In the last blog, we talked about Polyvagal Theory. If you’re back, I didn’t scare you off with the science stuff. In brief, our autonomic nervous system has three states: dorsal vagal (Down in a Hole), sympathetic nervous system (Superman on High Alert), and ventral vagal (Victory). It is important to know what the three states are and how they feel to us individually.
And we took care of all that last week! So if we think of the three states as being on a ladder – as suggested by Deb Dana in her book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy – how do we move up the ladder?
First, we don’t jump from the bottom to the top of the ladder. We go up or down one rung at a time. It’s important to realize that we aren’t going to suddenly become joyful if we are depressed.
However, there are a bunch of things that we can do to help move our autonomic nervous system to the ventral vagal state. These things can also help us stay there. I’ve already implemented several and feel that my mental state is much improved. Here is a list:
1. Breath/Meditation. Emotions and respiration are linked. We can influence our emotions by paying attention to our breath. We become mindful and focus only on our breath in the moment. Deep, full breaths help us calm down and move to the ventral vagal state. Note: A deep, full breath starts with a complete exhale to empty the lungs.
Meditation is another form of mindfulness. One meditation, in particular, has tons of research about its benefits for the person meditating and the person the meditator is concentrating on. You can read about it here and also find lots of guided loving-kindness meditations if you search online. Know that regular practice of the loving-kindness meditation can have a profound effect on your health and mental well-being.
2. Sound/Music. Pleasant sounds can improve our mood and outlook. It’s fun to figure out what makes us feel more positive. I like the sound of a babbling brook. I had a candle that was also a small fountain, and I miss its soothing sound. I am looking for another one.
Music is especially powerful. I asked my leadership workshop participants to send me a song that lifted their spirits, and I created a playlist. I enjoy some of the songs that they sent. Others just don’t do it for me. I find that our choice of music that moves us up the autonomic nervous system ladder is very individual. There isn’t one song for everyone.
I do have a happy playlist on my phone. I add to it every time I hear a song that energizes me. When I need some motivation, I listen to my happy songs. Never try to rationalize your choice of songs. If it makes your heart feel lighter, it’s good. I have Barry Manilow and disco on my list. No one gets to judge your happy playlist!
Singing music is another way to lift your spirits. There is research that we connect with each other when we sing together. COVID-19 has put a damper on that for now, but keep it in mind. Singing in the church choir is good for your spirit and your autonomic state.
3. Temperature. This one is new to me. When I was firmly ensconced in the sympathetic nervous system state, I was cold much of the time. Turns out, that’s not uncommon. I have an electric throw blanket that I keep by my favorite chair. The warmth of the blanket is also heartwarming; its comfort helps us up a rung or two on the ladder.
4. Nature. No one can say exactly why, but humans are rejuvenated when in nature. It doesn’t have to be bug-filled, scary nature deep in the woods. It can just be a tree or a houseplant.
When I first moved into my condo, it felt like a hotel room. After months of living here, it still didn’t feel like home. Then I started adding plants. I now have a lot of plants, and I love them! I remember the day that I came home, unconsciously bracing for the resistance I felt at calling the condo home. I opened the door and saw all of the plants. I felt my shoulders relax, which is a sure sign that I am moving up the ladder towards the ventral vagal state.
5. Art/Creative Endeavors. The feeling of being in flow when engrossed in some sort of creative activity is awesome. There is a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction for me. Somewhere I read about filling a space completely with color. It doesn’t matter how. I picked a large index card and had fun filling it with color. Here is one of my creations. It doesn’t have to be great art to help you feel great.
6. Movement. Research shows that walking for 30 minutes each day is more effective than taking medication for depression. Moving helps – even the smallest bit of motion! Stretching up to the ceiling each time that you stand can be a good start.
Honestly, in the beginning of regaining my positivity, movement seemed like too big a chore. It wasn’t until I’d enacted some of the other things and had begun to see a light at the end of the tunnel that I began to move.
I am currently doing Richard Hittleman’s Yoga: 28 Day Exercise Plan from a very old book. My mom and I used to do it in the summer. I feel so much better and stronger when I do some light stretching and exercise each day.
