A song, a smile, a flower, a tree, a beach, dancing or practicing Tai Chi.
What do these things have in common? Keep this question in mind as you read on.
I would like you to take a moment to reflect on the ups and downs you tend to experience during the day, transitioning from one mood or energy state to another. We move back and forth from an autonomic state of safety and connection (for which we are biologically wired) to a self-protective mode, and these states are supported by three circuits of the nervous system: the ventral vagal, sympathetic and parasympathetic circuits (Porges, 2016).
Whereas the ventral vagal state (which we share with other mammals) is characterized by a sense of safety which supports social engagement and connection, the mobilization of the sympathetic state may lead to action modes of “Fight or Flight.” This is what we experience when faced with an imminent threat, or when stressed. When safety prevails, the mobilization of fight or flight is dampened (e.g., during sexual intercourse). The third, phylogentically more primitive dorsal vagal state (which we share with reptiles) is one which supports “Freeze, Fold and Collapse”, or for short, collapse.
Life can be exhausting when the ventral vagal state of safety remains elusive, and one moves from intense mobilization/activation to withdrawal and shutdown and back. The challenge, then, is to find the way back to regulation, social connection, and safety, to make a habit of exercising one’s neural circuits of regulation and connection regularly, thus promoting flexibility and resilience.
Since the human brain is characterized by neuroplasticity, we can consciously shape our experience, and move from a state of relative dysregulation to a more regulated, ventral vagal state of safety and connection, a state which I like to refer to as the “green zone.” Once in the green zone, we can search for ways to amplify and deepen these experiences, whether on our own (self-regulation) or with others (co-regulation).
Moreover, we can find ways, whether by ourselves or with others, to move gradually away from a dorsal vagal shutdown or a state of sympathetic activation.
Look for ways to gently ease out of a dorsal vagal state of collapse.
What activities—either on your own or via co-regulation with others—can “jumpstart” or provide you with a spark of energy? You can identify activities requiring varying levels of involvement or expenditure of energy.
What things (i.e., resources) make you feel good, stronger, calmer? An example of an inner resource–a personal trait, such as a sense of humor. An outer resource–a pet, person, activity etc.
Look for ways to gradually “leave-go” from the sympathetic activation of Fight or Flight (a mode of protection) towards safety and connection.
The Art of Regulation
Although not all paths lead to Rome, there are various modalities you may experiment with, in order to “shape” or improve your regulation. These include the use of breath, sound (e.g., vocalization, music), movement, energy, environment (e.g., immersing yourself in Nature, creating a “ventral vagal” space in your home, where you feel calm or safe) and mindful reflection (Dana, 2020).
Writing: If you enjoy writing, I challenge you to describe some of your experiences in each of the following states: one of safety and connection (to something or someone outside yourself), one of mobilization/activation and the urge to flee or fight, and finally, one of collapse and shutdown.
Once you are able to identify these states in yourself (and, you will discover, increasingly, in others—including your characters, if you are a writer), make a practice of finding micro-moments of connection, what Dana (2020) calls “glimmers”, and I have referred to elsewhere as embodied “resources.”
As you learn to prolong these glimmers from say, a few seconds, to perhaps a minute or so, the glimmers may become “glows” (Dana, 2020). Like a cat basking in the sun, you can savor them deliciously, to borrow a phrase a colleague recently used in a different context.
It is important to progress slowly and gradually from dysregulation to regulation.
We do not want our nervous system to become overwhelmed.
Breath and Music: Whether becoming attuned to the rhythms of your own breathing or listening to music in its various forms, including prosody, or actually making music (e.g., singing, playing an instrument)—you can use these activities to nudge your autonomous state in the desired direction, such as achieving or amplifying a state of feeling connected to someone or something outside yourself. It can be helpful to align your breath to someone else’s, even a pet lying next to you, for example when you experience trouble sleeping.
Movement and Energy: Look for movements that can energize you, since they too, can shape your experiences. Even a slight change in posture can do wonders. Spontaneous dance moves while doing housework, martial arts or dancing in a group with a specific purpose in mind—can be invaluable for transitioning from one state to another.
Other ways of shaping one’s nervous sysstem include attending to
* Nature—painting a landscape, taking a walk, going for a swim, soaking up the sun while gardening—all these activities combine movement with nature. It is also possible to watch nature movies, or look at pictures of nature.
* Indoors—Another environment is that of home or the work place. You can identify which spaces make you feel more regulated, which have a disorganizing effect on you. Experiment with small changes, and see how they affect your nervous system.
Breath: Focus on your breath, noticing how much air goes in and out, then prolong the duration of exhalation. Notice the effect of taking a deep breath,
These practices are often soothing, whether performed on their own or in the context of meditation or yoga.
Dana, D. (2020). Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection. New York: Norton.
Porges, S. W. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. New York: Norton.