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Imagine this scenario of moving through your day:

You meet a good friend for coffee.  This is someone you really trust and feel safe with.  The coffee shop is comfortable and cozy. As you are visiting with your friend, you notice you are feeling calm and connected; you share ideas that are engaging and stimulate your curiosity and creativity.  Suddenly, your friend is distracted by an acquaintance approaching and cuts you off mid-sentence to chat with them without even introducing you.  Your feeling of connection with your friend is ruptured.  You feel uncomfortable as some tension arises.  Maybe your stomach experiences a brief wave of queasiness, your jaw clenches just a little bit.  But then the acquaintance leaves and your friend’s full attention comes back to you and you re-engage.  You easily fall back into that calm connection, maybe even feeling a sense of warmth.

After leaving the coffee shop, you step into the street when the light turns green, happily thinking about an amusing story your friend told you, when a speeding car runs the red light and just misses you.  Immediately you feel the rush of adrenaline as your fight or flight response kicks in.  You gasp.  Your heart is pounding, your palms are sweaty, your stomach churns.  Even if you normally don’t cuss, you find you have some choice words running through your head that you would love to yell at that driver.

You arrive at work feeling irritable.  You snap at a co-worker.  Your boss reminds you you’ve missed a deadline.  You hear a rumor about restructuring and lay-offs.  Your phone flashes with a disturbing news update and your sibling texts needing emotional support after a break-up.  Your shoulder hurts and you wonder if you are going to need surgery.  You replay a recent difficult conversation…over and over.  You remember you forgot to mail the rent check.  When you get home the house is a mess and there’s nothing for dinner.  You notice you are moving slowly; you feel so depleted and discouraged that you lie down on the couch and turn on the TV but don’t really pay any attention to it.  You feel disconnected and a little bit numb.

Then you get frustrated with yourself and get up and do some yoga.  You make some tea, put on some music,  and write in your journal.  You notice that your mood has improved.  You feel calm and optimistic.  Your body feels energized as you clean the house before going to bed and falling into a sound sleep.

What’s happening here?

This story describes the life of an autonomic nervous system (ANS).  Your nervous system evolved to keep you safe and is constantly scanning the environment for cues of danger and cues of safety.  It pays attention to what’s happening internally, like that shoulder pain or your rumination about that difficult conversation.  Since we are such social creatures, it pays very close attention to your connection with other people, when those connections are ruptured and whether or not they are repaired.  And it pays attention to the environment, helping you avoid being hit by a speeding car.  Your nervous system is always working for you.  Its goal is to keep you safe: all responses are in service of survival.

Deb Dana, LCSW, describes the autonomic nervous system (ANS) as the foundation for all our lived experience.  She has brought Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory into the therapy world and more recently into popular awareness with her book Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Polyvagal Theory describes a hierarchy of three nervous system states.  Deb Dana suggests imagining them like rungs of a ladder.  When we feel calm and connected, we are on the top rung in a ventral vagal state, which is possible when our nervous system picks up cues of safety.  When the ANS picks up cues of danger, it puts us into the activated sympathetic state of mobilization which you are probably familiar with as “fight or flight.” That’s the middle rung of the ladder.  And finally, when fighting or fleeing are impossible or don’t work, we may fall down to the bottom rung of the ladder, the dorsal vagal state of immobilization or disconnection.

We move up and down the ladder all day every day as our nervous systems respond to the environment.  Each state serves an important purpose.  The goal is not to spend all of our time in that calm and connected place of ventral vagal energy where we can be curious and creative and compassionate; the goal is to be flexible and resilient and to be able to get back to our ventral vagal home when we become dysregulated.

When we fall off the top rung of the ladder in response to cues of danger, we fall into a “pattern of protection” in which we are focused on survival and closed off to connection and change.  Normally, we can recover into a state of regulation pretty easily, but for people who have a history of trauma, the nervous system may have been trained to be hypervigilant and tend to get stuck in patterns of protection.  Dana says, “Trauma stories are carried in states of autonomic dysregulation.”

Why is this important?

Once we become aware of the role our autonomic nervous systems play, several possibilities open up. On her website Dana notes the following:

  • The autonomic nervous system is a common denominator in the human family. We all share the same biobehavioural platform.
  • Through a Polyvagal approach to living, the door opens to compassion.
  • An autonomic nervous system that co-regulates and self-regulates with ease creates the possibility to move out of the need for protection – and instead to embody a system that finds joy in connection.

Understanding your nervous system offers a path to compassion.  It’s easier to be compassionate with a child “throwing a tantrum” when you know that they have been hijacked by their nervous system.  Similarly, it’s easier to experience self compassion when you know your nervous system is really just trying to keep you safe.  (Sure, it may be overreacting, but it’s intentions are good.)

When we pay attention to our nervous system and map our movement from safe/social to mobilized/fight-or-flight to immobilized/collapsed and back up again, we start to notice what knocks us down the ladder, and what allows us to climb back up.  Dana calls these “triggers” and “glimmers.”  We learn to listen to our bodies and notice patterns.  We can tune into the wisdom of our ANS.

