Polyvagal Theory = Mind-Body Connection

Connecting Mind and Body

A few years ago, I had an experience that made clear how differently my mind and body react when sensing danger. I was at a restaurant picking up an order to go. The woman in front of me was someone with whom I had had an antagonistic relationship in the past. I realized that if I moved, there was a chance she would notice, and then we would have to engage, there was no way for me to predict how that would go, so I remained still to avoid calling attention to myself.

I intended to stay frozen in my seat, only a few feet behind her, and wait for her to leave. There was no fear response or feeling of unsafe, but I recognized a physical tension in my body. She claimed her order and started to walk out. Just as I had anticipated, she turned away from me to leave. I knew she was right-handed, so she would open the door with that hand when leaving the restaurant and would be facing away from me as she exited.

That is not what happened. Instead, she used her left hand, which meant she turned to face me directly. Her immediate reaction was one of questioning, evidently equally surprised to see me, and then a smile sprang to her lips. This momentary recognition caused my face to respond with a smile, but my body reacted by flooding my system with adrenaline. My autonomic response system had recognized a threat and prepared me to take flight or fight. As she approached, smiling, extending her arms for a hug, I began to shake visibly. We exchanged greetings, falsehoods all around. She then asked if I would put my cell number in her phone, indicating that we should get together and catch up. When I tried to hold the phone, my shaking increased to the point where I acknowledge that I appeared to be freaking out. However, that was not how I was processing this situation cognitively. I was surprised by her presence but knew that nothing untoward would occur, but my physiology had an entirely different take on the situation.

How was it possible that my body had reacted with such volatility to a situation that held no real danger to me? I understood that my physical safety was not in jeopardy, yet my body had reacted to this woman’s presence in a visceral way.

To comprehend this occurrence, I began to study the Polyvagal Theory . Dr. Stephen Porges introduced this theory in 1984 after researching the physiological state and its effect on how we respond or interpret feeling safe. Dr. Porges’ theory explains how a threat shifts the physiological state to a defensive posture. The theory explains that feeling safe is less about removing a threat and is more dependent upon unique environmental cues and relationships that “have an active inhibition on defense circuits and promote health and feelings of love and trust.”

My past relationship with this woman did not promote a feeling of trust. Instead, my limbic system reacted to her presence as the environmental cue to begin the physiological defensive process by releasing adrenaline.  The nervous system, as Dr. Porges’ explains, is the mediator of behaviors and physical responses.

The research conducted using technology to evaluate the neurophysiological responses in subjects revealed that the cognitive process in assessing potential threats to our survival is secondary to our autonomic reaction. Dr. Porges defines this response as neuroception. To understand all of the nuances of his finding, I recommend that you read his book, which you can find here. His book, The Polyvagal Theory,  is written from a scientific perspective and for professionals, but it provides extensive data if you’re up for a deep dive.

Essentially the point I want to discuss is that your body will tell you the truth of a situation long before your brain has processed the environmental cues. Therefore, indicating that becoming aware of your physical reactions and being in tune with the nuances of sensation is vital in discerning relationships, environments, and navigating daily life: Both the comfortable and uncomfortable aspects.

There is an enormous amount of data available on the connection between body and mind, but I want to briefly unpack just a sliver of the wealth of information available. The importance of becoming familiar with your physical sensations becomes evident through the Polyvagal Theory and through experiments conducted using brain imaging maps the areas of the brain that engage when a person experiences a feeling. For example, being attentive and focused stimulates the brain’s cortex which produces mirror neurons .

Focusing your attention on how you understand the physical cues, through sensation, that your body is sending you will allow those new mirror neurons to connect the cognitive understanding to the physical sensation. (Please know that this is a significantly reduced picture of how mirror neurons work, but we are trying to get somewhere here.) Essentially you are re-wiring your brain to accept, more readily, the cues your body is sending and remain in the present moment rather than defaulting to a pattern of thought or interpretation.

