The nervous system plays a key role in our wellbeing. More research is coming out about how our nervous system impacts our experience of health. We've known for a long time that stress can have a negative impact on our wellbeing (actually, its our perception of stress that affect us, not the actual stressor itself). When we are in a stress response the major organs and systems of the body involved in digestion, detoxification, immune function have minimal resources, as all of our energy is funnelled to the things that are deemed important for survival in the moment - the extremities, sensory perception, etc. We've also known that our system is not designed to live in a stress response. This mechanism was meant as a short term intervention in the event that we experience a threat to our survival, and as soon as that threat is over the body starts to adjust back into homeostasis or the "rest & digest" mode. We can also go into a freeze or shut down response, which happens when the system is overwhelmed and becomes immobilized. When we are stuck in a stress or freeze response, as often happens with limbic system impairment, it wreaks havoc on our body & our mental and emotional wellbeing.
Dr Stephen Porges, world renowned researcher on the nervous system, has developed what is called the polyvagal theory of the nervous system. The polyvagal theory recognizes that our nervous system also houses our social engagement system (SES) that plays a role in our health and wellbeing.
As human beings we are inherently designed to be socially connected with one another. We read social cues, through facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, to help us determine the safety of a situation. In order to cultivate resilience in our nervous system, we not only need to diminish the heightened perception of danger cues, but we also need to actively experience cues of safety. A well regulated system pays attention to both danger and safety cues. When we have more safety cues than danger, we are ready for connection, change is possible, new perspectives emerge, and we have an increased sense of wellbeing. When there are more cues of danger than safety, our survival response is activated, we get stuck in a story, closed off to change, and dis-ease results. With limbic system impairment, our perception of danger cues can become distorted and we can misperceive signs of danger from others or our environment where there is none. We become hypersensitive to possible signs of danger and that keeps our nervous system in dysregulation most of the time. Thankfully, because our nervous system is plastic and changeable, like our brain, we can retrain it back into operating from a regulated state as its baseline.
From Dr. Porges' perspective, the three states our nervous system can be in are:
1) Ventral Vagal (which involves safety and social engagement)
2) Sympathetic arousal (Fight or Flight)
3) Dorsal Vagal shut down (immobilization or freeze)
It is important for us to cultivate our curious observer to help recognize which state we are in at any given time. You will likely find that your system favours either fight/flight or immobilization as your "go-to" when you are out of regulation (safety & social engagement). Become more familiar with which state you tend to favour. What are the thoughts, sensations, emotions and beliefs that go with that state? These will be your cues for the future to help you recognize when you are going there. Then, experiment with what helps to bring you out of this state and back into regulation. Perhaps it is sighing out loud on your exhale a few times, singing or humming, or doing some gentle stretching and movement. Maybe it is focusing on deepening your breath into your belly or your heart, and activating a positive emotion. You could also try bringing in some self-compassion practices, placing your hand on your heart, using positive self-talk, or giving yourself a hug to help regulate your system. Being in nature or even viewing nature videos is another way to activate the ventral vagal state.
Find what works for you and then practice it. The goal is not to get our system to stay in regulation all of the time, but rather to increase the flexibility of movement between the different states and to notice when we are out of regulation and have tools to bring ourselves back. Over time, by continually bringing ourselves back into regulation, the ventral vagal state will become our main state or baseline from which we function.
For other ideas on how to settle your nervous system, here is a useful article: https://www.healthline.com/health/mind-body/give-your-nervous-system-a-break?utm_medium=email&utm_source=email-share&utm_campaign=social-sharebar-referred-desktop
Until next time!
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Candy Widdifield is Registered Clinical Counsellor, Wellness Coach, and Registered Reiki Master Teacher in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. She works with people all over the world, helping them to optimize their wellbeing and thrive in their lives. Her modalities include coaching, therapy, Reiki and the Safe & Sound Protocol. More information about Candy can be found at www.candywiddifield.com