For example, maybe every time you are in a certain place or with a certain person, you begin to notice signs of tension, such as tight shoulders and a clenched jaw.  Maybe in another place or with another person, you consistently feel shut down, distant, disconnected.  What are the cues of danger your ANS is responding to?  Are they real?  Are they current?  If so, you might decide to spend less time in those places with those people.  If not, you might engage with your nervous system: “Ah, I see why you are anxious.  You noticed something that reminded you of something dangerous that happened a long time ago.  Thank you for trying to protect me.  The truth is, this situation is actually perfectly safe.  It’s not the same as that dangerous memory.  You can relax here.”  You can shift your focus to cues of safety to reassure your ANS that everything is okay.  These shifts can bring you back into regulation.

As you start to notice where you are on the ladder of your nervous system, you can also start to notice what stories you are telling yourself about what’s happening.  Dana says, “story follows state.”  The stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening and how we are reacting can be triggers in themselves.  For instance, if you are collapsed in a dorsal vagal state, is the story you tell yourself “I will always be alone”?  How does your nervous system respond to that message?  Likely it pulls you down into further collapse.

Once you recognize the state you no longer have to be controlled by it, nor do you have to try to control it. Instead you can name it, appreciate the adaptive survival response, and see if you can be curious about what’s happening.  This can separate the state from the story.  Then you have the opportunity to regulate back into ventral vagal and possibly create a new story.

Let’s work with another example.  Imagine you are presenting to your colleagues at work and you stumble over your words.  You feel your face flush as your anxiety rises.  Maybe your inner critic jumps in and starts berating you for messing up, which makes your nervous system feel more threatened which makes you more nervous which makes you stumble even more which makes you start to go blank, lose track of where you are and shut down.

Now imagine instead that when you first notice your face flush, you name that as a sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response: “This is my nervous system trying to keep me safe.” Then take a moment to appreciate it: “Thanks for looking out for me, nervous system!”  Bringing in some curiosity will start to link you back to your ventral vagal energy.  “I wonder if it’s trying to keep me safe from the humiliation of failure. Maybe it sees making a mistake as a cue of danger.”  You could then look around for some cues of safety.  You could remind yourself that everyone has a nervous system that does this and it is a sign of your common humanity.  You could invite in some self compassion.  Then take a deep breath and give yourself a new story.  “My nervous system picked up on a cue of danger, but in reality I am among colleagues who respect me and I know this material.  Everything is fine.”

What you can do:

Now that you have an understanding of how your nervous system works, spend some time getting to know each of the three states.  Give each one a name that makes sense for you.  You could use the descriptions I’ve used here, such as calm/connected.  You could describe them as weather, such as sunny, blustery, and pouring rain.  Some people like to find an object to represent each state; some people use art to portray their states. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What word do you associate with each state?
  • What creature or character do you associate with each state?
  • What color do you associate with each state? Texture? Movement? Flavor?
  • What physical sensations do you experience in each state?
  • What thoughts come up for you in each state?
  • What emotions come up for you in each state?
  • How does each state affect your sleep, eating, other habits or daily activities?
  • In this state, the world is ; other people are; I am ______.

Once you are well acquainted with each state, you can start mapping movement from one to another.  Ask yourself, “where am I on the ladder right now?”  Once you identify the state you are in, turn toward it, listen, be curious.  What is that state trying to tell you? Try tracking your states for a week and see what you notice.    Then you can look back at your week and ask yourself these questions:

  • What was your nervous system responding to?
  • Which state is most familiar? Where do you spend most of your time?
  • What patterns do you notice?
  • What “triggers” send you down the ladder? What “glimmers” send you up the ladder?
  • What stories do you tell yourself in association with each state?
  • Imagine yourself reacting to the same experience from each of the three different states.

Did you notice any glimmers?  What helped you regulate back to a ventral vagal state?  As you notice this you can begin to nourish your nervous system.  Try to savor those moments of ventral vagal energy, of being in that place where you feel calm and connected, curious and creative, compassionate and competent.  The more you savor it, the more easily you can find your way back to it.

Make a list of “Ventral Anchors”:

  • Who: what people (or animals) help you shift to your ventral vagal state of safety and connection?
  • What: what things–objects, thoughts or activities–help you shift to your ventral vagal state?
  • Where: what places or situations help you shift to your ventral vagal state?
  • When: what times of day, days of week, or seasons help you shift to your ventral vagal state?

My hope for you is that understanding how your nervous system works will give you opportunities to be more self compassionate and more resilient as you move through the world and its constant cues of safety and danger.  May your nervous system keep you safe and also allow you many moments of the calm connection offered by ventral vagal energy.

“There’s a voice that doesn’t use words.  Listen…” –Rumi

But wait, there’s more! I recently had the opportunity to talk about Polyvagal Theory with Laura Vailancourt on her podcast Life on Repeat. Please listen to learn more about how your nervous system works: Life on Repeat episode 31

Noticing and Nourishing Your Nervous System

April 5, 2022