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Polyvagal 101: Get to Know Your Nervous System

get to know your nervous systemYour nervous system and its regulation and dysregulation can be mysterious buck luckily we love a helpful nerd alert around here. Let’s go over what polyvagal theory is, why we care, how it impacts our lives, and how it can be an important vessel for getting to know ourselves better. 

Polyvagal theory, as we think about it now, is the work of Dr. Steven Porges, PhD. 

It was proposed in 1994. He studied heart rate variability in neonates, in the neonatal ICU. How much did babies’ heart rates vary when they were getting love and care and being attuned to? And what was happening with their heart rate when they were not being attuned to?

Deb Dana puts it into English in her excellent books about polyvagal theory. 

Poly means many, vagus or vagal means wander, in Latin. And so, it’s the wandering nerve. 

It goes from the old cranium, from the brain, down through the middle of the animal, that is you. And it innervates or gives nerve function to everything it finds along its path.

Some of those things include: thyroid function, swallowing, digestive function, diaphragmatic action, heart rate, heart rate variability, breathing, reproductive function, endocrine function and immune function.

There are two main parts to the vagus nerve; within that, there’s branches. 

What we’re talking about here, is the autonomic or automatic nervous system. 

It’s automatic, meaning it does the things you need it to do so you can survive without you’re asking it to. So, you need to actively move your hand to pick up a glass. Meanwhile, thank goodness, the autonomic nervous system is making your heartbeat go, making your breathing go. 

The autonomic nervous system then, has two branches; sympathetic activation, which is fight-or-flight, and parasympathetic. 

Parasympathetic has two branches below it, which are ventral vagus, and dorsal vagus. The analogy I like to use is a car.

Sympathetic, is foot all the way on the gas. It’s fight-or-flight. It’s freak-out. 

Parasympathetic, which has ventral vagus, is safe and social—balanced or regulated. 

Ventral vagus is like driving stick shift. You’re changing gears, you got a little gas, a little break, you’re safe. 

When you’re in ventral, you feel social, you feel connected, you feel available to the world.

The third state, which is the second part of parasympathetic, is dorsal. And, dorsal is foot all the way off the gas, foot all the way on the brake. 

For those who are polyvagal nerds, we’re not talking about ventral brake here, we’re using a metaphor. 

So, when you’re in dorsal: You are shutdown, you are frozen, you are checked out.

I’m going to get into detail about what these three mean, but when we talk about nervous system regulation, it’s about balancing the gas and the brake. 

This matters because it allows us to have some active capacity to manage our nervous system, to be in charge of our nervous system, even knowing within the context of it being automatic.

Our natural state, as pack animals, is ventral vagus. 

Deb Dana refers to it as “home;” safe, social, we’re good, we’re hanging out, we’re with people we love and trust, or with animals, plants, resources, we feel good. We all start there, even when there is a moment of threat. This is the system that controls the body, and our reaction or response to threats.

There is this superpower within us called neuroception. 

Neuroception is our understanding of what is safe and what is not. It’s a threat detector. I like to think of it as a lifeguard on a rocky shore, watching all the swimmers out swimming in the water, and deciding, “That one looks safe. That one’s questionable. That one’s drowning.”

From ventral vagal, that lifeguard is neurocepting the beach, watching all the swimmers. If someone looks like they’re in danger, it will get activated, and will go into sympathetic; mobilization energy. The lifeguard will stand up in their chair, they may jump down, they may blow their whistle, grab their little red buoy, and they’ll prepare to run out into the water, if that’s what’s necessary.

Sympathetic is fight-flight. It’s get-up-and-go. It’s a natural, normal part of life to have some sympathetic activation. 

It’s the thing that helps you get out of bed in the morning, put on pants, get going. And, in an extreme of danger, when we neurocept danger, it’s what makes us go into high levels of anxiety, of worry, even panic. So, panic attacks, feeling racy, jittery, like your hands are clammy, but moving really fast, that is sympathetic. 

The final state is dorsal. Dorsal is a collapsed state or a freeze state, which is saying, “My fighting, my flighting, doesn’t work anymore. It’s not what’s going to save me. So, I’m going to play dead. I’m going to pretend I’m not even here, so that the predator, whatever has been neurocepted as the predator or the threat, will leave me alone.”

In that state, heart rate slows, breathing slows, our pain receptors are downregulated. So, we don’t feel as much emotional pain or physical pain.

Sympathetic can look anxious, it can look activated, it can look like your mind is racing, everything’s fast.

When you’re in sympathetic: Your foot’s on the brake, you don’t feel social, you don’t want to connect, ideation is limited. You can’t come up with solutions, you can’t really even properly think about the problem. And, if you do, you’re just ruminating, and spinning, and spiraling in it. You don’t really want to see people, I mean, you might because you’re lonely, but like, “Oh, peopling? I’m in dorsal; it’s just all too much.”

First, we need to understand what’s going on in our nervous systems, if we are to change how this shows up in our lives.

Let’s say you’re in a relationship with someone, and you’re trying to have a conversation with them, and they keep looking out the window, or looking at their phone, or they’re otherwise feeling distracted. 

