The Serenity Prayer, a Polyvagal Theory Perspective

John D. Mudie, Ph.D.,

Polyvagal Theory

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


The Serenity Prayer

 God, grant me the Serenity

This is a humbling action, a prayer, a request from the ego ( fear based, active SNS) to something other than the ego. This action, just by itself, helps activate the PSNS of the person praying and thus to become more peaceful and calmer

To accept the things I cannot change.

As the person who prayed slides into a more active PSNS, their ability to accept the current situation increases as a person with an active PSNS is unlikely to experience fear of the current situation. Lack of fear increases the likelihood of accepting the current situation

Courage to change the things I can,

Decrease in fear level associated with taking the action of praying increases the possibility that action will be taken. A praying person may be more able to take action, i.e. become more courageous

And Wisdom to know the difference.

Lack of experience of fear due to activation of PSNS means that blood circulation may change. Before the initial prayer was started the praying person was most probably in a fear/fight/flee mode with blood flowing to muscles to prepare for action. As the person calms down, more blood will most probably flow to the brain which can operate better and may increase wisdom that the praying person is requesting.


Polyvagal Theory may offer an understanding of how the Serenity Prayer operates but is of little use as the important action in obtaining Serenity is to use the Serenity Prayer when troubled.


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


This webpage was inspired by listening to Martin Rossman, M.D. ‘s Youtube’s presentation on “How your brain can turn anxiety into calmness”

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