How Do the Habits of High Performance Fit Within the Polyvagal Theory?

The skills and habits of optimal human performance have been well established, particularly in competitive sports domains.  These include primarily mind based skills of meditation and mindset training, as well as primarily body skills of recovery, exercise, nutrition, hydration, and sleep.  These skills have been well understood for many years.  More recently, the principles of the Polyvagal Theory have been integrated into the realm of human performance (for more details see the prior article).  How do the skills of human high performance and the principles of Polyvagal Theory combine and integrate?

As it turns out, there is a very close relationship between the high performance skills and the core concepts of Polyvagal Theory.  Ultimately, each of the habits typically developed to promote human performance function towards aspects of Polyvagal Theory.  The optimal physiological state for human performance is a blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state (referred to as the Play Zone), within which flow state is expressed.  The mind based and body based habits, considered the bedrock of human performance, lead either to gaining access to the Play Zone or to increase time spent in the Play Zone.  At their core, this is how these habits serve to optimize human performance.

While the high performance habits may be categorized as either mind based or body based, the reality is that there is no such distinct separation between that which is mind or body based.  The mind and body function together as ‘two way traffic’, although sometimes the ‘traffic’ runs predominantly in one direction or another.  When viewed through a polyvagal lens, we can see how this bi-directional traffic reflects our experience and how the high performance habits serve to gain access to preferred physiological states or increase the time spent in that state.

To better understand how the high performance skills apply to the principles of polyvagal theory, we can examine how each habit applies to the function of accessing or maintaining our preferred physiological state.  An introduction to and overview of this relationship between high performance habits and the fundamentals of Polyvagal Theory will be presented.

Meditation, in particular mindfulness training, serves many purposes, not the least of which is to develop our ability for awareness of internal and external events.  This awareness is crucial to the identification of our polyvagal physiological states.  Without such identification, we are not able to determine if we are in a preferred state and, therefore, if necessary modulate our state towards one we would prefer.  In addition, mindfulness allows for better and more rapid identification of thoughts, sensations, and feelings as well as improved attention.  Each of these can be used to improve our recognition of physiological state and ability to direct our attention towards our habits of safety in order to modulate our state.

Mindset training, including skills such as optimism, refocusing, and confidence also interact in important ways with the principles of Polyvagal Theory.  From a polyvagal perspective, it is unlikely that our thoughts and mindset skills would be able to be applied sufficiently quickly to override our neuroception, which occurs rapidly and beneath conscious awareness.  These skills can, however, be used to help shift our state after we acknowledge our physiological state, such as identifying thoughts and feelings of safety.  In addition, these skills can help us maintain our state by providing additional cues of safety during, between, and in advance of events.  Due to the presence of the physiological state as an intervening variable, the more safety we can develop in advance of an event, the higher the likelihood we will be in a ventral state or the Play Zone, thereby better allowing us to maintain that state in the face of high demands.

Predominantly body based skills, such as nutrition, hydration, and exercise, also apply to the concepts of the Polyvagal Theory.  In particular nutrition and hydration provide our physiology with the necessary building blocks to optimize our minds and body such that we reduce cues of threat resulting from malnutrition and dehydration and also are in a more optimal physiological state to maintain our preferred polyvagal state.

Sleep and recovery are important habits in order to optimize our physiological state.  These habits promote improved resilience and restoration following high demand activities to ensure our bodies and minds are in an optimal state for upcoming events.  A lack of adequate recovery and sleep provides a cue of threat to our nervous system, whereas sufficient amounts of sleep and recovery lead to improved heart rate variability and increased resilience within our nervous system to manage upcoming demands.

In essence, through the development of the habits of high performance in conjunction with neural exercises to train vagal efficiency and vagal break, we are better able to influence the function of our autonomic nervous system, thereby better modulating our physiological states towards what is most preferred and adaptive for the current situation.

It can be readily recognized through this overview that there is a close relationship between high performance skills and Polyvagal Theory.  In fact, each of the high performance habits function through their impact related to the concepts of Polyvagal Theory.  In order to fully realize the objectives of The Healthcare Athlete, including promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance, it is ideal to understand and apply the concepts of Polyvagal Theory and to develop the habits of high performance through the lens of Polyvagal Theory.

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