Our autonomic states are “contagious”

Have you noticed that, if we are in a state of Fight or Flight, rushing around feeling, looking and sounding stressed, then our children often start feeling and acting agitated too?

And if, in our activated state, we glare at them or speak in a harsher voice to them, they may go into Fight or Flight as well, perhaps arguing or hitting us, or running away.

This is because our nervous system is wired to be highly tuned in to the tone of voice, facial expressions, posture and basic muscle tone that accompany our autonomic states, though a process that Stephen Porges calls “neuroception”.


I’d like to invite you to have a look at the images showing a mother in each of the three main autonomic states.

3 autonomic states

➡️ If you look at the mother’s body language and face, what do you notice?

Can you see the subtle and not-so-subtle differences? In particular, have a look at the eyes, and the facial muscles around the eyes.

➡️ I wonder if you’d also like to notice how you feel in your body when you look at each of the faces?

Does your heart feel open or closed? Do you feel relaxed or tense? What other sensations do you feel?

Can you imagine what it might be like for a smaller, less powerful, person (a child) to be looking into those faces?


If someone in our environment is feeling “not safe” – if their autonomic nervous system is in “Fight or Flight” or “Shut Down” – then our nervous system may automatically deduce that there is danger in our environment, and one of these defensive states can be triggered in us too.

From an evolutionary perspective, this aspect of the nervous system would have been an advantage for mammals, giving them a better chance of survival in the wild.

For example, if a zebra sees a lion approaching, and its nervous system detects it as a threat, the “Fight or Flight” state will be expressed in its body language and vocalisations. The nervous systems of the other zebras in the herd will pick up on this, alerting them to the danger, so they can flee to safety.


I wonder how it is for you reading this, and exploring the images?

Although it can be confronting, I find it such important information to have. If it brings up uncomfortable feelings for you, I’m sending you lots of love and compassion.

I’m going to be posting more about this in the coming days, as I believe learning about it gives us power. 💖


Note: the photos shown are staged stock photos, so won’t capture the autonomic states with 100% authenticity.
Photo credits:
“Safe & Social” – bristekjegor / Freepik
“Fight or Flight” – peoplecreations / Freepik
“Shut Down” – Bearfotos / Freepik

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