The Ponyvagal™ Theory: Updates to the Neuroception Curve

EDIT (March 25, 2022): It is important that I preface this graph by paraphrasing Dr. Peter Levine in saying that this is a map and not the terrain. This is but one map of many that are out there to make sense of complex patterns. This graph does not and cannot account for everything, and in the EQUUSOMA® model we use other maps as well to get a feel for the nuances that are not outlined in this one (we go over these other graphs in the training). What can’t be depicted in a graph is discussed in other ways, and we use the felt sense in a neuroexperiential learning model to understand phenomena that can’t be depicted in 2D illustrations. For instance, the sequence depicted in this graph does not always unfold in the same way or look this way. The experience can be much more complex and confusing, fragmented, or interrupted, with other layers that are missing that simply can’t be rendered easily in a single line drawing. Maps are a starting place, as opposed to an end point.

I draw from many, many models and approaches. While I have become known for my translation of the polyvagal theory in relation to horse trauma and human trauma (that I affectionately refer to as the “ponyvagal” theory), I also recognize that it is one theory among many. It would be reductionistic to state that everything can be explained by one thing, which is why it is important to seek out training and knowledge in different areas to get a sense of the bigger picture and how it fits together. The nerdy part of me wishes there was some way to depict absolutely everything in one graph (“a theory of everything”), but this is not possible. And so, we work with multiple maps.

As such, I appreciate your enthusiasm, questions, and gracious understanding that no one graph will be perfect or the whole picture. It’s not intended to be. This graph will continue to evolve over time, and I am curious about how it will look on the next update.

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I updated my neuroception curve (“The Polyvagal Defense Hierarchy“) in summer 2021 in order for it to reflect the latest discussions taking place related to trauma physiology, the polyvagal theory, the defence cascade, and the role of the social engagement system in offering a ventral brake to modulate activation in the face of danger.

The 2019 curve along with my other illustrations were reviewed by Dr. Stephen Porges originally. While the updated 2021 curve has been shared with EQUUSOMA® students and has started to be used by Dr. Peter Levine in his master classes and presentations, I have not yet had a chance to release it publicly until now due to being bogged down by both life demands and the pandemic.

The main distinction between the 2019 curve and the 2021 curve is in how the term “fawn” is defined and where it is now located in the graph, and the removal of the controversial concept of Stockholm syndrome.

2019 Curve

The original curve reflects the use of “fawn” as originally conceived by Pete Walker, MA, whereby “fawn” is used to describe codependence as a social survival strategy (co-dependence being when one focuses on the needs and managing the reactions of others in order to prevent harm or rejection).

Within “fawn”, I had included Stockholm syndrome before learning about the sexist and misogynistic history of the term (the details of the controversy are summarized here and here) and how the concept of Stockholm syndrome does not accurately describe the experience for many people and minimizes the role of the nervous system in producing a powerful survival response.

In the 2019 curve, “fawn” is placed within a neuroception of danger and appears as the shaded area of green that is blended with the gold, demonstrating how the ventral vagal complex can be a brake that tempers one’s own sympathetic activation in order to co-regulate that of others. While Pete Walker’s use of the term “fawn” doesn’t quite describe this co-regulatory effect (his description focuses more on the psychological mechanisms and relational dynamic of codependence rather than the underlying neural platform that is driving the behaviour), I nonetheless interpreted his use of “fawn” through a polyvagal lens and included the co-regulating aspect of codependence.

2021 Curve

Redefining “fawn”

The current version of the curve integrates a more nuanced perspective, and reflects Dr. Stephen Porges‘ use of the word “fawn”. In his 2019 interview with Dr. Rebecca Bailey and abduction survivor Jaycee Dugard, he equates it with dissociation, submission, and shut down — which, incidentally, is more aligned with the metaphor of an actual fawn lying immobile so as to remain safe until its mother returns than the original use of the term.

What Pete Walker describes as “fawn” (using social survival strategies) Porges refers to as appeasement. This means that the issue isn’t the idea of using the social engagement system (ventral vagal complex) to create safety by adapting one’s emotions and responses to appease or co-regulate the source of the abuse or potential abandonment (depending on the situation), but rather the term used to describe this phenomenon.

This is an issue with the term “freeze” as well. In my curve, I use the term “freeze” to refer to tonic immobility within a neuroception of life threat, which is aligned with how the term is used in Somatic Experiencing®. Others use the word “freeze” to describe the moment of rigid attention earlier in the activation cycle where an organism is trying to detect safety, danger, or life threat by taking in environmental cues. People who use “freeze” to discuss the startle, arrest, and orienting response often describe the later shutdown response as “fright”. It is simply a question of preference.