How do you accomplish this? The first step is getting the left and right hemispheres of your brain functioning in sync. The simple exercises below don’t take much time or effort and have physical benefits as well. You can use these exercises any time you might feel foggy or “aren’t hitting on all cylinders” (that’s because you aren’t). Here are two examples. Either will work, and you only need to do a few minutes to achieve results.

Exercises to engage the hemispheres of the brain


Beginning with a hemisphere sync, you can start to assess your sensations by keeping a journal or a simple note of how you feel before the exercise and how you felt afterward. When you record how you are feeling prior to the exercise using descriptive words like calm or agitated will give you more information than a more general term such as good. You will not only jump-start your brain but begin the process of recognizing the feelings in your body.

As approached in Positive Psychology, body-mind integration will ultimately help you map the path to understanding your sensations. Therefore, the focus of my next blog will be providing a broad scope of information and detail the steps you can take to make the body-mind connection.


Unhappily Chasing Happiness, Part 2

In Part 1 of Unhappily Chasing Happiness, I discussed how the American prescription for happiness evolved. Now let’s turn our attention to how your brain functions within the American model for happiness and explore one method to change your mind to improve satisfaction with your life.

Assessments can help determine your current levels of authentic happiness, giving you a baseline from which to evaluate your progress. Additionally, in broader terms, testing defines the components of happiness that are more functional in the real world. I find the PERMA definition the most accessible.

The University of Pennsylvania offers free testing. After taking these assessments, mine were peer-reviewed, which provided more insight into how I perceived my happiness levels. I recommend discussing your results with a trusted, honest friend. Once you have gained clarity on your current happiness levels, the next step is to rewire incorrect belief systems, which will create positive behaviors and thought processes that increase well-being.

Effectiveness in rewiring requires recognition of cognitive processes affecting how you perceive the world. We will use Dr. Laurie Santos’ Annoying Feature model to explore mindsets that impact forward momentum to help you remain mindful when setting goals for your life. At the end of the blog, you will find a link to Dr. Santos’ rewirement app that I highly recommend to make achieving change in life more manageable.

 Annoying Feature #1: Our minds’ strongest intuitions are often totally wrong.

Miswanting is the core of Annoying Feature #1 and correlates to the ill effects of the American culture’s definitions of happiness discussed in Part 1 of this blog. Miswanting is understood as “less to do with not getting what we want and more to do with not wanting what we like.” An additional effect of this Feature is that we tend to overestimate the duration and strength of emotional reactions to future events. The overestimation is more significant when contemplating negative consequences and subsequent negative emotional responses.

The way this Feature functions in our lives is illustrated in this study about people’s affective reactions in a grocery shopping experiment. All of the subjects were asked to write out a shopping list. One group of subjects were allowed to keep their shopping lists. Then shoppers were asked at random to eat a quarter-pound of blueberry muffins before they did their shopping.

Experimenters reviewed the receipts of subjects who had been deprived of their shopping lists and found that subjects who had eaten the blueberry muffins bought fewer unwanted items than those shoppers who had not been fed. However, regardless of muffin consumption, shoppers who had their lists did not buy more unwanted items.

The conclusion was that shoppers with a list (aka the theory of what I will want in the future) in hand could avoid affective reactions and successfully avoided miswanting. Establishing specific goals and writing them down can help you navigate the effects of Annoying Feature#1.

Annoying Feature #2: Our minds don’t think in terms of absolutes; our minds judge relative reference points.

A metadata study conducted using Olympic athletes who had won medals makes understanding this thought process easier. All of the research data is intriguing, but herein we will only discuss the cognitive function of counterfactual thinking and its relevance to Annoying Feature #2.

When you see the Olympic medalists standing on the platform accepting their medals, you may have thought that the bronze medalist would be the person who felt the loss much more than a silver medal winner. However, we judge our experiences by relative reference points, and the study found that the bronze medalist feels more satisfaction.

