Nervous System Regulation - Polyvagal Theory
Mind and body are wired for survival, with the sole purpose of seeking safety, inheriting some of these autonomic reactions from reptiles and diving mammals that existed 500 million years ago. According to the Polyvagal Theory, shifts in the autonomic nervous system produces three elementary states: rest-and-digest (social and safe), fight-or-flight (mobilization) or shutdown (immobilization).
The autonomic nervous system responds to cues of safety and danger inside the body, in the environment, and between people, accurately answering the question "am I safe or in danger?" The system moves into the state that brings the energy needed to manage the situation effectively. Humans have two branches to the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches. The sympathetic branch mobilizes the body for fight or flight, while the parasympathetic branch creates homeostasis and feelings of safety, connection, and presence. The autonomic nervous system flows back and forth between these states, and there may be overlap or blended states.
Humans have two branches to the Autonomic Nervous System, the Sympathetic and the Parasympathetic branches.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
Influences breathing cycles, heart rhythms, blood flow, blood pressure. Supports regulation of body temperature and primes for action, mobilizing for fight and flight. It also activates the HPA Axis (hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands). When we face a stressor, our hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which triggers the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) from the pituitary gland; ACTH then travels through the bloodstream to the adrenal glands, where it triggers the release of cortisol, a steroid hormone.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic has two branches, the Dorsal Vagal (evolutionarily the oldest) and the Ventral Vagal (evolutionarily the newest). The ventral vagus is above the diaphragm, creates homeostasis, and is felt in the body as a sense of safety, connection and being present. The dorsal vagus is below the diaphragm and plays a big role in the healthy regulation of the digestive system. In a survival response it acts like a brake, moving out of awareness , out of connection and into a collapsed state (freeze).
Neuroception is detection of safety or threat without awareness. It describes the way the autonomic nervous system takes in information without involving the thinking parts of the brain. Neuroception responds to cues of safety and danger inside the body, outside in the environment, and between people. Neuroception accurately answers the question, “in this moment, am I safe or in danger?” The autonomic nervous system moves into the state that brings the energy needed to manage the situation effectively.
Creating a Health Nervous System
Tips for Relaxing Your Mind and Body
- Breathe: To bring your body into a more relaxed state, try lengthening your exhale to release more carbon dioxide. This signals to the body that you're safe and can help reduce stress. The 4-7-8 breath technique is effective: exhale first, then inhale to the count of four, pause for seven seconds, and exhale for eight. Adjust the technique to what feels comfortable for you, focusing on the longer exhale, emptying out your lungs.
- Slow Down: Being busy all the time does not support a healthy nervous system. Practice slowing down your actions, living , eating, and be more aware of your body's sensations with a sense of curiosity.
- Pay Attention to Your Senses: Your body's systems use your senses (smell, sight, taste, hearing, touch) to determine whether it's safe or not. Practice really seeing your environment and how your body feels when taking in information from your senses.
- Give Yourself Permission to Rest: It's important to rest and take downtime. This does not count if you are on the couch and your mind is trying to solve a problem, as that is not restful. Ruminating can cause your body to tense up and start the HPA axis loop revolving. A calm body leads to a calm mind.
- Exercise: Move your body to help utilize excessive cortisol and adrenaline that can build up due to stress. Long-term stress can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, stroke, and autoimmune issues.
Sources: Deb Dana -Polyvagal Chart, Nurturing Resilience: Helping Clients Move Forward from Developmental Trauma – An Integrative Somatic Approach, by Kathy L Kane and Stephen J. Terrell