Your nervous system might respond to that with activation energy, if that is similar to a painful experience from childhood. If that feels like, “My parents didn’t listen to me.”

Your body may go from ventral in two seconds—from feeling connected, safe and social—up into sympathetic activation. You may respond to your partner looking out the window, or flipping through a magazine, or looking at their phone, like it’s an actual threat to your safety. 

What’s important to recognize there, is that your nervous system is never wrong. 

It’s doing exactly what it knows is the best thing for you. But it’s responding to a different “you,” a different moment.

When we are dysregulated, it’s when our nervous system takes over. We are no longer managing foot on the gas, foot on the brake. Our nervous system is in control. Your nervous system is responding to another you, in another time, in another place.

When we’re dysregulated, we forget who, what, where, when, why we are. 

We’re shunted right back to when we were two and had that surgery, and it was traumatic; when we were four, and those kids were making fun of us; when we were six and our parent wasn’t attuned; when we were eight and were asked to do all of these chores, and weren’t allowed to play; when we were fourteen and had our first heartbreak, and believed it was all about us.

When we watched our family spinning in codependent, perfectionist and people pleasing habits. And perhaps felt like, the real us wasn’t okay there. Wasn’t safe there. Wasn’t important there. 

Any of these things can create this moment in which our nervous system is not responding to the current circumstance, the current situation, but the past one. 

And so, it’s activating us into sympathetic. Crashing us out into dorsal freeze, based on what it’s linking back to 5,10, 15, 20, 50 years ago. 

Your nervous system isn’t wrong, it’s just reacting to a past circumstance.

When we can understand our nervous system, when we can create a map of our own nervous system, we can say, “I am reacting not to my partner looking at their phone, while I’m trying to talk to them. I am reacting not to this moment of silence in this conversation, that feels so uncomfortable. I’m reacting to what happened so many years ago. I’m going into sympathetic, which means I need these certain tools to bring me back, to help me regulate, to take my foot off the gas.”

Or, “I’m shutting down here. I don’t have access to my words. We were just having this conversation and it started to feel like conflict. And then, the clean fight club rules weren’t followed. And I just shut down. I don’t have any of my words. I can’t access them,” which is what happens in dorsal, right? We’re shut down to self and the world. We are shut down but not present.

If I can recognize that then I can map what are the times, and places, the situations, the circumstances that lead me to go to there? 

Then, I can find my way back. I can find my way home to ventral vagus. I can come back into my own body, into presence.

Because, when we’re in sympathetic or dorsal we are not present. 

We are in a fear response. We’re in a threat response. Something’s very terrible to our nervous system, to the lifeguard that’s constantly guarding the shores of our life through the power of neuroception—by looking at the world, listening to the world, feeling the energetics, feeling empathically into the world.

So, in order to find balance, in order to be able to be most present with ourselves, and those we love, in order to live an intentional and authentic life where we stand strong in ourselves is the ability to return home to ventral vagus. To regulate our own nervous system. 

The other important reason why we want to learn to regulate our nervous system is because of the physiologic ramifications. 

I’m trained as a family nurse practitioner. I studied functional medicine, herbalism. I studied, and worked, and lived, and practiced in those worlds, for a very long time. And so many of the chronic ailments that we see across medicine are secondary to dysregulation. Dysregulation plays an important role in them.

When our nervous system chronically, constantly experiences sympathetic, it can create a home-away-from-home there. I don’t want to say it gets stuck in sympathetic, but kind of. That becomes our new steady state. 

Our body gets acclimated to all that adrenaline, all that norepinephrine. 

It comes to feel like that cortisol-ized state—it’s our baseline.

From there, we get all the things that happen when an animal’s moving too fast: 

  • Insomnia, because you can’t shut your brain down to sleep. 
  • Anxiety. 
  • Diarrhea. Too fast digestion, which often means you’re not absorbing nutrients, which can then lead to other mood destabilization. 
  • A racing mind.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Issues with the immune system.
  • The endocrine system.

Then, when the body is stuck in the off state, when dorsal is your home- away-from-home, and that becomes your steady state, being checked out, or depression is a normal response. 

As well as: constipation, brain fog and low blood pressure. Potentially dangerously low blood pressure, what’s commonly referred to as adrenal fatigue. Your body starts to see that as your new normal.

So, I’m imagining your next question is like, “Wait, why?” Well, think about it. You’re on the Serengeti, you’re on the savanna, you’re being chased by a lion. 

Do you want your body to stop to digest a cheeseburger? Do you want your body to make thyroid hormone, to turn T3 into T4? And to activate it and circulate it around your body? Do you want your liver to do Phase 2 detox, which is the thing that gets rid of excess estrogen and leads to healthy periods?

I don’t want my body to do any of that, thank you very much. I want it to shunt blood to the periphery; to my fists, to my feet. I want my heart to race so that I can run; so I can take those kinds of quick, shallow breaths that get a lot of oxygen; in and out, in and out; so I can bust a move and get out of there before I’m a lion’s dinner.

I don’t want to digest or have a healthy period, if I’m being chased. 

Impairment of digestion happens when we are not spending most of our time coming home to ventral vagus. 

