Updated: Mar 2, 2020
We all know what it feels like to walk into a job interview, or onto a stage, or before some other big personal challenge with a racing heart, dry mouth, and sweaty palms. We also all probably know the sweet, slow pleasure that we have after an amazing massage, yoga class, lovemaking session, or nap. But what is actually happening for us on a physiological level? How do we interact with the wild animal of our nervous systems to bring ourselves down from fight or flight? How do we access more yummy feelings of safety and connection? And is there a way to shake ourselves up and out of a depressed or dissociated state?
I know I feel much more empowered when I understand what I'm dealing with, which is why I want to offer you education and tools. This post will be chock full of practical knowledge, science, and life hacks to help you understand your body’s survival responses and some suggestions for ways you can influence your experience.
SCIENCE! (My favorite)
Our nervous system is made up of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS engages when we need to be excited (this is often referred to as fight or flight, but it can be any kind of excitement or focus, large or small), whereas the PNS kicks into high gear when we need to relax (often called rest and digest, which is pretty accurate). These two systems are in a state of balance most of the time. For example, inhaling activates the SNS and exhaling activates the PNS, which is why taking long slow breaths where the exhale is longer than the inhale tends to calm you down. The SNS and PNS are largely controlled by the Vagus Nerve, called the wandering nerve (read: vagabond) because it travels down from the brain and innervates pretty much every major organ group. This is how it can quickly and accurately do things like this:
You are walking down the street at night in an unfamiliar city. You see a shadow move out of the corner of your eye, moving slowly toward you. Your gut clenches, your heartbeat is suddenly pounding in your ears, and your eyes are wide and searching the darkness. Your SNS is shunting the blood from your digestive system to your extremities, and signaling your heart to start pumping blood fast to bathe your muscles in oxygen in preparation for you to either fight or flee. It is also drying out the mucous membranes in your mouth, nose, and throat to allow you to breathe more easily and flooding your bloodstream with chemicals to increase your strength and pain tolerance. It is partially shutting down the higher logic centers in your brain in order to let the more instinctual animal parts to take over - this is important because when a car is bearing down on you you don’t need to know the make, model, and color, but rather you need to get the heck out of the way as fast as possible. In other words, all available energy goes into survival.
The figure moves out of the shadows as your body tenses for action and suddenly you realize this person is smiling at you. A glance at their face shows no trace of malice or danger, and in fact you think you see recognition on their features. There is a moment of bewilderment where your body questions the appropriate response, and then the social engagement system (part of the PNS) overrides the fight or flight response and you realize that this is a long lost buddy from ages ago. Your body floods with relief, trembling a little bit, and you step forward to greet your old friend.
As you saw above, these systems work by diverting resources from one another. The blood flow, energy, and chemicals necessary to sustain a stress response pretty much shut down our “rest and digest” function, which includes seriously inhibiting our access to meaningful human connection, feelings of satisfaction, and proper long-term organ function, to name a few. Those are things we don’t need as we are running away from a tiger in the wild or a shadow in a dark alleyway. It makes sense. We use up a huge amount of energy engaging in a brief burst of self-preservation and either we make it to safety, in which case the stress response resolves and we can go on with normal life, or we don’t, so it doesn’t really matter. In an evolutionary sense, it is extremely intelligent design. In the world we live in today, it often leads to suffering.
See the thing is, in these modern times, stress isn’t just in reaction to physical threat anymore. Those deadlines, that never-ending fight with your partner, remembering that awful thing that happened to you - all of these engage a survival response, and usually in a far more chronic pattern. These survival mechanisms are adapted for short bursts of danger, not sustained stress. Depression/anxiety, insomnia, gastrointestinal distress, and cardiac problems are some of the many maladies linked to chronic stress. Does that stress you out?
In a world filled with constant stressors, alarmist news, and social pressure to perform at 100%, perfectly, all the time, where do we find the time and space to return to normal? What even is normal? Isn’t it selfish to go slowly and take time for oneself when there’s so much wrong in the world and so much to do?
