Welcome to Week One
Understanding the States of the ANS and the Vagal Brake
(To listen to the audio recording of this introduction click here.)
We're getting started with the meat of our program now. To prepare for this first live session you can listen to 25-minute section of Deb’s interview where she describes three different states of our autonomic nervous system. You’re always welcome to ask any questions, and respect that your understanding about these states will get clearer with time.
In her interview, Deb explains the anatomy of the vagus nerve and its location, and both states of the parasympathetic branch and the sympathetic branch of the fight or flight response. These three states make up our autonomic nervous system.
It helps to recognize that our nervous system is rhythmic, designed to flow from one state to another. When we face challenging situations without the support we need, our nervous system can become rigidly patterned in response. The really good news is that we can turn toward our patterns with kindness and care and reshape our nervous system with skillful practice, patience and support.
In Deb's article, The Beginner's Guide to Polyvagal Theory, she describes the three states of the autonomic nervous system and the hierarchical perspective of how they interact with each other. It’s fascinating. Understanding this experientially, is truly transformative. It's worth becoming curious about how these ideas relate to you in your life. We’ll explore this as our course unfolds. This learning will continue beyond this course.
Here’s a brief overview of the ANS
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) has three states and two branches. It functions to give us life and keep us safe.
The fight or flight response, our sympathetic nervous system, is one branch of our autonomic nervous system. When we experience danger whether perceived or present, our system mobilizes and pumps adrenaline, so that we can getaway fast or stand our ground.
Yet sometimes this response of fight or flight isn’t successful. In those situations, our autonomic nervous system automatically shifts into the dorsal vagal immobilization response. This is the most primitive response of our nervous system. An example of this response is found in many species of lizards that become completely immobilized as a defense. They “freeze” to blend in and appear invisible. Some functions shut down as protection. For example, their breathing slows way down.
In human experience we can relate to this state by reflecting on times when we feel we’ve shut down inside, maybe because we didn't feel appreciated by someone we cared about. Or maybe we rallied when we perceived danger, like facing a chronic illness, but couldn’t make a difference in the outcome.
A key to understanding why our nervous system responds this way, is recognizing that these states are attempts of our nervous system to protect us, keep us safe, give us a way to survive. These responses are common to all of us. Becoming self-aware, starting to Notice and Name, a practice Deb shares, is how we begin to reshape our system.
When not in a protective response, the sympathetic branch is involved in maintaining vital aspects of homeostasis, for example heartbeat and breathing. When not in a protective response, the dorsal vagal branch is involved in experiences of deep stillness and it supports good digestive functioning.
Our human/mammalian nervous system evolved the need to be safely connected. This is the ventral vagal state. It is at the other end of the vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. Think of the bonding between an attentive mother and her baby. Her warmth, soothing considerate touch, the sound of her voice, and her gaze all communicate that she is a safe presence that the baby can trust.
The ventral vagal state contributes to the optimal functioning of the other two states. This process might be described as blending states. For example, when the ventral vagal state, the feeling of knowing that you are safe and connected, blends with the sympathetic state of perceiving danger, you can experience energy to take action without being overwhelmed by worry or anger.
This is the vagal brake, slowing down the sympathetic response before it manifests in its extreme protective fight or flight survival response.
When the ventral vagal state of feeling safely connected blends with the dorsal vagal immobilization response, it gives us the experience of being safely still. You’ll explore this in the yoga practices of relaxation. This is the vagal brake, allowing us to reorient before shifting into protective defensive immobilization.
We tone our nervous system’s responses to become more flexible by gently practicing moving out of our familiar rhythms and explore the safety that comes with connection.
As you practice, enter into your practices with this new understanding and begin to get curious about how your system is responding, what those signals might be that you’re getting from your body. Take a few minutes to journal about your experiences. The mapping exercise that you’ll learn about in Week Two, can be really useful and interesting to begin to notice and track the shifts of your nervous system.
@2018, Charlotte Nuessle