The nervous system is integral to our ability to function in almost every way. It has two main elements: Central and Peripheral. The central nervous system is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord. It controls most functions of the body and the mind, including learning, memory, and voluntary movement. The peripheral nervous system is made up of our nerves that connect our spinal cord to all parts of our body and is responsible for involuntary actions.
The part of our peripheral nervous system that is responsible for our involuntary actions is called the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which include: Heart rate, narrowing or widening of blood vessels, pupil dilation, respiration, blood pressure, and sexual arousal. When we experience distressing or disturbing events, the ANS responds with increase or decreased heart rate, increased or decreased breathing, pupil dilation, and more. When this happens, our primal brain is activated as our higher functioning shuts down in an attempt to keep us safe.
In 1994, Dr. Stephen Porges introduced the concept of Polyvagal Theory to describe the role of the vagus nerve in emotional regulation, social connection, and fear response. “Poly” means “many” and “Vagal” means “wandering.” The vagus nerve wanders from the brainstem to the abdomen, with smaller cranial nerves connecting the vagus nerve to our ears, eyes, and top of head. The vagus nerve communicates information from the gut to the brain and plays a vital role in sleep, mood, pain, stress and hunger. Porges was able to identify the role of the vagus nerve as our social engagement system, where there is an an interplay of activation and calming that operates out of unique nerve influence and helps us to navigate relationships
Because we are social beings, we look to the environment for signs of safety. The amygdala scans the environment for threats, including judgment, incongruence, physical threats, and unknowns. When the lens of our perception senses any of these threats, our fight/flight response is activated. Although our nervous system is functioning automatically and is not connected to our thinking brain, we can consciously decide to pay attention to our internal state by noticing our sensations, breathing patterns, and emotions.If we follow the impulse into our thinking, we can easily develop narratives about other people that support our trauma response. Instead, if we learn to listen to our body’s sensations and honor the wisdom of what’s being communicated, a whole new paradigm emerges. Instead of looking to others, we can turn towards our Self and create an internal repair through conscious awake awareness. Shifting out of ordinary thinking and into awake awareness, we can choose, at will, to come home to our spiritual Self.
Nervous System Regulation Meditation: Day 1 of my Free online 21 Day series
Here are the 5 things you need to know about Spiritual Alignment and Polyvagal Regulation:
1. Higher functioning shuts down: During a traumatic experience, the brain shuts down all nonessential systems and activates the flight or fight response. To help us survive the trauma, the brain releases stress hormones and activates our primal brain to move us into action. The part of the brain that has been identified with higher states of consciousness and spiritual experiences, the parietal cortex, shuts down and we utilize strategies to find safety. If the threat continues for a long duration, eventually our brain releases opiate-like hormones to protect us from feeling the harm.
This is experienced as the freeze and fawn response. Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses can remain active long after the threat is gone. In the present moment, even when there is no threat, the mind can still perceive normal experiences as dangerous. When this happens, our thoughts our not based in present moment reality; somatically we feel discomfort in our body; and energetically we feel split from our spiritual alignment. We look to the ‘horizontal’ world of the third dimension for safety and feel split from our ‘vertical’ alignment with higher consciousness.
2. Trauma makes its way into our personality: Our conditioned patterns are an attempt at self regulation. When we are identified with our ordinary mind, we follow the impulses of the trauma response. When we stop engaging in our conditioned patterns, we feel the dysregulation beneath them.
- Fight: Controlling, Explosive, Narcissistic, Bullying.
- Flight: Workaholic, Over-Thinker, Anxiety, Panic, OCD, Restlessness, Perfectionist.
- Freeze: Confusion, indecision, Stuck, Numb, Isolating.
- Fawn: People Pleaser, Codependent, Lack of Identity, Boundaryless, Overwhelmed.
3. Regulation is not better than dysregulation: Regulation is important to rest, and dysregulation is important for integrating our deeper emotional experience. Most people resist or turn away from nervous system dysregulation. The impulse is to try to make the sensations go away through suppression. Many people try to “ground” or “settle” the nervous system before really attuning and listening to it. Trusting that the design of our nervous system has its own innate intelligence, we turn towards the sensations and learn from them.Although a regulated state is more pleasant than a dysregulated state, both are necessary for our ability to be embodied, integrated, and aligned. Regulation allows for rest and clarity. Dysregulation allows for integration and processing past experiences. Being available for our bodily sensations as each wave of experience occurs allows us to stay within our window of tolerance, where there is a combination of arousal an internal support.
4. Healthy social engagement is healing: Before polyvagal theory, our nervous system was pictured as a two-part antagonistic system between calm and activated. Polyvagal theory identified a third type of nervous system response called the social engagement system. The social engagement system is an an interplay of activation and calming that operates out of unique nerve influence and helps us to navigate relationships. Polyvagal theory asserts that emotional regulation is a collaborative process that engages the social nervous system of two or more people. When we enhance our connection with other people, we trigger neural circuits in our bodies that calm the heart, relax the gut, and turn off the fear response. By engaging in loving relationships with presence and awareness, we can increase our sense of well-being and engaged in the greater experience of being alive. This is the beauty of our interconnection.
5. Healthy touch is Healing (Vagus Nerve Massage): Although it’s important to learn to become available for the messages from our nervous system, finding ways to move through experiences of activation can support us in accessing higher states of consciousness and spiritual alignment. When we contract around our dysregulation, our life force cannot flow in alignment with our True Self. Massaging the vagus nerve can offer you a soothing tool to be with yourself lovingly. Begin by placing your fingertips on the top of your head. Get firm contact that is not too hard or deep. It should feel good. Slide your fingers down the side of your head, around both sides of your ears, down the sides of your neck, towards your sternum and then belly. Use your breath. Repeat as many times as you like. Follow this link for a guided practice: Vagus nerve massage
Seigal, D. (2022). IntraConnected: MWe (Me + We) as the Integration of Self, Identity, and Belonging. W.W. Norton and Company.
Dana, D. & Porges, S. (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). Norton and Company.
Van der Kolk, (2014). The body keeps the score.