Understanding Resilience: A Polyvagal Perspective

The human body is complex and nuanced. It has systems that incorporate both our conscious and unconscious experiences and these systems can tell us a lot about our capacity for resilience. In Dan Siegel’s (1999) perspective, a healthy nervous system supports our efforts to expand into states of excitement or stress and then return to states of ease and calmness in a steady and easeful manner. This adaptability to respond to stress (expand) and then return to states of calmness (condense) has a lot to do with our sense of resiliency in life.

The key to healing is knowing about your autonomic nervous system

The autonomic nervous system is responsible for managing our breathing, heart rate, sleep, temperature, and digestion. This highly complex surveillance system is a feedback system that is responsible for the regulation of many of our organs (connects to the enteric nervous system or the gut brain) in the body. It is shaped by both early life experiences and present moment ones. Deb Dana (2000) notes that the nervous system is a biological platform that is shaped by our lived experience and influences the stories we tell ourselves.

One of the primary factors in understanding the nervous system is a concept called, nueroception or “surveillance without detection”. This term, coined by Dr. Stephen Porges (1999) refers to our ability to infer information coming through our exteroception (senses outside the body), our interoception (senses inside the body), as we navigate the energies we come into contact with throughout the day including our interactions with people, our environment, and even “collective energies” happening in other locations that are influencing our sense of safety or threat in a given moment. Our capacity to neurocept allows us to determine if our body feels safe in the world. It determines how much of our body we inhabit in the given moment and if we feel safe to engage in relationship or if we need to reserve our energy for defense or disengagement.

This video is helpful in understanding Polyvagal Theory

A key player in understanding the nervous system and what influences the mind-body relationship is the vagus nerve. Derived from the Latin term, meaning “wandering’ it is the biggest nerve in the body responsible for connecting many of the bodily functions including the heart, the brain and the intestinal system. It is the primary nerve responsible for the rest and digest process. It is also influenced when our energies are recruited for defense or survival.

Our nervous system has three predictable pathways that govern our moment-to-moment responses and help us to survive as mammals. Our earliest system of survival is our dorsal system which is affiliated with our reptilian ancestors. This part of our parasympathetic system when recruited in defense, is responsible for our ability to shut down, feel numb, and disconnect (freeze) during times of perceived threat. In safety, this part works with other systems to support our capacity to rest and digest. Our sympathetic system (fight/flight) when recruited in defense, allows us to mobilize into action when needed to fight or flee from threat. In safety, it allows us to play, exercise, and work. Our newest mammalian system is called the ventral vagal system. This is also part of the parasympathetic system but it a system of safety as it allows us to remain in relationship with our tribe or herd as a primary mechanism of survival. It is responsible for our capacity to be in social relationship and connection. The ventral system allows us to feel safely embodied, to be in safe connection with others, to rest, and digest. It is also associated with our capacity for curiosity, compassion, and our ability to self-regulate.

The vagas nerve runs from the base of the brain stem throughout our organs and into the digestive system, much like a tuning fork that is picking up information and disseminating information from the gut to the brain. You can also think of it as a superhighway with most of the information going from the gut to the brain rather than from the brain to the gut. Dr. Shamani Jain (2021) considers the parasympathetic as “yin” and the sympathetic as “yang” with their balance of activity which is occurring through the ventral vagus nerve as the key to our health. Stress, chronic conditions, or challenging life events can take us out of our system of engagement (ventral) and into states of chronic defense where we can live for years.

Stress and Health

The ventral system is the primary mechanism governing health and homeostasis in the body. Consider your response internally when someone looks at you with welcoming eyes, uses a soft tone, or makes a gesture of connection? This is the ventral system action. Messages of safety keep us in balance so we can move with ease in and out of sympathetic states as we need to throughout the day.

Stress or difficult life events (past or present) – basically anything that is too big, too fast, or too much to process can leave a lasting impression on the nervous system. We can become stuck in either sympathetic states of high activation or in dorsal states of shutdown. Today we know that the body holds our experiences of stress whether that stress is from individual pain or collective pain. And, in today’s modern world, the culmination of stress can really add up, leaving us in states of high sympathetic activation (stress) or low activation (shut down). And, if our ventral system (system of relationship) has been compromised due internal or external limitations in our environment, we can end up using our survival states (fight, flight, freeze) to manage our daily functioning.

To sum up, when we feel safe in the world, we feel calm, alert, and our heart rate is regulated, and we have what is called “good vagal tone”. This is known as high vagal tone and is affiliated with the optimal functioning of many of our bodily systems including cardiac health, mood, and digestion. When we do not feel safe in the world, we are tense, stressed, agitated, numb, spacey, and sleepy. This is known as low vagal tone which is associated with inflammatory conditions, low mood, and poor digestion.

Healing Through Embodiment

Disembodiment is a natural way to manage stress or resolve pain or suffering when our resources are limited. We distract through work, television, phones, eating – anything to move away from the present moment and the body. Until we can’t. Our symptoms are the most helpful indicators of how the nervous system is operating and how disembodied we are in a given moment. Healing Through Embodiment requires that we re-associate with the body rather than dragging it along for the ride – that we look curiously at our symptoms, that we learn the language of the body and the nervous system, and that we empower ourselves as the guides in our journey towards health and resilience.

Find more information on Polyvagal Theory below as you continue with Healing Through Embodiment:

“Through a polyvagal lens, we understand that actions are automatic and adaptive, generated by the autonomic nervous system well below the level of conscious awareness – with this new awareness, the door opens to compassion.”

― Deborah A. Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation