Getting to Know Your Nervous System through Polyvagal Theory!
We are social animals with nervous systems that have developed over time to keep us alive. One of the reasons that I love Polyvagal Theory is that it provides a useful way to understand our nervous system responses. Deb Dana, one of the main scholars and writers about Polyvagal Theory calls it, “the science of connection.” The job of our nervous system is to collect information about and process cues of safety and danger. It rules our impulses toward survival and even our longing to connect with others.
What are nervous system responses? I’m sure you’ve heard of fight and flight. Perhaps you’ve heard of freeze, appease, or collapse? People keep adding to the list because our nervous systems do so many things. Polyvagal Theory organizes these different responses into three categories: ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal. These three nervous system states, or pathways, developed over a long long time throughout our evolution into the humans we are today.
As you read the following responses, notice if there is one you feel more familiar with:
The first nervous system state to develop in our evolutionary journey is the “dorsal vagal” response. We are in a dorsal vagal response when we are scared to death. Sensations associated with this state are feeling shut down, frozen or collapsed. We might feel foggy and disconnected, dissociated, despairing, and hope feels unreachable. Our heart rate slows and our breathing becomes shallow.
The next oldest pathways is the “sympathetic” response. The sympathetic response is about mobilizing us to action, like fight and flight. It can feel like a rush of adrenaline, or anxiety. Our hearts pound faster, our focus narrows as we listen and look for danger in our environment. We may misread cues from other people. For example, a neutral face or body posture of someone nearby may register as dangerous.
We needed a prefrontal cortex in order to develop the most recent of the evolutionary nervous system states: ventral vagal. In this state we have a regulated heart rate and are able to take full deep breaths. We feel that we have access to choices for ourselves. We can experience curiosity and connection with others. We can reach out for support and also offer support. We have access to feelings of altruism. When we are squarely located in ventral vagal we feel safe and connected to ourselves and to others.
Were you able to recognize any of these states from your own experience? We are actually going in and out of these states all the time, every day, even moment by moment. Our nervous systems are incredibly flexible. We move into disregulation (sympathetic or dorsal vagal), and then back into regulation (ventral vagal) all the time. We are constantly sending and receiving cues of safety and danger from and with those around us. Basically our nervous systems are talking to other nervous systems all the time. As we move about our days our bodies are collecting and responding to this information totally outside of our conscious awareness. This is called “neuroception.”
Neuroception is our body’s unconscious assessment of either danger or safety. This information is gathered from inside our bodies, our external environment, and in our relationships with others. When we have a neuroception of danger, our nervous system responds by affecting physiological changes inside our bodies to mobilize us into sympathetic, or take us into the collapse response of dorsal vagal. Because our brain is always in conversation with our nervous system, the brain makes up a story in order to make sense of the state our body is in. The story follows the state change. When we can bring conscious perception to our neuroception, then we can start to become a student of our own system.
Our nervous systems are shaped and toned over time through relationships. This means that if we grew up in a family where we rarely, if ever, felt safe, we may develop a habitual response of disconnection. We may feel that being seen is dangerous so we try to disappear. Some people find themselves habitually in a state of sympathetic arousal, or in dorsal vagal. I want to stress here that our nervous systems shape our responses so that we can survive. Every nervous system response we have is in service to our survival. Understanding the science behind our survival responses can sometimes help reduce shame we feel about those responses. When we can begin to reduce the shame, we can begin to get curious. When we can get curious then we can begin take a more active role in getting to know our particular nervous system. We can begin to notice what our thoughts, behaviors and beliefs are when we are in each state. It’s an empowerment process that we can participate in with ourselves, with a therapist, or with a safe and compassionate other.
Just like neuroplasticity shows us that we can change our brains, Polyvagal Theory shows us that we can re-shape our nervous systems over time through becoming active and conscious in our own response patterns and experiencing repeated interactions with safe others. We can become active in re-shaping our nervous system to bring greater flexibility, and build our capacity for regulation and connection.
Training: Integrating Polyvagal Theory into Clinical Practice with Deb Dana