Application of Polyvagal Theory

The previous article provided an overview of polyvagal theory.  Once we develop an understanding of the principles, the next question becomes how do we incorporate these concepts and live a polyvagal informed life?

The next consideration, building from the foundation presented within the description of polyvagal theory, is the application of the theory in our lives. While this is an extensive process requiring training of specific skills, it begins with two fundamental skills: those which help us recognize our current physiological state and those which help us to modify or modulate our state.  Let’s start with the identification of physiological state.

To review, there are six possible physiological states, each with their specific bodily sensations and mind based manifestations.  The primary states are ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal and there are blended states between each of the three primary states.  The physiology and psychology of each state can be adaptive to the situation if those traits serve to help us manage the current situation or they can be detrimental to our ideal response to the current situation.  This underscores why it is necessary to be able to identify our current state so that we can determine whether or not it would be beneficial to modulate our state.

The skills needed to identify our physiological state start with an understanding of the physical and psychological sensations, thoughts, and feelings that are associated with each of the six states, particularly the three primary states.  This includes our breathing pattern, our muscle tone, facial features, voice features, thought patterns and feelings.  A useful exercise is to identify our traits of each of these categories for each physiological state.  This knowledge allows us to more readily recognize our current state.

The second required skill for identification of physiological state is awareness.  This requires the ability to be present and recognize the factors described above.  If we are not in the present moment, it is not possible to recognize the physiological or psychological features of these states.  It is also necessary that this recognition be without judgement.  We want to identify our physiological state and accept whatever that state may be at that time without any self-criticism.  Awareness can be developed through a mindfulness practice as well as through taking time to identify, in a detailed fashion, objects in our immediate environment and sensations within our body.

The next category of skills required for applying polyvagal theory in our lives is the ability to modify or modulate our current physiological state.  If we are in the midst of an activity for which a blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state is optimal and we recognize that we are in a purely sympathetic state, we would like to have the skills necessary to adjust our state.  This applies across all conceivable states.  The ability of recognize our current state is essential, but of limited benefit, if we are not able to subsequently modulate our state as needed.  Similarly, developing skills to modulate our state is of limited utility if we are not able to accurately identify our state.

The ability to modulate physiological states requires substantial practice and must be developed over time through specific skill training.  Ideally this training is done in a ventral vagal state.  There are numerous strategies which can be used to modify our physiological state.  Such strategies include changing facial features, muscle tone, use of our voice or sense of sound, and others.  Perhaps the most powerful and readily available strategy is using our breathing.  Breathing is particularly effective in modulating our physiological state because of its direct relationship to our heart rate and the vagus break.  In addition, breathing can be used to identify our state and to train our vagal efficiency.  The type of breathing pattern and physiology that we choose to employ is dependent upon our current physiological state and the preferred state, to which we would like to modify.  Continuing the example from above, if we want to modulate from a sympathetic state to a blended sympathetic-ventral vagal state, we should employ diaphragmatic breathing through our nose with prolonged exhalation.

The ability to recognize and modulate our physiological state is a foundational aspect of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.  In order to promote health, wellbeing and sustainable high performance it is essential to be able to access our preferred performance state, which is reflected by our physiological state.  Our autonomic nervous system is the foundation of all of our experiences and our ability to perform to our capability.  We can make the choice to develop skills to identify and modulate our physiological states or we can leave it up to chance.  However health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance are not achieved randomly or by chance.  The more we are able to work with our nervous system, the better chance we have to express our fullest potential and be at our best for ourselves and those around us.

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