The cognitive process functions in this manner: A silver medalist will focus on the single person who performed better (the relative reference point), the gold medal winner, labeled as upward thinking. The bronze medalist’s thoughts focus on the people they outperformed (the relative reference point) and are therefore downward thinking. Essentially, the silver medalist believes they could have won the gold, and the bronze medalist understands that many others did not win a medal.

An internal dialogue you may relate to would go something like this; the silver medalist’s self-dialogue of “if only I had,” “I should have,” etc. While the bronze medalist will dialogue more along the lines of, “at least I won a medal.”

Annoying Feature #3: Our minds are built to get used to stuff.

“Adaptability is the simple secret of survival.” – Jessica Hagedorn points to adaptability as a fundamental function of our brain. Specifically, the amygdala mediates the brain’s need for homeostasis and mandate to survive. Your mind will adapt to both good and bad circumstances with equal efficiency.

Understanding this function in your life requires knowledge of your baseline happiness level. Events like falling in love, getting married, and a job promotion will increase happiness neurotransmitters . But once you have adapted to the situation, i.e., married for seven years, been at the new job for a few years, etc., your neurotransmitters will return to baseline levels. (This is also known as the hedonic treadmill .) The brain process is the same when experiencing adverse events and will adapt equally well to adverse situations, but the neurotransmitters function differently.

This topic has many complexities but remembering how your brain functions can help you make choices that provide a more extended benefit emotionally. For example, if you have something material that you really want and will have to sacrifice your time to accomplish the financial goal, contemplate how you will feel when you buy the item comparing that sensation to the feelings the thing might invoke after one year. Studies have proven that financial expenditures for experiential activities have a sustained emotional benefit, but that is for a later post.

 Annoying Feature #4: We don’t realize that our minds are built to get used to stuff.

We now know that our minds will adapt to both positive and negative events equally well. Many people are aware of adapting to positive life impacts and will become less enthralled with things/people/situations that once brought great joy and satisfaction. Adapting to adverse events by normalizing the ill effects experienced happens because the psychological immune system is overridden by accepting the self-destructive assessment of experience as accurate.

The point of Feature #4 is to draw attention to our not realizing or remembering that we quickly adapt.  If you choose to practice the rewiring exercises, the Setting Goals process recommends that you conduct active visualizations of both positive and negative outcomes for your goal scenarios.

A rewiring tool you can easily apply in your life is to challenge future life forecasting scenarios that appear fraught with negative consequences by imagining possible positive outcomes.

Spoiler alert: If you read my February Newsletter, then you are familiar with the GI Joe Fallacy, and knowing something does not make you immune to its effects.


Now that you understand how your brain functions proceeding to help it process information differently is a first step to creating a fulfilling robust life for yourself.

As I suggested at the beginning of this post, obtaining a baseline of your current emotional state can be of great benefit. This knowledge will help you as you progress through the rewirement exercises, but in the years to come, you can recognize the distance you’ve covered.

I encourage you to get the ReWi app because it is a marvelous tool to track and measure your progress. Dr. Laurie Santos created the app to track eight activities that promote well-being. They are sleep, exercise, meditation, goal setting, gratitude, kindness, social connection, and savoring.

Please feel free to email me with your success stories and celebrating your achievements.


Unhappily Chasing Happiness, Part 1

Let’s talk about happiness. High levels of energy and mega-watt smiles are the stereotypical global attributes assigned to Americans. A person from Finland summed it up this way:

When a stranger on the street smiles at you: A). you assume he is drunk  B). he is insane  C). he’s an American

Depression and anxiety affect 1 in 5 adults in America, which seemingly contradicts the stereotype. (And this was before the pandemic.) Why are so many Americans unhappy? I will offer a few reasons but more importantly, let’s turn our attention to how to escape the cultural vise of happiness seeking.

I think it essential to discuss how the current definition of happiness evolved in American culture. Additionally, the expectations attached to the American happiness model: Beginning with the Declaration of Independence. Part 1 of this two-part blog offers a broad historical socially relevant context: References are provided if you wish to do further research on any content presented. Part 2 will offer new scientific evidenced-based data that defines happiness and specific ways to affect life changes.

