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  • Writer's pictureCoach Elizabeth Brink

Understanding Our Nervous Systems: Or What I Learned from the Polyvagal Theory

Okay, I've got a lot on my mind this week, so feel free to scan for the bullet points or highlighted bits.

TL;DR: Your struggle to get something done may have as much to do with your nervous system as your neurobiology.

In the somatic trauma healing program I'm in we're talking about the Polyvagal Theory this week. It clicked together so many pieces as I think about our challenges with performance. A quick summary of (parts of ) Polyvagal Theory*: Your nervous system has three main states: ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal. Each of these can blend to create additional states of the nervous system.

  • Ventral Vagal: safety, connection, engaged, centered, welcoming

  • Ventral / Sympathetic = play [safety, connection, excited]

  • Sympathetic (protective state): activated, danger, disconnected, anxious, afraid, panic (fight/flight)

  • Sympathetic / Dorsal = freeze [fear, uncertainty, hopelessness]

  • Dorsal Vagal (protective state): numb, foggy, unreachable, dissociation, depression, collapse (freeze)

  • Ventral / Dorsal = stillness [safety, connected, quiet] - this is the hardest state for people to get to and stay in, it takes a lot of practice to be able to be still and feel safe.

Dana emphasized that, "these are biological states and not cognitive choices." We often move in and out of the states without noticing. Suddenly we feel cranky, frustrated, zoned out, or disinterested in connecting with others -- these are signs we are out of the ventral vagal state. The good news is when we get enough self and co-regulation in our nervous

system, we can get back to the ventral vagal state. It's important to note: Nobody stays in the ventral vagal state all the time.

As Deb Dana said, "it's about recognizing when you move out of ventral and finding ways to reflect on what came up that pulled you into sympathetic or dorsal."

*based on teachings of Deb Dana in The Embody Lab program

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Now, here's where I landed after reflecting on these nervous system states and the many amazing neurodivergent people I know.

Do you know how sometimes you can harness the anxiety of an impending deadline or consequence and kick into hyper-focus to get it done? But, then sometimes you just get utterly stuck and hide?

I've heard so many people express defeat over not knowing why or when it will be a good outcome when they wait until the last minute.

If we look at this scenario with the polyvagal theory layered in, we get a clearer picture of what's happening in those moments of performance anxiety. I believe when the fear of the unknown (will we succeed?) is mixed with some inner sense of confidence (past experience or some other source of 'I can do it when I need to'), then we are able to find that blended state between ventral and sympathetic.

That state is also known as PLAY. Have you ever felt like you won a race when you finally get that thing done at the last minute? It was a little fun. You were a little scared and a little safe in your ability to do it.

On the other hand, the times when the clock ticks down and you hide in Netflix or your favorite book or app and then call out sick --- those are when you may be in the blended state of sympathetic and dorsal vagal. You're in freeze - afraid with a sense of certainty that you can't do the thing, and getting increasingly foggy and shut down. If we stay in this blended state, we'll eventually feel more hopeless and unreachable.

What does this mean for you?

It means you can begin practicing when you feel dysregulated and find ways to bring you back to ventral.

Things and places and people who predictably make you feel welcome and connected are a great choice to focus attention. You can just imagine them -- maybe it's your grandparents' living room, your favorite tree in the park, or cuddling your pet. Just the thought of them brings your nervous system back to ventral.

I know a lot of people have theorized about why people with neurodivergent brains procrastinate, avoid, zone out, or panic.

Understanding the impact of our history and nervous system is the closest I've come to making sense of my brain in a way that empowers and gives me hope.

I can practice noticing myself in the ventral vagal state, being gentle with my nervous system when I feel the instinct to be terse, and let go of some of the shame around my productivity levels. My nervous system is always taking care of me. If it is slightly elevated looking for danger (because criticism lurks around every email), then trying to cram tips and tricks into it is only doing more harm.

What if when you are avoiding something it is a sign that your nervous system is protecting you? How might you approach those experiences next time?


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