talking ventral: daily trainings for self-leadership

ventral vagal state counselling

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.

You are not your mind.

Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Psychological states in Autonomic Nervous System activation

I can’t

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.

I must

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.

I should

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).

I can

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.

I may

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.

Cultivating 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.

A bundle of nerves to rule them all: Unpacking the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve relates to our capacity to function as social beings through maintaining our emotional regulation, fear response and social connections. We all constantly cycle through stages of disconnection, mobilisation and social engagement.

Our Autonomic Nervous System adapts protection and connection from moment to moment. For many people, patterns of protection can compromise their social engagement system.

This article highlights some neuro-physiological explanations (polyvagal theory) for why we are often not smooth and balanced. It also addresses ways to regulate and staying connected.

Read Part 2 of my polyvagal theory article here …

What is so special about the vagus nerve?

The vagus nerve connects the brain with the heart and other major organs and runs on autopilot without requiring intervention. This system regulates our heartbeat, breathing and other autonomous body functions such as digestion, body temperature and sexual arousal.

“… These stages reflect the emergence of three distinct subsystems, which are phylogenetically ordered and behaviourally linked to social communication (e.g., facial expression, vocalization, …), mobilization (e.g., fight-or-flight), and immobilization (e.g. feigning death and behavioural shutdown). 

Porges, Stephen W. (2010). The Polyvagal Theory.

Vagal branches are related to unique adaptive behavioural strategies that are essential for our survival. These strategies developed in three stages from immobilisation to mobilisation to social communication.

As part of the autonomic nervous system, it is triggering the human defence mechanism that consists of fight, flight and freeze when there is danger or perceived threat.

It stimulates the body’s response when put under STRESS and it goes into shut-down mode when overwhelmed. However, our stress response is essential for survival, but needs to be tamed to enable social engagement.

How to understand your states of arousal?

The human survival mechanism is an integral part of our physiology. As such, the ability to sense and identify danger is inherently a valuable tool in our biological makeup and is termed “neuroception“.

However, due to experienced trauma for example, the brain can map irregular associations resulting in a dysregulated nervous system. The first step, then is to recognise that this is happening.

“Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection.”

Dana, Deb (2018). The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Paying attention to states of arousal is vital, either in the moment or retrospectively. Consciously acknowledging when you experience one of the three defence mechanisms can make all the difference.

If you find yourself uncharacteristically defensive (fight), feeling the overwhelming need to escape from a situation (flight), or rooted to the spot in a blind panic (freeze), it’s essential to understand the reasons behind these reactions.

Psychology and physiology merge in stages of the vagus nerve

Social Engagement or Ventral Vagal state

My clients easily relate to the different stages of their vagal activation which can be described in terms of body and mind. The ventral vagal activation is represented by an open mind (“I may”, “may you be happy”) and an orientation towards others and the environment (posture, tone of voice, feeling warm).

Sympathetic Arousal state

Sympathetic arousal is reported as an increasingly narrowed mind with thoughts about taking action ranging from “I can” to “I should” to “I must” and simultaneously from feeling concerned/activated to anxious/angry to panic-fuelled/acting up. Body sensations include elevated heart rate, heavy breathing and feeling hot.

Overwhelmed or Dorsal Vagal state

When the system becomes overwhelmed the dorsal vagal state of “I can’t” (“I collapse”, “I shut down”) takes over and clients of mine report to withdraw, self-medicate or zone out. This state is also characterised by a lack of connection, presence and self-control.

Due to the nature of the nervous system, we can feel each of these responses in varying degrees. A workaholic may have an active “flight” response, feeling a need to keep busy and seemingly unable to slow down. In someone else, a flight response may result in addictions – fleeing from emotions by making them go away with substances. 

Once identified, we can then understand what triggered the episode. Try to determine what happened immediately before the incident. Was it a comment, a specific tone of voice that someone used? Perhaps a smell or a particular situation made you feel overwhelmed.

Using polyvagal theory in coaching and counselling

In these three short videos I explain how we deviate from the social engagement system under stress. The second video highlights the psychological states going hand in hand with nervous arousal. The third video explores how we can detect freeze and collapse states.

How to cultivate the social engagement system?

We can take some steps to regulate and manage our nervous system. With a bit of practice using exercises that calm the nervous system and target the vagus nerve, we can maintain a healthy emotional balance.

In order to improve emotional wellbeing, it is important to understand how both internal and external factors impact mental health. Start by looking at your immediate surroundings. What elements spark joy for you? What aspects of your environment make you feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed? Think about what you can do to improve this environment. 

Inner state

Even more important than the external environment is the internal struggle. One problem you may face is an abundance of self-criticism, overthinking and perfectionism. Practice snapping out of negative mental loops by

  • Simply letting your experience be: When you stub your toe, pause and feel the pain. No need to express it, stay with it – it is already there.
  • Simply letting go of any add-on experience: When you stub your toe, there is no need for anger, no need for cursing, no need for writing a screenplay about it.
  • Simply develop a more helpful attitude: When you stub your toe, pause and change your attitude. Does the leg of the kitchen table ask you to be more cautious or even to refurbish?

Direct stimulation

Directly Stimulating the vagus nerve can have tremendous effects on your reaction to stress. Breathing practices, yoga, physical movement, humming or singing, grounding exercises or working with temperature changes can all be valuable tools to help regulate your body when you catch yourself in a fight, flight or freeze response.

There is a wealth of information available for a more in-depth explanation of polyvagal theory and methods you can use to improve emotional well-being. Deb Dana has written an informative and helpful book on the subject, called “The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy.” Irene Lyon runs an exceptional YouTube channel outlining methods for improving mental health.