My journey into understanding American happiness began with a cursory search of Webster’s Dictionary, returning this definition: “The state of being happy.” Not informative, is it? I felt it necessary to understand the context of the word within our culture, which led me to research the history of happiness.

Most Americans are familiar with Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence statement regarding the pursuit of happiness. It is that phrase which, arguably, was in the ensuing years taken out of Jefferson’s context, creating our current understanding of the words. Jefferson was referring to the phrase John Locke put forth in his work An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke based his definition on the Greek philosopher Epicurus’ teachings regarding happiness. Epicurus defined happiness as consisting of two parts; a) Ataraxia – achieve inner tranquility by being content with simple things and b) Aponia – the absence of physical pain. The words “everybody knows that” might have just flitted across your mind. Does everybody know that? In Part 2 of this blog, some accepted norms are refuted by scientific data, and Epicurus is the connecting point.

 The Declaration of Independence influenced the American Enlightenment Era . It was the enlightenment era that led to the Revolutionary war and the formation of the American Republic. The Romantic period followed the formation of the republic, and the right to individual happiness came to the forefront of American minds.

A quote from the Harvard Business Review states, “The smiling American was becoming a stereotype two centuries ago…” The Romantic period shepherded in the American cultural norm to be happy. Before the 18th century, people did not contemplate their happiness quotient because survival required their full attention. The stereotype stuck.

The industrial revolution took off in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, and the prosperity Americans began to acquire fueled the creation of “consumer culture.” The American population grew in the 19th and early 20th century, and those people moved into cities seeking their fortunes.

The 20th century had many notable economic downturns but the American right to “pursue happiness” came out as a stronger cultural norm once the economy improved. The unspoken imperative increased when marketing and advertising moved to television. If you look at ads from the 1960s, achieving a better lifestyle was the emphasis, and you accomplished that by purchasing the product advertised. The person attributed to this lifestyle marketing technique is psychologist John B. Watson.

Watson believed that classical conditioning, thnik Pavlov here, explained all human behaviors. Watson conducted experiments on children, which eventually got him ejected from Johns Hopkins University. A friend suggested that Watson come work with him at the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. Essentially Watson began his conditioning experiments on the nation at large. He is credited with creating the phrase “coffee break,” which we still employ today. Watson used classical conditioning to inculcate the American population in the happiness derived from the consumer culture paradigm. The trajectory of the American happiness model explains why happiness has become inextricably linked to material acquisition.

Fast forward to 2020. Social Media now places an impetus on not just being happy but actively hiding the appearance of unhappiness. Our conditioning accepts that happiness is obtained through material acquisitions, defined by the culture. Many people became aware of their compulsion for consuming during the pandemic quarantines. Amazon’s revenue growth despite economic downturns and financial insecurities may fuel future sociology research. I have spoken with people who have been quite content throughout the past year and others who are now struggling with depression and other psychological challenges. What psychological ability do some possess that allows them to accept current conditions happily, and others become despondent?

This broad view of the consumer culture as provocateur helps us understand how manipulated societal norms instilled an impetus to acquire material possessions as the path to happiness.

Are Americans doomed to unhappily chasing happiness?

In Part 2, I will present evidence-based data that illuminates the ability to extricate yourself from the societal pressures and provide you with the tools from experts in the Science of Well-Being field to aid in the journey.


Clarke, J (2020). Using Epicurean Philosophy for Finding Happiness. Retrieved from

John Locke. Pursuit of Happiness: Happiness is understandable, obtainable, and teachable. Retrieved from

Lanham, F. (2006). An historical look at the pursuit of happiness. Houston Chronicle. Retrieved from

Stearns, PN (2012). The History of Happiness. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Symptoms of Depression Among Adults: United States, 2019. CDC. Retrieved from

The Science of Happiness, Psychology Today, Retrieved from