Nope. Nope nope nope. I am firmly of the belief that your self-care comes first. The work you create, the relationships you foster, the way you care for the world, are all dependent upon you having enough internal resources to do so. And all of these things create ripples throughout time and space. On a planet of six billion it is easy to think you don’t matter, but you do.
So let's talk about how you can recognize when to take care of yourself and what will be available to you when you do.
Image courtesy of worthit2beme
The Window of Tolerance refers to the range of optimal arousal where you have access to connection, creativity, and balance. Within this state you are capable of learning new things, adapting to challenges, and experiencing the range of human emotion (joy, grief, etc.) while not becoming overwhelmed by the ride. It is kind of where all of the yummy parts of life live.
Too much activation leads to hyperarousal, where we lose touch with the capacity to self-regulate, use logic, or be in healthy relationship with ourselves and others. This dysregulation is where the fight/flight response lives. Hyperarousal doesn’t always feel bad, either. For example, addiction is often contingent upon feelings of intensity, euphoria, and a loss of the ego-self that are found within this zone. Sensation-seekers and "adrenaline junkies" love the intensity of inhabiting this state. We also tend to privilege intensity as a culture, hence the triple-shot latte phenomenon and 80 hour workweeks.
Below the window of tolerance lives the hypoarousal state, which is more of a dissociative kind of existence. In an evolutionary sense and at its very extreme, it is what is engaged when fighting and fleeing don’t work. It helps the organism enter a state where pain is blunted in preparation for being eaten. Shock is a type of acute hypoarousal that we often see after trauma. However, folks can live completely functional lives in a lightly hypoaroused state, albeit while constantly feeling depressed, disconnected, and fragmented.
It is also important to mention that different people have different windows of tolerance. For one person, rollercoasters may be perfectly fun, whereas for another simply the idea of watching a rollercoaster puts them into palpitations. Both realities are valid. This is something to hold in mind when we are in conflict with one another. Remember to keep checking in to make sure your counterpart is within their window, and try to keep yourself within your own. This is where conflict is productive and learning is possible. If one or both of you is too much in your fight or flight, or if someone is so flooded they are dissociating, you are not constructively building relationship. Co-regulation is the key here.
So what things balance your nervous system?
Social engagement: being with people you like and feel safe around lowers your blood levels of stress hormones and increases your immune response. We are still pack animals, at the end of the day.
Breathwork: Slow inhales all the way down into your belly and even slower exhales, emptying out as much lung capacity as you comfortably can.
Orienting to your environment: look at the world around you. Twisting your neck and turning your head does two things: it physically massages your vagus nerve, bringing it back into normal tone, and the wandering eye movement communicates to your brain that you are ready to be in curiosity instead of fear, bringing your thinky-thinky parts back online. You don’t appreciate the art of landscaping when you’re fighting for your life. This is called top-down processing and is especially good for recovering from dissociation.
Bringing your awareness to your own body: (practice session) Notice all of the places your body touches the seat you are on. Take your time. Notice how it supports your back. Really let yourself be held and supported here. Notice the feel of your palms against your thighs. Notice each one of your toes as they rest on the ground. Can you feel your heartbeat? What about your breath on your upper lip as it enters and exits your nose? This kind of exercise, and really any kind of mindfulness, turns your attention from threat appraisal into current-moment sensation and safety.
Hum and sing. Creating vibrations also helps to normalize the tone of the vagus nerve. Low, deep, and sustained pitches appear to be the most helpful. Think foghorn.
Be well-rested and well-fed whenever possible.
Treat yourself with compassion.
There are pages and pages more that want to be written about this topic, but I’ll leave you with this for now. What questions do you have? What memories or sensations does this evoke in you? Are you ready to begin or deepen a practice of balance in your life?
Not done? For more delicious science you can learn more by searching for Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory and Pat Ogden's Sensorimotor Therapy.