Befriending your Nervous System
Updated: Jun 9
This article was originally published in the 26th issue of IWI Lifestyle Magazine, June 2023.
After the recent earthquakes [in Turkey], many of us experienced prolonged activation of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) consistent with a trauma response. In the context of Polyvagal Theory (PVT), developed by Dr. Steven Porges and adapted for clinical practice by Deb Dana, LCSW, this is a biologically adaptive response prompted by feeling unsafe in our environment. According to PVT, the dorsal vagal complex responds to cues of danger in the environment: when we feel threatened and experience either a fight, flight, or fawn response (sympathetic activation, increased arousal), freeze response, or “flop” (give up) response (parasympathetic activation, decreased arousal), it is our dorsal vagal complex that is working overtime, responding to these perceived threats. In contrast, it is the ventral state where we feel safe and secure, the state where we experience connection, playfulness, creativity, and the ability to immerse ourselves in experience (“flow”). This is the “true home” for human beings: our optimal stage of functioning.
When we understand what our body is doing, we gain the ability to transform those natural, evolutionarily-protective reactions. But why would we want to change these responses? For actual threats to life, such as being at the site of the earthquake, we need these responses: they help us to survive. Yet, many of us have learned to perceive some factors in our environments as threats when they are not, prompting us into a Sympathetic or Dorsal response that is not congruent with - or helpful to - the situation (think: anxiety and depression). While a complete and individually-tailored polyvagal-informed program is outside the scope of this article, I will provide you a concrete way to befriend - or develop a greater awareness of - your Nervous System.
Building Insight into your Nervous System
The technique that serves as the foundation for other deeper practices is the “Personalized Polyvagal Map.” This map is conceptualized in tree tiers that represent the Ventral, Sympathetic, and Dorsal states (see illustration above). Using the diagram as a basic guide and the questions/statements below, create your personal Polyvagal map (You need not follow them in sequence). Be sure to draw your ladder, write down your responses, and consider using different colors to represent each vagal state.
Where is your “home (away from home)”? Many of us have learned to operate primarily in either the Dorsal or Sympathetic states as a way to deal with chronic adversity experienced early in life. If you find yourself to be an “anxious person,” or “worrier,” your “home away from home” (or “home” for short) is likely Sympathetic. If you tend to freeze, find it hard to make decisions, or give up easily when faced with challenges, your “home” is likely Dorsal. Start with your “home” as you continue forward in this exercise.
Identify your feelings, thoughts, and body sensations in each state. Imagine a situation when you find yourself at “home” - this is likely a situation that provokes uncomfortable but familiar feelings. When it plays out, notice what is happening physically: perhaps your heart races, you feel a lump in your throat, you notice some tightness in certain places of your body, or something else. Notice your thoughts about yourself and the world: perhaps not being able to handle things and that the world is unpredictable. Or thoughts of being powerless and the world being overwhelming. What feelings align with these thoughts: fear or overwhelm? Something else? Let your mind encompass all possibilities and write these down on your map.
Identify changes in your behavior. Specific areas are in relationship to people and food. Do you tend to avoid others or engage in many superficial relationships? Do you eat more high fat foods, or the opposite, hardly at all? Take note.
Identify your triggers for each state. “Triggers” are those internal or external factors that activate your nervous system - that precipitate a change in your state. Starting with Ventral, consider what factors prompt a change into your “home” state, and then do this exercise with the next state. Write them down on your map.
Through this exercise, you will be better able to view your responses through a polyvagal lens which is the first step toward spending more time in your Ventral State.
Ladder image via www.flaticon.com/free-icons/ladder
Verbiage via www.integratedlistening.com
About the Author
Heather Demir, LMSW, is a clinical social worker serving expats worldwide through an online psychotherapy practice. She is currently enrolled in the 6-month course “Foundations of Polyvagal Theory” with Deb Dana, upon completion of which she will be an accredited Polyvagal-informed Therapist. Please feel free to contact her for any questions or to further deepen your knowledge of your own nervous system.