intent and assign blame. Society judges trauma survivors by their actions in times of crisis.

We still too often blame the victim if they didn’t fight or try to escape but instead collapsed into submission. We make a judgment about what someone did that leads to a belief about who they are. Trauma survivors themselves often think “It’s my fault” and have a harsh inner critic who mirrors society’s response.

In our daily interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and even the casual exchanges with strangers that define our days, we evaluate others by the ways they engage with us.

Polyvagal Theory gives therapists a neurophysiologioal framework to consider the reasons why people act in the ways they do. Through a polyvagal lens, we understand that actions are automatic and adaptive, generated by the autonomic nervous system well below the level of conscious awareness. This is not the brain making a cognitive choice. These are autonomic energies moving in patterns of protection. And with this new awareness, the door opens to compassion.

A working principle of the autonomic nervous system is “every response is an action in service of survival.” No matter how incongruous an action may look from the outside, from an autonomic perspective it is always an adaptive survival response. The autonomic nervous system doesn’t make a judgment about good and bad; it simply acts to manage risk and seek safety. Helping clients appreciate the protective intent of their autonomic responses begins to reduce the shame and self-blame that trauma survivors so often feel. When offered the lens of Polyvagal Theory, clients become curious about the cues of safety and danger their nervous systems are sensing and begin to understand their responses as courageous survival responses that can be held with compassion.

Trauma-trained therapists are taught that a foundation of effective work is understanding “perception is more important than reality.” Personal perception, not the actual facts of an experience, creates posttraumatic consequences.

Polyvagal Theory demonstrates that even before the brain makes meaning of an incident, the autonomic nervous system has assessed the environment and initiated an adaptive survival response. Neuroception precedes perception. Story follows state.

Through a polyvagal framework, the important question “What happened?” is explored not to document the details of an event but to learn about the autonomic response. The clues to a client’s present-time suffering can be found in their autonomic response history.

The goal of therapy is to engage the resources of the ventral vagus to recruit the circuits that support the prosocial behaviors of the Social Engagement System (Porges, 2009a, 2015a). The Social Engagement System is our “face-heart” connection, created from the linking of the ventral vagus (heart) and the striated muscles in our face and head that control how we look (facial expressions), how we listen (auditory), and how we speak (vocalization) (Porges, 2017a). In our interactions it is through the Social Engagement System that we send and search for cues of safety. In both the therapy setting and the therapy session, creating the conditions for a physiological state that supports an active Social Engagement System is a necessary element. “If we are not safe, we are chronically in a state of evaluation and defensiveness” (Porges, 2011b, p. 14). It is a ventral vagal state and a neuroception of safety that bring the possibility for connection, curiosity, and change. A polyvagal approach to therapy follows the four R’s:

– Recognize the autonomic state.

– Respect the adaptive survival response.

– Regulate or co-regulate into a ventral vagal state.

– Re-story.

. . .



The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy. Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation

by Deb Dana

get it at Amazon.com

See also:

The Vagus Nerve. Stimulating the pathway connecting body and brain can change patients’ lives – Zoe Fisher and Andrew H Kemp.