Gratitude and the Autonomic Nervous System

John D. Mudie, Ph.D.,


A proposal that the physical expression of a feeling of gratitude (thank you, writing a gratitude list, giving flowers, etc) supports a person in activating their Ventral Vagal Branch of their Parasympathetic Nervous System resulting in feelings of calm, acceptance of what is and more connectedness and caring for others.

Porges (2011) proposed Polyvagal Theory to describe the workings of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), the involuntary nervous system which controls heart, lungs, stomach etc. and emotions.

According to Dana (2022 pg.14) the ANS has two major branches, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS) . The PSNS has two branches, the Ventral Vagal Branch (VVB) and the Dorsal Vagal Branch, (DVB).

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)“System of Action; filled with chaotic energy, mobilized to attack, driven to escape, anxious, angry” (Dana 2022, pg. 6)
which can be viewed as being self-centered (Me me me, I want what I want and it’s especially important I get it NOW.) or ” I am in danger and need to get out NOW”
Parasympathetic Nervous System): Dorsal Vagal Branch (DVB)“System of Shutdown: just go through the motions, drained of energy, disconnect, lose hope, give up” (Dana 2022, pg. 6)
Primitive reaction of freezing to avoid predators, no action. (Like a tortoise retracting into shell.)
Parasympathetic Nervous System: Ventral Vagal Branch“System of connection: meet the demands of the day, connect and communicate, go with the flow, engage with life” (Dana 2022, pg 6)
Feelings of calm, safety, connection with and caring for others, acceptance of whatever is happening. (a place I like being in!)
The various states of the Autonomic Nervous System



We propose that a feeling of gratitude occurs when a person’s ego realizes that some thing outside of the ego has happened which has benefitted the person’s well-being. Uually a person tries to increase their well-being by the ego taking actions with an active SNS state.

But as this some thing happened outside of an acvitated SNS, the person must have gone into a activated PSNS state of acceptance as this something occurred.

This section needs completion

This section needs completion


Dana, Deb, 2022, Anchored, Sound True, Boulder, CO
Porges , S, 2011, The Polyvagal Theory, Norton, New York, N.Y

The current version of this page may be reached at

The current version of this page may be reached at

Gratitude and the Autonomic Nervous System


We wish to acknowledge (and are feeling grateful to) Joyce Whittaker whose webpage inspired this discussion.