Using Polyvagal Theory to Attune to Your Nervous System
By Nina Bratcher, LCSW, Owner of Bay Area Therapy Services
Every moment, of every day, in every interaction, our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is moving us toward connection or protection. Have you ever noticed walking into a room and feeling a sudden sense of dis-ease? It is likely your ANS picked up on information that was interpreted as threatening to your overall well-being. This information could be coming from what you experience through the 5 senses, from an internal thought or sensation, or from cues of dysregulation in the emotional states of others. The mind and body are interconnected and in constant communication with one another. While the body physiologically experiences a state of being, the mind generates a story. Deepak Chopra said it best when he stated, “The body and mind are like parallel universes. Anything that happens in the mental universe must leave tracks in the physical one.”
Understanding how the ANS works is crucial to understanding your emotional self and why you react in the ways you do. Let’s first breakdown the ANS. It consists of 2 branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. Many of us are familiar with the concept of the “fight or flight” response. This is part of the sympathetic branch. When under stress, the sympathetic branch is activated, mobilizing us fight or flight to protect ourselves. The parasympathetic branch is where our relaxation response is housed. The vagus nerve, which starts at the brain stem, branches up into the face connecting to our sensory organs and wanders down through the body connecting to our vital organs including the heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, pancreas, etc.
It is through the vagus nerve that the body and brain communicate back and forth to one another. This is where the term “gut feeling” comes from. This nerve plays a crucial role in activating the parasympathetic branch.
Polyvagal Theory, introduced in 1994 by Dr. Stephen Porges, posits that the autonomic nervous system consists of a hierarchy of physiological states between the 2 branches. According to polyvagal theory, there are 3 nervous system states that have developed over time. The most evolved is the ventral vagal state, housed in the parasympathetic branch. In this state our system is at ease and functioning well. There is a sense of safety and we are able to connect with ourselves and others. The second response, a bit older in time, is fight or flight. This response is housed in the sympathetic branch and mobilizes us to take action to protect ourselves in the face of danger.
For our distant ancestors who lived during the Stone Age, this response was necessary for day to day survival. The third and most primitive response is the dorsal vagal response housed in the parasympathetic branch. When we are unable to protect ourselves through social connection or by fighting or flighting, we drop into a state of freeze. In this state, we become immobilized and unable to take action to protect ourselves. This state is necessary at times and does provide respite from the emotional overwhelm that can occur in sympathetic.
Each of these ANS states brings a cluster of emotions and sensations that reflect what the state is designed to do. For example, in a ventral state we may feel at ease, relaxed, curious, grounded, allowing us to connect with others and access creativity. In sympathetic, we may find ourselves feeling activated, on edge, alert, restless, angry, inflamed. Sensations might include increased heart rate, labored breathing, temperature changes, unsettled stomach, tension in the chest, muscle tightness. In a dorsal state, we often feel shutdown, disconnected, withdrawn, numb. Intuitively, the human body knows how to navigate its way back to ventral.
However, because we live in a chaotic world where safety is not guaranteed, there may be times when the system is overloaded and gets stuck in a sympathetic or dorsal state. Tuning into your ANS state can help you become aware of what you might be needing to move toward ventral. We must first emerge from a place of survival in order to truly live and allow ourselves to thrive. You can practice tuning into your nervous system by pausing, taking a deep breath, observing sensations in the body and naming your emotional state. Once aware, ask yourself “what am I needing in this moment to take one step toward safety?” Perhaps it’s an action, connecting with a safe person or relating to yourself with compassion.
To learn more about this topic and tools for building resilience in the nervous system, join Nina in person at the Sedona Yoga Festival from April 27–30! Passes are available here.