Acknowledging The Situation

Developing the ability to acknowledge internal, external, and relational cues without judgement or attachment is a fundamental attribute of the polyvagal informed paradigm.

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A fundamental skill involved with embodying the polyvagal informed paradigm is the recognition and acknowledgement of the current biological state.  This has been described in past articles and includes the ability to utilize awareness and attention control to identify which of the primary or blended biological states we are experiencing in any given moment.  This knowledge can then be utilized to determine whether or not we would benefit from employing previously trained skills and strategies to shift our biological state.  As can be appreciated, this capacity requires two distinct skillsets.  The first is awareness of our current state and the second is development of skills and strategies to shift our state.  Together these attributes are comprised within the polyvagal informed toolbox.

The importance of acknowledgement of our current biological state can be extended to the other two sources of cues and stimuli, specifically our external environment and our relationships with others.  These three pathways, namely internal, external, and relational are also the same three areas from which our neuroception detects the cues within our experience.  The ability to acknowledge the state across each of these three pathways is critical to the full embodiment of a polyvagal informed perspective as our entire experience is comprised across these three domains.

Michael Allison describes this capacity as the ability to meet our body and the situation where it is.  As he discusses, this applies to our internal experience, including our current biological state, as well as the external situation and the relational interactions we may have at any given time.  As he illustrates, it is not only the ability to identify the current state or situation but the ability to do so with as little criticism, judgement, or attachment to a particular narrative as possible that is especially important.  In his paradigm, the current state is a piece of information that can be utilized to understand our current internal situation, that of those around us, or to recognize the environmental scenario in which we are present.  By avoiding attachment to a story or judgmental interpretations of these cues, we are better able to avoid becoming stuck in sympathetic or dorsal vagal states and, rather, employ the necessary skills and strategies to shift our state to one which is desired in the situation.  Furthermore, we are able to accomplish this with greater compassion for ourselves and others.

This ability to recognize the current situation and to do so without criticism or judgment is commonly described within the mindfulness paradigm.  Within this perspective, the concept of noting is employed.  Many mindfulness meditation teachers illustrate the fundamental ability to note thoughts and sensations without judgement and then to let them pass without becoming attached to them.  This very much maps to the polyvagal informed paradigm of acknowledgment of the current physiological state and external situation.  There is, however, an added benefit of the polyvagal informed paradigm.  This perspective provides additional and actionable strategies to shift our biological state after recognizing it in the present moment.  The mindfulness perspective does not provide similar specific strategies once, for example, thoughts or sensations have been noted.  The additional skills provided through the polyvagal paradigm are highly relevant, particularly in situations in which we have shifted into sympathetic or dorsal vagal states and would like to shift into a ventral vagal stabilized state.

From my perspective, the additional skills and strategies to manage our current biological state form the essential component to what George Mumford describes as the space between stimulus and response. Through his description of this concept, Mumford illustrates that in order to truly unlock ourselves in the pursuit of being our best, it is necessary to enter the space between a stimulus to which we are exposed and our subsequent response.  The idea being that in order to best respond to whatever we encounter we should avoid a spontaneous reaction and rather take the necessary time to consider how best to respond.  The ability to accomplish this, from the polyvagal informed perspective, is optimized through ventral vagal stabilization in order to utilize the cognitive skills to consider our best response.  It is the polyvagal informed paradigm that best provides an actionable framework from which to enter this space between stimulus and response, as described by George Mumford.  By acknowledging the situation for what it is and then shifting our biological state as necessary, we are best able to enter the space to which Mumford alludes.

Through the application of this paradigm, we are less likely to attach to narratives, judgments, and critiques which may accompany internal, external, and relational stimuli.  By employing the framework described by Michael Allison and considering these cues as information about our internal biological state or that of those around us, we are better able to approach these situations with compassion and avoid labeling ourselves and others on the basis of the current biological state and its emergent characteristics, which may not reflect our true intentions or desires.  By avoiding these judgments and critiques we are also better positioned to employ skills and strategies from our polyvagal informed toolbox to shift our biological state as we desire.  This will not only benefit ourselves but also, through co-regulation, those around us.

It is important to recognize that, as humans, we will not always be optimally successful in the application of this paradigm.  This is normal and unavoidable.  In fact, the acknowledgment and attempt to embody this framework also applies in such situations.  Rather than judge or criticize ourselves for not ideally implementing this paradigm, we can acknowledge the situation and accompanying biological state and re-attempt to implement this framework and recover from whatever may have occurred.

The capability to acknowledge the current situation is hugely applicable within healthcare situations.  Within such settings there are numerous internal, external, and relational cues which we regularly encounter.  Given the high demand nature of the healthcare setting, it can be easy to neurocept such situations as cues of uncertainty, risk, or threat thereby leading to shifts towards sympathetic and/or dorsal vagal states.  In addition, it can be easy to attach to explanations of these events as a reflection of who we are, who others may be, or the environment itself.  By developing the ability to recognize these cues as pieces of information and then utilize this to shift our biological state as needed, we can increase ventral vagal stabilization, thereby allowing cues of safety and connection to emerge.  This will naturally improve the situation for ourselves and those around us.  This will positively impact and benefit ourselves as well as those with whom we work and the patients we treat.

The application of this framework of acknowledging the situation and using the information emerging from the internal, external, and relational cues allows us to approach ourselves, those around us, and our environments with greater compassion.  It further assists us to reduce the extent to which we attach to narratives and stories which may not fully consider all aspects of a situation.  Taken together, this framework allows us to optimally pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the paradigm of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.  

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.

Dana, D.  Polyvagal Practices: Anchoring The Self in Safety.  New York:  W.W. Nortan & Company, 2023.

Mumford G.  The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance.  Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2016.

Mumford G.  Unlocked: Embrace Your Greatness, Find The Flow, Discover Success.  New York: HarperCollins, 2023.

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