In this article Sebastian lays out some foundations of the polyvagal theory and explains ventral vagal activation. States range from curious-connected, to mobilised-stressed, to shutdown-overwhelmed. One state fuels self-leadership – the ventral vagal state.
This is a part 2 of my polyvagal article from 2021 which you can read by clicking here. It explains the psychological states in more detail with an emphasis on the Social Engagement or Ventral Vagal system.
Psychological states in Autonomic Nervous System activation
When we feel overwhelmed and find ourselves out of control and unable to cope. Too much is happening. We spiral into freeze or collapse. We feel perplexed, like the deer in the headlight. Or we shut down, zone out and lie flat. Some people in this state still function in their roles at work and in family, but operate bloodlessly without life energy.
When we are driven, on a mission and fixated to get something done – often at the cost of self-care, health, relationships, joy and kindness. We feel strongly activated, sometimes accomplishing tasks last minute (watch blog and video Procrastination-Monster). This state uses stress resources of the sympathetic system – aka fight before flight.
Every should you hear in your head is a sign of stress and inner conflict. The louder the should the more tension will build in the body. The more shoulds are nagging you, the harder it gets to stay focused and content. To do lists sprout in your mind. These lists often cause irritation and a sense of pressure mobilising the sympathetic system (DOING mode).
When we have options, feel in full control of our resources and generally have a grip on things. Think the first days and weeks after coming back from vacation. Getting out of bed is easy and the coffee tastes amazing. We manage us and others with clarity and body-mind connection.
This is the pure ventral vagal state in which we feel grounded, we are present with our Self and the world around us. When people – or dogs – experience our physical presence in this state, they want to connect and join in. Judging is unnecessary in this state of BEING.
You can find a diagram of the states by clicking here.
The Benefits of BEING
My clients often talk about the things they should do. Feeling challenged or overwhelmed by the obligations and unavoidable tasks in their roles and responsibilities. This indicates activation of the sympathetic system. It is a stress-response of the body – the fight-flight activation.
Mobilising the sympathetic system is necessary for us to carry out tasks. Planning, organising and executing tasks make us look good. However, when we over-do it our system might get overwhelmed and we might experience freeze or collapse. But let’s now focus on the state associated with self-leadership.
I want to show you how cultivating ventral vagal states in our nervous system is crucial for well-being and self-leadership. When we address what we can and may do, we activate our social engagement system (see below video at 3:44 “self activation”). Encountering others and ourselves in this state of curiosity and calm trains our capacity for self-leadership.
We can grow and strengthen our Self-Leadership by cultivating the social engagement system – aka ventral vagal state. Every time we are present, experience joy or a sense of groundedness in the body we activate this state. It also appears as stillness of the mind, when we are able to listen with compassion. It’s main characterisation is openness and curiosity toward whatever we encounter.
In the absence of threat – perceived or real – our nervous system evolved to add social skills and engagement. Ventral vagal activation of the facial muscles and voice production plays a significant role in our ability to connect and form relationships in a way only humans can. This is also the source of creativity, courage, confidence and clarity.
Awareness of polyvagal states
In order to tap into the source of self-leadership we first need to practice self-awareness. Becoming aware of the states as described above can help to start inner dialogues. By knowing where to place our attention, we can acknowledge our needs and manage our resources.
Let’s say for example that you want to practice awareness of breathing and soon find that some parts of your body feel tight and tense. When you become aware of the need to stretch, you can negotiate how and when to apply self-care without interfering with your meditation practice. Or you feel tired and the need to sleep can be negotiated with your need to netflix. Self-awareness is the attitude of noticing and turning towards experience in the moment.
Awareness of emotion
With self-awareness we also become aware of our emotional states. And the better we can detect and pinpoint Emotions, the better we can regulate body and mind. We can train to respond to anger, anxiety, shame or guilt in more skilful and less harmful ways.
Let’s say for example that you feel unfairly treated by an email from work. You feel furious, your breath is chesty, your jaw clenched and feel hot. Self-awareness acknowledges that anger has been triggered and that you can choose to take a timeout. There is no need to fuel the anger with negative thoughts or defensive behaviour.
Let your Self be in charge, not your anger.
Self-leadership lets the anger know that it sees it and hears it and that it understands how it feels to be unfairly treated. With self-leadership you will disengage from further escalation: knowing what truly matters to you in this case (i.e. to be acknowledged by colleagues for good work and reliability, etc.).
You may and can decide if, how and when to respond to the email. You are fully present with calm and compassion.