Joy and the Parasympathetic Nervous System


By: Dr. Susan LaCombe, March 12, 2017.
Updated: June 12, 2022.
Reviewed by: Andrew Larcombe R.P.N., M.A.

Ever catch a sunset that almost took your breath away?

Joy is the emotion that arises when you “drink in” such a scene. Joy is the feeling of relaxed openness to that moment of beauty, a bodily sense of being fully alive.

How does our capacity to respond joyfully to moments of beauty, intimacy or thankfulness develop?


If you’ve ever watched a father cooing to his baby and you’ve noticed the baby responding with a wide open smile, you are witnessing the co-creation of a mutually attuned state of joyfulness. When this act is repeated many times the infant brain grows and organizes itself to develop the individual’s capacity to experience joy throughout her or his lifetime.

As with all other emotions, the capacity for joy is acquired in the early relationship between parent and child. In infancy the primary caregiver’s nervous system acts as a template for the infant’s nervous system to develop.

When an infant is born her undeveloped nervous system has the capacity for basically two states: 'on', or hyperarousal (excitement) and 'off', or dorsal vagal. In the first 2-3 years, when 90% of the nervous system develops, the neuropathways that make joyous states possible are imprinted. That is, joy states are actually learned.

This happens through interactions between the infant and its primary caretakers. The parent's nervous system provides a template for the developing nervous system of the infant to follow in its development.

Most of an infant's brain is developed after birth!

Because of the “use-dependent” nature of brain development, the child who receives fewer opportunities for positive emotional attunement with a primary caregiver can expect to develop less capacity for joyfulness. For example, if the mother is anxious or depressed her lessened facility for attunement may result in the child’s diminished capacity for joy later in life.

Joy and Anxiety / Depression

You can imagine now why it's difficult for an infant of a depressed mother to develop the capacity for joy. It also highlights the importance of depression treatment for mothers suffering from postpartum depression.

You can also appreciate that anxiety-prone parents will play a pivotal role in the development of anxiety symptoms in their children.

The good news is that although anxiety is an implicitly-learned response, it can be overridden or unlearned, even in adulthood. Because the brain retains its plasticity throughout the lifespan the individual can learn to replace ingrained depression or anxiety responses with a richer emotional life that includes the enjoyment of sunsets. Of course, we believe that counseling is the most effective way to accomplish this!

What many people--and therapists--fail to appreciate is that the reduction of anxiety and depression symptoms do not automatically bring on joy. Joy pathways are a strong defense against anxiety and depression but the abscense of either does not necessarily mean joyfulness. In essence, symptom reduction without the pathways for joy brings the nervous system to neutral.

And as I mentioned, the very exciting news is that these pathways can be developed!

Especially for Parents

If you suffer from anxiety or depression symptoms, you may be able to reduce the impact that your state has on your child using infant massage. Results indicate that infant massage can improve infant's sleep, lower fussiness and restlessness and create richer mother and infant play interactions. Read more below (you will be taken offsite):

Zero to Three

What you need to understand.

Joy is often confused with excitement. But it differs in a fundamental way. Joy is activated by the parasympathetic nervous system. In contrast, activation of the sympathetic nervous system is experienced as excitement.

The distinction is important because while we can, and often do, place ourselves in situations that are exciting (horror films, bungee jumping, getting married.smiley-wink.gif), it's not possible to experience joy unless the right neuropathways have been laid down in the nervous system.

One friend of mine described the difference this way. Excitement often comes from an external event or circumstance (like the excitement you feel playing a competitive game of volleyball).

Joy, on the other hand, might best be described as coming from an internal source. That is, you don't necessarily need anything in your environment for you to feel joyful. You just are!

Dance as though no one is watching you,
Love as though you have never been hurt before,
Sing as though no one can hear you,
Live as though heaven is on earth.

Source Unknown.

Especially for Therapists

The new paradigm of psychotherapy proposes that the nervous system of the therapist can act as template for the client, in much the same way that the parent-infant dyad operates.

You can thus appreciate the importance that the emotional health of the therapist (and especially the presence or absence of anxiety or depression) plays in the client's treatment.

It also implies that therapists can take a client only as far as they themselves have gone.

My Personal Musings

It seems that in order to produce happy clients we need happy therapists. We need psychotherapists who are committed to personal growth, who realize that their own development has a direct impact on the progress of their clients.

Related Topic

The Future of Psychotherapy - video


"Affect regulation is not just the reduction of affective intensity, the dampening of negative emotion. It also involves an amplification, an intensification of positive emotion, a condition necessary for more complex self-organization. Schore, 2003 p.78.

Schore, Allan (2003). Affect Regulation and Disorders of the Self. "Parent-Infant Communications and the Neurobiology of Emotional Development." New York: W.W. Norton & Company pp.71-86.

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