Your nervous system is constantly seeking to assess and understand the world around you. It prioritizes keeping you protected.
According to Polyvagal Theory, the nervous system has three pathways – or three states – that each serve different functions to protect us:
1. The Ventral Vagal
2. The Sympathetic
3. The Dorsal Vagal
We move between these three nervous system states throughout our day-to-day life, but getting stuck in any one state can hinder us and result in difficulties. Finding yourself stuck in the sympathetic or dorsal vagal states (the defensive states) can leave us feeling especially disconnected from our goals and the things we enjoy in life.
Let’s take a look at each state and what they do:
The Ventral Vagal State is also known as the Social Engagement system. In this state, we are able to engage socially and coregulate with one another. We are able to operate out of this state when we feel safe, stable, and secure. When we are in this state, we read others’ facial expressions more positively, we hear other human voices better, and we can react – switching between action and calm – more quickly, allowing us to function from a place of flexibility and even creativity!
● When we are in our ventral vagal state, we often feel grounded, curious, calm, connected, and safe.
The Sympathetic State kicks on when the body starts to feel unsafe. This state is a defensive state that mobilizes the body in response to a perceived threat. This mobilization might look like the fight-or-flight response, or an attack/cry-for-help response. Once in this state, it can take our bodies 10-20 minutes to return to balance or our pre-sympathetic state.
● When we are in this state (especially if we find ourselves stuck in this state), we might feel fear, panic, irritation, sensitivity, anger, or rage.
The Dorsal Vagal State is also a defensive state, but unlike the sympathetic state, it seeks to protect the body from a threat through immobilization. This might seem counter-productive. Why stop moving when there’s a threat? This state is utilized to conserve energy and is often the body’s last resort when extreme danger is perceived. This response comes from an old part of the human brain – the dorsal vagus is shared by most animals. We see this state in action when animals “feign death” when attacked or pursued by predators.
● When in this state, we often feel numb, frozen, lethargic, ashamed, and/or dissociative.
It’s important to note that when a person carries a history of trauma, their body has likely learned to operate from its defensive systems, rather than its social engagement system as a means of protecting itself and surviving.
This means someone who has experienced trauma might struggle to connect with others in the ways they would like, might struggle to be curious, engaged, grounded, or calm. They might find themselves hypervigilant and always expecting a threat. Or quickly moving into a complete shut-down, or extreme anic or rage when triggered.
Learning to recognize these different states and responses in yourself and your loved ones can be helpful and healing. Your therapist can help you as you work on identifying what these states look like in your life, when they are triggered, and what strategies are helpful to calm and ground you.
Make use of a classic body hack – your breathing! Through your breath, you can change the activation of your nervous system. Slow deep breathing communicates to our brain that we are safe, which in turn, tells our nervous system to begin to switch to our ventral vagal state.
Try box breathing! Imagine a square…
Breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, breathe out for 4 counts, and hold for 4 counts. Then repeat as needed.