Befriending our nervous system is an extremely empowering pastime, it can help us to accept and love ourselves more fully and gain greater compassion and empathy for our loved ones and all other humans that we share the planet with. We are hardwired for connection from the moment we are born we a seeking closeness and yet sometimes being with others can feel the most challenging part of being human, my hope it that this short article offers you a few tools and insights for you to use in connection with yourself and others, we really do need each other.
Our lives are unconsciously guided by our nervous system with our inner radars constantly tracking for safety. This tracking system is beyond the level of our awareness until we start to tune into it purposefully. I’ve been diving into the work of Stephen Porges Professor of Psychiatry and founder of Poly Vagal theory, it been a wonderful exploration of my own system which I’ve been the curious observer of for many years now, I share this approach in my work at a yoga therapist and relationship counsellor it’s been enlightening for all of us.
Being English I love a weather analogy, read on to explore the weather of your internal landscape. Note there three primary states which can be experienced singly, and in combination and are on a continuum (0-10) from a gentle caress to a full-blown tornado.
Imagine yourself on a sunny day you feel connected, grateful, and you can feel the warmth of the sun on your skin, you are receptive, reflective and can be in contact with your loved ones and with spirit. In this space we experience thought’s like “I’m organized, relaxed, I can cope with whatever life throws my way”. This is when we are in the green zone or experiencing the ventral vagal system, the most modern part of the nervous system where we feel safe in ourselves and in the arms of another.
The next two spaces we experience life from are more primitive. Imagine a dark and onerous sky, the storm clouds building, the sound of thunder in the distance. There’s a elevation, I’m quick to act, here our nervous system is telling us to prepare to either fight or take flight (red zone) remember this can vary from an anxious skip in my step to a full blow flee. Here I’m experiencing thoughts such as “I need to get out of there, where’s the nearest exit? This feels risky, I’m on edge, I’m going to punch this guy out” The heart rate is elevated, and you taste the flavours of risk, poised for action, coming towards or moving away from others with energy. This is Sympathetic actitation left over from our days of running from wild animals like the Sabare Tooth Tiger.
The earliest system Dorsal vagal; Picture this, internally it’s a foggy day, you can’t see further than a metre in front of you, looking forward feels too effortful. Here you are distant, vague, disengaged or towards the end of the continuum collapsed in hopelessness. Here I’m withdrawn taking the foetal position literally through my posture. I’m having thoughts such as “I give up, this is too hard, leave me alone, I’m not good enough, there’s no way out”. The image of a tortoise comes to mind, its head contracted, hiding in its shell too fearful to come out. The systems in your body start to shut down. Your digestive system is no longer digesting your latest meal there are flavours of immobilisation, going into hiding and collapse.
Variability on the inner weather continuum is happening beyond the level of the mind and brain. According to Porges eighty percent of our experience is coming through what is called neuroception. This is the bodies way of receiving information on a very subtle level, your system constantly scanning the environment and your physiology receiving and responding. From this perspective what we think and the stories that guide our experience are driven by the, bottom up physiology to the brain.
With this in mind the first practice to empower us is to start to make what is implicit (unaware) to explicit (aware). Start to tune into the sensations in your body, to notice with loving awareness your heartbeat or other sensations that give you a clue as to where are sitting moment to moment on the weather continuum’s and then to take gentle steps from there.
It interesting to reflect about the practices and work I’ve been drawn to over the years, yoga, breath work, chanting. All of these are practices, strategies recommended by Porges and his colleagues to widen the window of the sunny day. Is it just luck or is it because its what my system craves? Now these practices have become deeply intertwine in my life and work? An interesting reflection. I’m curious if you can relate to some hobbies or interests you’ve been drawn to in your life?
We are social animals we are built to be with each other, to seek connect and closeness. Our Western individualistic approach to understand ourselves (Self-regulation) is being de-bunked and co-regulation is the new wave. Try talking to your lovers, family and friends and start a conversation about your weather system, particularly when you notice yourself or another being triggered in a relational interaction.
Finally I wanted to share a few practices to spark your interest and enquiry. Reflect on what anchors do you currently have in your daily routine? A morning walk? Journaling? Do you have items in your home, images that when you look at them you experience the warm feeling from the inside out, anchors are grounded, yet allow movement and freedom.
Have a look around your home/office and ensure you have images or objects around you that arouse joy, pictures of loved ones, places you’ve travelled etc.
Play music or create a playlist that invites lightness and warmth
Give yourself a neck massage and or jaw massage. The Vasgas nerve who is a great messenger (love nerve) travels from the brain stem through the heart, lungs and stomach.
Hold the back of your head with one hand and place the other hand on your heart or abdomen and feel yourself soften into a loving hold. Change hands and see which one feels best.
Prioritise taking time in nature, great for vagal tone.
Lengthen your exhalation - learn more about how to use our breath on our upcoming training
Sing, chant or hum
Play is a wonderful way to cultivate the green zone, even better in good company!
· Enjoy some colouring in or painting
· Make a sunny day collage to put on your wall
· Create a playful connection with children and animals
· Enjoy ball game in the garden
Inviting these insights and practices into you life is such a gift for yourself and humanity to take steps toward showing up as a loving presence in the world. Please know it is very natural for us to traverse the varying weathers multiple times during the course of any given day, however getting stuck in one of these more primal states you can imagine can be exhausting, have an impact on our physical and mental wellbeing and relationships. Remember our systems are amazing, highly adaptive and are there to keep us safe, it’s not that your system is doing anything wrong if you find yourself living in a more elevated or collapsed space, my guess it that for some reason this has kept you safe in response to your environment, perhaps this response is now out dated. If you feel called to explore this further, you could investigate the following resources listed or find a trusted and professional counsellor or yoga therapist to support you on your inward journey. I wish you well with your explorations!
Rachel offers poly vagal informed therapy online and at her clinic in Batemans bay. Rachel combines polyvagal therapy and yoga therapy which can be a useful alternative to talking therapy. We explore the intersection of science and the yoga tradition on our upcoming training. Learn, practice, embody, share !
Reference / resource list
Dr Stephen Porges
Deb Dana podcast with Sounds True