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Get to Know Your Nervous System: Based on Polyvagal Theory

Most of us spend very little time considering how our nervous system works. It is always functioning behind the scenes, and it isn’t until something feels “off” that we notice something is wrong. The Polyvagal Theory, proposed by Steven Porges, MD, explains that we may have more control over our nervous system than we initially thought and if we can understand how our systems work based on our individual experiences and responses to the world around us, we can also learn how to better intervene to adjust our responses to stress.

It is helpful to know the part of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, which contains our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is what we think about when one refers to our “fight-flight” response, when we are preparing to act in response to a perceived threat. The parasympathetic nervous system helps to calm us down and regulate us. It has two different pathways: the “ventral vagal” pathway that responds to cues of safety and feeling social and connected, and the “dorsal vagal” that responds to threats of extreme danger and may lead to complete shutdown.Each of these parts of our nervous system are referred to as “states.”

Much of this process happens automatically, outside of our conscious awareness. Dr. Porges explains that once we can identify the different states, we can then observe and discover why we may find ourselves in different “activated” states, then we can learn how to “move in and out” of activated statesWith practice we can build our ability to recognize when these automatic, subconscious reactions are happening wThis gives us the ability to choose how to respond to our automatic reactions and help our nervous systems shift between different states and develop a deeper, more compassionate understanding of ourselves and why we may be reacting in these ways.

Here are some ways to begin thinking about how to apply this in your daily life:

  • Bring awareness to what state you are currently in. What are the different thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and actions you tend to experience when you are in each of the different states? For example:

    • Sympathetic (fight-flight): You may feel a sense of unease, a surge of energy, anxiety, anger, or feeling overwhelmed. It might be hard to keep still or focus, people may appear untrustworthy, and the world may feel dangerous or chaotic.

    • Dorsal vagal (shutdown): You may feel paralyzed, hopeless, or disconnected. It might be hard to think or act at all, you may be lonely and find it hard to connect with anyone, and the world may feel empty and sad.

    • Ventral vagal (safe and secure): You may feel content or happy, satisfied, and engaged in life and the world around you. It may be easier to focus on conversations or activities and maintain organization and follow through on things you want to do. The world overall feels peaceful and safe enough.

  • Consider which situations may activate different states. What body sensations, environmental signals or changes, and/or relationship events may activate different states? What are the cues of danger (“triggers”) that may activate your sympathetic or dorsal vagal responses? What are the cues of safety (“glimmers”) that may let your ventral vagal response kick in? For example:

    • Sympathetic: arguments with friends or family, crowded hallways or store, traffic jam, test or big work presentation tomorrow, talking in front of a crowd, people talking too loudly on the bus

    • Dorsal vagal: too many things to do and not enough time to get it done, being ignored by friends or family, negative events happening in the news, facing eviction, not being able to see friends or family

    • Ventral vagal: friendly interaction with a friend or coworker, enjoying a cup of tea or coffee, spending quality time with partner, kids and other family members, playing with a pet, listening to music, doing a relaxing activity like yoga or watching a new TV show

  • Think about how your past experiences may be impacting your automatic responses.

    • Are there some situations and people that your nervous systems tells you are dangerous that may really be safe? Are your sympathetic or dorsal vagal responses kicking in when you might really be able to remain in a ventral vagal state?

    • When you are reacting to a new situation, consider if the way you are reacting reminds you of any past reactions you’ve had. Is this situation the same? Have your past experiences made you more likely to react in this way?

    • Find out what works for you to help you move between states. What can you do to help you move out of sympathetic and dorsal vagal states? What can you do to help you stay in a ventral vagal state? Consider both things you can do on your own and things you can do with others. For example:

  • What moves you out of a sympathetic state? Making a to-do list, cleaning, exercising alone or with a friend, talking or texting someone, playing a game with someone, journaling

  • What moves you out of a dorsal vagal state? Sleeping, crying, hugging or sitting with someone quietly, going for a walk alone or with someone, sitting in a coffee shop, taking a shower, meditating

  • What helps you stay in a ventral vagal state? Enjoying the sunshine, listening to music, practicing a new skill or hobby, spending time with friends or family, going out to dinner, giving a hug to someone

Getting to know our nervous systems may take time, thought and practice, but it is worth the effort to feel that we have more understanding and control over our body’s reactions to situations. In the long run, the time we put into learning about ourselves and practicing new ways of responding will pay off! Our reactions will feel less confusing to both ourselves and the people we care about, which can lead to more meaningful and fulfilling life experiences and relationships.

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