• Stefanie Dominik

How Using Polyvagal Theory Every Day Will Improve Your Wellbeing

Body mind and spirit venn diagram

Like many people, I used to have a vague concept that our nervous systems are capable of a "fight or flight response." I knew that these systems might come into play if you get attacked by a bear, but that's about it.

What I know now is that the nervous system is a lot more complex, and the mechanisms underlying "fight and flight" are actually at work in us all the time. These mechanisms are constantly affecting our mood, work performance, relationships, and how we cope with everything from big traumas to minor stressors.

By understanding our nervous systems better, we can improve our mental health, have healthier relationships, and be better humans.

What We Know Now

Thanks to research from neurobiologist Stephen Porges, we know that the autonomic nervous system has many parts and functions. The sympathetic branch helps us to actively defend ourselves from threats, the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve helps us to defend ourselves by shutting down (not that different from "playing dead"), and the ventral branch of the vagus nerve keeps us in equilibrium when things feel safe. This understanding of the different branches of the autonomic nervous system is the basis of polyvagal theory.

What polyvagal theory has helped us understand is that our nervous system has many different settings:

  • Fight (sympathetic state)- Defensiveness, strong anger, rage, or frustration, feeling activated, an impulse to yell, hit, stomp, push, etc., muscle tension often in jaw, fists, or arms

  • Flight (sympathetic state)- Strong anxiety or panic, feeling activated, an impulse to run away or get out of a difficult situation, jitteriness or tension often in legs or gut

  • Freeze (dorsal vagal state)- Shutting down, disconnecting, dissociated, feelings of hopelessness, sadness, shame, or numbness, feel like giving up, lethargic, body may feel heavy or fatigued

  • High freeze (sympathetic state)- Feeling stuck or paralyzed but with lots of activation rather than lethargy, often muscle tension, numbing, can feel like "one foot on the gas and one foot on the break", difficulty making decisions, hypervigilance

  • Fawning (blend of dorsal vagal and ventral vagal)- Attempt to minimize trauma/stress by appeasing and submitting, often accompanies a freeze response, might be labeled as "people pleasing"

  • Attachment cry (blend of sympathetic and ventral vagal)- Attempt to minimize trauma/stress through frantic attachment to others, often accompanies a flight response and panic, might be labeled as "clingy" or "attention-seeking"

  • Safe & social (ventral vagal state)- Feel safe and grounded, able to think clearly and learn, healthy connection with self and others, can feel a range of emotions without overwhelm

These different states of the nervous system operate more like a spectrum than necessarily distinct categories. A flight response, for example, can mean literally fleeing from a situation, but it can also mean a general feeling of anxiety or ungroundedness.

What I know now is that understanding polyvagal theory helps us to better understand oppression and systemic violence. Many survivors of interpersonal trauma (i.e. sexual assault, intimate partner violence, racist harassment at work) spend more time in a state of freeze or fawn rather than fight or flight. And this is for good reason as attempting to fight back or run away from an aggressive person could result in even more severe injury or even murder. For BIPOC communities who have experienced years and years of oppression and violence, nervous system survival strategies can be passed down through generations. (Check out the book My Grandmother's Hands by Resmaa Menakem!) As a society it's important to understand that nervous systems do the best they can to cope with trauma and stress. A sexual assault survivor isn't a liar because they didn't "fight back", and black children growing up in the south side of Chicago aren't bad or misbehaved because they can't focus in school.

How To Use This Every Day

1.) Be nicer to yourself

I generally tend more towards freeze responses than flight or fight responses. For me, using polyvagal theory means giving context and understanding to my freeze responses.

Often when I'm stressed out or have a lot going on, my energy will feel really low, I'll have a hard time motivating myself to do anything, and I'll feel overall disconnected. I used to criticize myself a lot for being lazy, undisciplined, and aloof. But that self-criticism never solved anything- in fact it would just make things worse by adding a layer of shame (which even further triggers fight/flight/freeze responses).

Now that I understand polyvagal theory, when my energy is low and I feel disconnected, I see it for what it is: a dorsal vagal freeze response. I try to remind myself that there's nothing wrong with me, my nervous system is just responding to stress the best way it knows how. If nothing else, even just that little bit of understanding helps my freeze response to soften slightly. This is because having compassion towards ourselves activates the "ventral vagal" safe and social state, helping us to feel more regulated.

2.) Guidance for how to regulate

If I know that I'm in somewhat of a freeze state, this helps to guide my sense of what I need in order to regulate. After spending some time acknowledging and having compassion for what's happening, I encourage my body to find what it needs for balance. The opposite of freeze is motion, so I'll often start by rolling my neck side to side, feeling the motion of my breath in my lungs, stretching my arms and legs, and then maybe going for a walk or doing a few sun salutations. In doing all this, I can gently restore some energy to my system.

If you're in more of an activated fight or flight state, you might meet your system where it's at by encouraging your body to move i.e. jumping or pressing your hands into a wall. Then you might gently help your body to down-regulate by extending the length of your exhales, smelling calming essential oils, or wrapping yourself in a comfy blanket.

3.) Orienting to safety

If you're outside of the safe and social state, it's because something in your nervous system is detecting a lack of physical and/or emotional safety. Even if it's a relatively small stressor, your nervous system is telling you that it needs to reconnect to safety.

So, we can connect to safety in a lot of different ways. I often find safety by orienting my 5 senses to things that signal safety. If my eyes are taking in the calming colors of a painting on the wall, or my ears are taking in the sound of gently rustling leaves outside my window, then the message being sent to my nervous system is that it's okay to come back into the safe and social state.

4.) We need to stop gaslighting ourselves!

Oftentimes it's not just in your head and there is truly a threat to your safety- whether that's the presence of a global pandemic, having a narcissistic boss, or anything else. As much as we all might want to feel the calm and contentment of the safe and social state, don't gaslight your nervous system by trying to convince it that everything's fine when it's not. You can acknowledge that the lack of safety you're feeling is very real and very valid and at the same time orient to the people and things around you that provide a sense of comfort. We are complex creatures capable of holding multiple truths simultaneously.

5.) Be a less harmful human being

In some cases, awareness that you've been triggered outside of the safe and social state can provide an opportunity to process complicity in harm and oppression.

I used to go into a freeze response during really honest conversations about white privilege. I felt safe and comfortable talking about how our political landscape excludes people of color or how we need more inclusivity in many workplaces and schools. But as soon as it came to actually holding white people accountable or people of color expressing raw emotional reactions towards white people, I would shut down and dissociate. (And I considered myself an "ally"!!) One time while I was in school, a classmate of mine called myself and a few other white people out on this pattern of going silent. Honestly, I probably dissociated even more for a little while. But then I got really curious about my freeze response, which led me to start really looking at and unpacking my white privilege, my discomfort with really being seen in my whiteness, my discomfort with really seeing the raw emotions of people of color, my luxury of being able to just opt out of thinking about racism.

If people with privilege can get better at using our nervous system as a route to explore our implicit oppressive tendencies, then maybe we could teach ourselves how to be less harmful human beings instead of always having to rely on the people we're harming to teach us.

This definitely isn't an exhaustive list. There are so many ways to integrate polyvagal theory into everyday life, all of which I believe can make the world happier and healthier. What would it look like for you to check in with your nervous system more often? What is your nervous system telling you?

Keep in mind that our nervous systems don't rewire overnight- it might take some time and repetition to shift deeply ingrained patterns. If you feel like you need support further unpacking what's going on in your nervous system, seek out a therapist who has a good grasp of polyvagal work!

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