So while the concept of appeasement and co-regulation remains in the neuroception of danger section to reflect how the ventral brake of social engagement can be used to modulate sympathetic activation, it is simply no longer called “fawn”, and “fawn” is now included under the neuroception of life threat as a form of immobilization.

Certainly, the term “fawn” also has other metaphorical interpretations, such as “fawning over someone” through flattery, excessive attention or adulation, which adds to the complexity. The curve now includes this nuance as well, without referring to it as “fawn”.

Social justice considerations

I’ve also included other examples of the use of social engagement in a neuroception of danger that were not previously included in the 2019 curve. Among these is the specific inclusion of appeasement as used by marginalized or oppressed individuals in relation to members of the dominant social group in order to reduce the risk of harm or death.

Rae Johnson and Nkem Ndefo do acknowledge Pete Walker’s use of “fawn” in reference to appeasement, but propose that appeasement extends beyond codependence to include much more nuanced examples of utilizing masking and social engagement in ways that align somewhat with what was discussed by Porges, Bailey and Dugard — but with a crucial intersectional lens.

In particular, they outline how various forms of discrimination experienced by oppressed groups (based on race, ethnicity, age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, weight, religion, neurodivergence, physical ability, and so on) result in complex social survival strategies in relation to the lack of safety cues within existing sociopolitical climates. For oppressed individuals, the  danger is not simply at home with an abusive partner or parent, or in experiences of captivity or abduction; the mere act of existing in the world — period — is unsafe.

Johnson and Ndefo state:

“According to psychology researcher Dacher Keltner, ‘Appeasement begins when the conditions of social relations lead one individual to anticipate aggression from others.’ For members of oppressed social groups, this means that expressions of modesty, politeness, agreeableness, shyness, uncertainty, or deference may instead be an attempt to deflect or prevent aggression from members of the dominant social group. When one lives in close and direct contact with members of a dominant social group, appeasing may become so automatic that the appeaser may not even feel distressed in the moment. Instead, the cost comes later — as exhaustion, demoralization, and an erosion of one’s sense of dignity and self-worth.

On the other hand, members of dominant social groups may fail to recognize appeasement from others for what it is (an attempt to defuse anticipated aggression) and instead mistake it as sincere and unforced consent. Because the appeasing behavior is not genuine agreement but false agreeableness, not voluntary respect but expected deference, the authenticity of relationships between members of dominant and subordinated social groups is compromised. Research also suggests that social power can result in a diminished capacity to read the nonverbal cues of dissent or discomfort in those with less power […] Conversely, folks who are socialized to expect appeasing behaviors from others may come to view a failure to appease as disrespect, unfriendliness, or insolence […]”

The 2021 curve therefore deliberately includes the use of social engagement to co-regulate the source of danger (the person or group with more power/privilege) while simultaneously suppressing or masking one’s true emotional state. With each additional layer of diversity (e.g., being Black, trans, queer, neurodivergent, fat, and disabled, for instance) comes additional cues of unsafety – more things to be targeted about – resulting in having to put in additional effort to appease, which can become an exhausting drain on the nervous system. The more stacked experiences of unsafety to respond to, the more demand there is in the nervous system, and the more exhausting it is.

Appeasement and horses

The use of appeasement in horses in response to cues of danger is included in both curves. Equines can experience a neuroception of unsafety that can involve stimulus stacking the more cues of danger the horse experiences and the more the horse experiences additional “discrimination” or harsh treatment (such as towards mares; towards certain breeds due to being bred, trained, and handled for particular traits and behaviours for specific disciplines; and towards individual animals facing dysregulation and addiction/compulsive behaviours as a result of trauma). Since most domesticated horses in captivity were weaned too young, there can be the added complication of lacking a foundation of safety and regulation as a result of developmental trauma from maternal deprivation and other captivity conditions.

Rachael Draaisma’s description of calming signals (also known as appeasement signals) in horses is highly relevant to this discussion and has been included in both the 2019 and 2021 curves. Furthermore, research by Jolivald, Ijichi & Yarnell (2020) has confirmed the idea that appeasement behaviour is correlated with higher cortisol levels in horses, which speaks to the fact that agreeableness may not be what it seems.

As I’ve stated previously, “not all stillness is calm, compliance is not always consent, and stress, appeasement, or calming signals can easily be missed or misread” (2019).

Old and New

I’m including the 2019 curve here for ease of reference along with the new one to be able to see the comparison and progression from then to now.

2019 curve (Letter format, English)

2021 curve (Letter format, English)

We are working on translating the 2021 curve into various languages and will make it available on the Freesources page in Letter and A4 formats once these are available. For now, the Freesources page has the 2019 documents that reflect our previous use of the term “fawn”.

Please note that it is not technically incorrect to use “fawn” in the way Pete Walker suggests. Many still do use fawn = appeasement, so it is important to understand that there are different uses of terminology in order to decrease confusion.


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