By Erika Taylor
Our nervous system includes the brain, spinal cord, and a complex network of nerves. It’s our body’s communications hub. But it is so much more than that and a key to our well-being.
One part of it is the autonomic nervous system that regulates involuntary processes like heart rate, respiration, and digestion. It contains two divisions: sympathetic and parasympathetic. While their processes may be “automatic,” keeping them healthy may not be.
The sympathetic nervous system’s (SNS) primary function is to stimulate the body’s fight-or-flight response. It increases the heart rate, tenses muscles, and secretes “action-taking” hormones. When we touch a hot stove and yank our hand away without thinking, we owe our SNS a debt of gratitude.
Our parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) stimulates the body’s “rest-and-digest” responses. The PNS slows the heart rate, cues digestion, and brings the body to a state of calm. Homeostasis! In the absence of any threat, this is the state our nervous system wants to be in.
The vagus nerve makes up most of our parasympathetic nervous system and literally wanders throughout our body, connecting the brainstem to our organs. It constantly scans the environment and our bodies for cues of safety or danger. The polyvagal theory, first proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges, helps make sense of how our nervous system is linked to our behavior.
When our vagus nerve picks up enough cues of safety and connection, we will be in a ventral state. Sensing danger, we move to a sympathetic or dorsal state as our nervous system tries to navigate the situation. The three physiological states according to the polyvagal theory: Ventral Vagal–Our centered state. We feel calm, compassionate, and able to communicate effectively.
We can focus, have positive social interaction, and connect. It is in this state that cognition occurs. Sympathetic–Our mobilized state. Fight or flight. We are hyper-focused or anxious. We may feel inspired to quick action by bursts of energy. In this state cognition slows to make room for more action oriented behavior. Dorsal Vagal–Our immobilized state.
This is when we “freeze.” We become still to hide from danger. Since the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve is responsible for digestion, this state may produce digestive distress. We feel foggy, drained, disconnected from others, and powerless.
As local therapist Betsy Clark, LCSW, explains it, “Polyvagal theory explains (biologically) how our sense of safety or danger impacts our behavior.”
If the state of our nervous system matches our circumstances, like in the hot stove example, it can be life saving.
But when our state doesn’t match our needs or our nervous system can’t accurately discern danger from safety, serious problems may arise. Clark uses the example of a parent witnessing a child spilling their milk.
“If I am in the ventral state, I am likely to be calm in my response,” Clark said. “If I am already in the sympathetic state, I am more likely to be reactive, angry, or blaming in my response. If I am stuck in the dorsal state, I may cry and feel the world is against me.”
A healthy vagus nerve allows us to move appropriately between these states. Because the vagus nerve travels so widely through the body, Vagal nerve dysfunction can also cause digestive issues, inappropriate changes to heart rate or blood sugar, swallowing challenges, and more. Several things including head trauma, diabetes, viral infection, and chronic stress can cause it.
Clark says, “Each state of the nervous system has its function in our well being and daily bodily functions. However, if we get stuck, or have a hard time settling back into a sense of safety and connection, we will experience distress.”
Hearing her say this and experiencing a giant leap forward in my own post-COVID recovery after starting to work with a speech therapist who bases her practice in this theory, I am convinced there is good news. We don’t have to stay stuck!
Therapy, healthy social connection, self care (eating well, exercising, sleeping), vagal nerve stimulation, breathwork, and many other treatments help. If you wonder if you may be experiencing this type of dysfunction, please reach out to a health professional.
And even if you are neurologically healthy, I hope you will take the time to try this technique to show your nervous system some love:
• Start with an extended exhale breath.
• Sit or lie down as comfortably as possible.
• Slowly inhale and exhale for several rounds until it feels natural.
• Start to extend your exhale to twice as long as your inhale. For example, breathe in for two seconds and out for four seconds.
• Gradually extend both the inhale and exhale while maintaining the 1:2 ratio. For example, if you work up to a four-second inhale, your exhale should last eight seconds.
Cultivating gratitude for our bodies is one of the best ways to inspire us to care for them. Let’s add our nervous systems to our gratitude list this Thanksgiving season.
Next month: The best holiday gift I can think of, “Living Safe and Sound.” We will talk more with Clark, who is the founder of Northwest Denver’s Shine Integrated Therapy, a certified safe and sound protocol provider.
This protocol is a non-invasive listening application of the polyvagal theory shown to regulate the autonomic nervous system to help you regulate your emotions, build resilience, think more clearly, and connect more easily.
Erika Taylor is a community wellness instigator at Taylored Fitness, the original online wellness mentoring system. Taylored Fitness believes that everyone can discover small changes in order to make themselves and their communities more vibrant, and that it is only possible to do our best work in the world if we make a daily commitment to our health. Visit facebook.com/erika.taylor.303 or email erika@ tayloredfitness.com.