The Three Brain Modes

The human brain actually consists of the brain plus all of the nerves in the human body, including significant nerve plexi in all major organs and many glands. In addition to our conscious nervous system (the somatic system) we also have three distinct levels or “modes” of unconscious nervous system function. These modes affect, and largely control, the conscious system. The three modes are:

  • Parasympathetic – rest, relax, rejuvenate. In this brain mode we can learn, integrate, be creative, and experience positive emotions. This system should be dominant most of the time.

  • Sympathetic – Fight or flight. In this brain mode we see the world through a filter of stress, fear, and threat. We tend to be negative, reactive and defensive and gravitate to negative emotions.

The sympathetic system is kind of like the military. It takes over control of all systems and resources when we perceive danger or feel unsafe. “Safety” is a perception. Many people feel “unsafe”, or stressed, at a basic level most of the time. Stress causes many physical and mental health problems because, like a run-away military in a war-torn country, it directs all system resources to defense rather than digestion, healing, and body maintenance.

  • Vagal – Freeze. In this brain mode we feel detached, distant, “frozen”, unable to think clearly or engage in reality.When we are in an unsafe situation and we cannot run away or effectively fight, then our nervous system goes into “freeze”. This is like “checking out” or going away. It feels like, or looks like, we are shut down, distant, not really in the body.

When we learn about these modes, we can then learn to recognize them in our own bodies and to navigate between them more easily.


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