Not always in it, but returning home to it, regulating back. 

And then, getting dysregulated by life, getting triggered, getting activated, but coming home, and coming home, and coming home.

So, when that’s not our normal, when that’s not our steady state or baseline, a lot of things go awry. 

The one I wanted to point out is the small intestine. So, you eat food. It drops into your stomach. It’s coated in stomach acid; it’s a bolus of food, and then it goes into the small intestine.

There, in the migrating motor complex, which is an electromagnetic mechanism, moves the food through the small intestine. 

Now, if you are not in ventral vagus, that system will not activate. And so, that food will effectively sit there, you’ll have very slow digestion, and it’ll rot. 

And so, when we think about the literature on depression, anxiety, there is so much pointing to deficiencies in different nutrients, minerals, vitamins. And, how that’s correlated with mood impairment, with depression, with anxiety, with insomnia. 

When we back it up, we can see how much it’s directly correlated with the state of our nervous system.

I mean, and also the patriarchy and white settler colonialism, and a multitude of systems of oppression, but also the nervous system. Also, growing up and codependency, perfectionism and people pleasing, and also the nervous system, right? It’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.

The work that I do in my coaching, the work we do in Anchored, is to help us to map our nervous system, so that we know what our nervous system is up to. 

And, I bring in somatics because we can’t change how we’re responding in life, if we don’t know how our nervous system is reacting.

We need to know what embodied regulation feels like. What it feels like, what the felt, physical sensation is of being in the ventral vagus complex, so that we know what sensation to come home to. 

Likewise, we need to know what it feels like to be in the sympathetic nervous system, to have that fight-or-flight, so we can come home from it to ventral vagus.

We need to know what the dorsal vagal complex feels like in our bodies, so we can find our way home. 

So, when you can recognize it’s not you, it’s your nervous system, from there,you can drop so much guilt, so much blame, so much shame, and can realize that these are patterns that you can interact with to change, to shift. 

These are patterns that you can regulate, that you can impact, that you can have ownership of.

In the nervous system world, we say story follows state. So, the state of your nervous system dictates the narrative that you have access to.

If you are at the top of a roller coaster, and your nervous system is in sympathetic, it’s neurocepting danger. Let’s say you can’t get the buckle around you to fully click, and the guy’s like, “Alright, we’re ready to go. In 3- 2-1,” and you’re like, “I’m not buckled!” You have this huge sympathetic activation.

The only thoughts that are going to be available to you are, “Oh my god, I’m about to die.”

So too, if you’re at the top of the roller coaster, and you’re there and you don’t want to be. You people pleased, and that’s why you’re up there. And you’re just like, “I don’t want to be here. I’m checked out. I’m not present. I feel frozen. I feel stuck. I feel trapped. I hate this.” 

Those thoughts are available from dorsal. 

When we can recognize nervous system first, we can recognize the automatic thoughts that come from that nervous system state. 

And we can do the things that help us to get home to ventral vagus.

From there, we can create our intentional thought work protocol. We can choose the next thought that we want to think on purpose. The feeling we want to have, the action we want to take, and the result we want to create. But only once we’ve regulated our nervous system.

Because without nervous system regulation, in my experience, the body will always reject the new thought, until the nervous system is in ventral vagus, when you connect in with that new thought.

Understanding the nervous system helps us bring compassion, care, and love to the people in our world. 

We can understand that someone may be saying what they’re saying from a nervous system reaction. That helps us to bring in curiosity, care, compassion, and love, which lets us be a more kind, and emotionally generous member of all of our communities.

That brings me to co-regulation. Regulation is a little foot on the gas, a little foot on the brake, being able to regulate how much of each is happening. We can regulate ourselves. And we can co-regulate with others. 

Which means that when what’s going on in our nervous system is more than we can manage or regulate on our own, we can turn to safe, trusted, empathic people in our lives, to witness us, to support us, to give us touch, if that feels good.

I love to co-regulate with a hug. We can turn to people in our lives and say, “I would like some support right now.” 

If there aren’t other humans around, then we can co-regulate with pets, with plants, with Pachamama, with Mother Nature. We can co-regulate with any of the resources that I talked about in this episode on Attachment and Nervous System Resourcing.

A resource can be an idea, a notion, an energetic, and it’s yours to connect with, and to use to support you and your nervous system. So, you can come home into ventral vagus anytime you want, or need.

I’d like to offer this homework to you: begin to bring your awareness to those moments throughout your day, throughout your week, throughout your month, where you go into dorsal. Where something happens and you are able to stay in ventral vagus.

I want to invite you to be your own empathic witness. To be your own kind and loving witness to your nervous system. 

If thoughts come up and you want to write them down, go for it. If you know the thought work protocol and you want to use it, go for it. But what I really want to invite you to do, is just to bear witness to your nervous system.

  • What are the felt sensations of each state? 
  • What happens in your body in each state? 
  • What happens in your mind? 

Take note, mark it as the felt experience in your body. And if words come, mark those, too; write those down. It really starts with getting present to your own felt experience.

You can learn to regulate from there.

Thank you for taking the time to read Feminist Wellness. I’m excited to be here and to help you take back your health!

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