The autonomic nervous system is your body's defense network in charge of keeping you safe from harm. It's an intricate mechanism that directly engages your brain, digestion, muscles, sensory organs, and heart to either stay present and reach for support (ventral vagal state), fight or flee (sympathetic state), or shut down and play dead (dorsal vagal state).
While we no longer live in the wild and don't typically come face to face with a hungry lion or an avalanche, modern life presents its version of threat ranging from the more blatant, like war, robbery, rape, and abuse, to the more subtle, like thoughts of failure and loss of livelihood, anxiety over contracting a virus, and fear of being alone in the world.
What constitutes a threat to our evolved nervous system is subjective. The same thing that triggers one person and floods their body with the impulse, hormones, and energy to run away may make you take a deep breath and try another tactic. And, the same thing that makes you shut down completely and find no words to say at all may make someone else reach out to a friend and communicate more explicitly how s/he feels.
Changing Reactions To Carefully Chosen Responses
Mechanically speaking, we all have the same nervous system and that seems to be unchangeable. However, we can influence what we perceive as a threat and how quickly we cycle through the phases of freeze, fight or flight, and return to safety and connection. This is where we find the key to regulating our own nervous system.
By becoming aware of how our nervous system automatically reacts, we begin to organically make room for new and conscious responses that better fit who we are and the kind of friend/parent/partner/colleague/person we wish to be.
Getting stuck in “freeze mode”, lingering in “fight”, or perpetually cycling through “flight” takes a toll on our health, impacts our sleep, puts a strain on our relationships, significantly decreases our productivity at work, and renders us less present for the warmth of connection and the joys of life. But all hope isn't lost!
The Polyvagal Theory and Deb Dana's work with integrating the science of the nervous system in therapeutic modalities has shown that when we learn to recognize these nervous system modes within ourselves, we can apply techniques that match how our own nervous system reacts in order to shorten the length of freeze, get out of fight or flight quicker, and reach for deeper connections and calm more safely and more often.
Knowing the universal biology behind how we think, feel, and respond to perceived threats reduces the shame from thinking that there is something wrong with us and feeling like we're all alone in it. It frees us from being hijacked by our own nervous system and gives us the opportunity and strength to direct our own lives.
Learn how to move towards more calm in the all new Regulate Your Nervous System Course.
Shira Oz-Sinai provides guidance and instruction to individuals pursuing a deeper level of physical, mental and emotional health. An expert in the tools of acupressure and trauma integration, she offers on-demand one-on-one appointments and group events in a safe, relaxing virtual environment with the focus on living life with greater ease and a deeply loving friendship with self.