If you are an avid exerciser, I am preaching to the choir!
7. Smells. Smells of all kinds can create strong emotional reactions. Certain aromas can bring back a flood of memories. We also know that diffusing essential oils can encourage various states of mind. If you search online for essential oils that create a peaceful feeling, several come up over and over again. Ylang ylang, spearmint, and orange are just a few. I am a fan of Sacred Frankincense. It’s fun to sniff and blend to find a combo that relaxes your shoulders and makes you feel lighter.
8. Connection. I have saved the most powerful action for last. In order to reach and maintain the ventral vagal state, we need to feel a nurturing connection with others. Dana writes, “The autonomic nervous systems of two individuals find sanctuary in a co-created experience of connection.” Wow. Sanctuary. That is powerful.
I will confess to resisting the idea that I need others to create happiness for myself. Certainly, I enjoy my family and friends but didn’t think of them as an absolute necessity for my own sense of well-being. Well, biology has proven me wrong, and I accept it. Mostly because I intentionally reached out to others when I was feeling very low and, as a result, feel much better.
a. Circle of friends. One day my sister was talking about her friends and how she saw them in three circles. The closest circle are friends who live near her whom she sees often. The next circle is people she cares about, but who are more distant – geographically or emotionally. The third circle is mostly acquaintances. Then there are other people outside her three circles that she knows.
I decided to do that exercise on a piece of paper. I encourage you to do the same. I did mine a little differently. I started with all the friends who live near me, people that I can visit. In the second circle I put close friends who don’t live near me. They are people I talk with often. The third circle is people I care about, but who I don’t see or talk with regularly. Everyone else is out there beyond my circles.
Then I started revising my lists. I only have about three people who are close friends who live near me. They went into their own inner circle. The rest of the geographically close people are ones who I want to nurture a closer friendship with.
In addition to being nurturing, a relationship must also be reciprocal in order to help us maintain the ventral vagal state. One of us may need more support for a time, and then the other. However, overall our relationship is balanced if we have reciprocity.
Look at the people in your circles. Does the relationship include heartfelt listening and responding? Is it balanced? Do you feel a nurturing sense of connection with this person? If the answer is no to any of these questions, chances are pretty good that they are not helping you maintain the ventral vagal state. Don’t depend on them for that.
If the answer is yes to all of them, reach out and connect with that person more often. Make time with them a priority. Your emotional state depends on it.
After I created my list, I got on the phone and made social-distance dates with two friends that I hadn’t seen in person for a while. Both were outside in nature – bonus. We sat six to eight feet from each other and had a great time chatting. I’ve kept up contacting people, and I cannot adequately describe how I feel now compared to how I was. My outlook is more positive, and I have more energy. People can help. Who knew?
b. Meet them where they are. It’s important to know that anyone stuck in either of the lower two states is missing a big chunk of their adult-thinking ability. In the ventral vagal state we are open-minded, creative, and capable of compassion and self-compassion. Those things are biologically unavailable to someone stuck in fight-or-flight. Once again – wow. It explains a lot of the behavior that we have been seeing since the pandemic started. Fear keeps us from listening fully and thinking clearly. Whether it’s someone in your circles or not, maintain some reasonable expectations if they are stuck in the sympathetic nervous system state.
c. Establish psychological safety. Every time that we have an interaction with someone, we ask, “Is it safe to engage with this person in this moment in this place?” We are asking if we feel psychologically safe. Anyone hanging out with me for any length of time knows that psychological safety is one of my favorite soapboxes. You can read a lot about psychological safety in my blogs.
Essentially, we want to tell others with our facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, and consistent, reasonable actions that we are safe to talk with and reliable.
d. Be the help. The balance that we are looking for when our ventral vagal system is in charge is called homeostasis. In order to achieve and maintain homeostasis, we need the help of others. Once we have managed to make a ventral vagal state our home base, we can help others achieve it. Our regulated autonomic nervous system can help others regulate theirs. It sounds cold and sciency, but it really means listening in a heartfelt way that supports others as they climb the autonomic nervous state ladder one rung at a time.
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