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While the human mind is powerful, a unified consideration of mind-based and body-based processes is essential in the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.
A polyvagal informed perspective provides a unified understanding regarding how our mind and body function together in response to the internal and external cues we encounter and how this, in turn, impacts our biology. A key element underlying the polyvagal informed paradigm is the integration of the mind-based and body-based processes. There is a recognition that they are not separate, rather they each impact the other. This is a critically important concept because we function in all capacities as a single entity. We are not siloed and separated between our mind and body.
From my perspective, what is commonly missed in the present day discussion of skills of human high performance is this important unification between mind and body. Frequently, there is discussion of mind-based skills as though they are separate from the body. Similarly, there is description of body-based skills as though they are not influenced by the mind or are not able to impact the mind. This dichotomy is false.
In reality, each is able to be affected by the other and, in turn, to influence the other. In order to most closely reach our potential in any area of life, it is necessary that we embody the principles and practices of a polyvagal informed paradigm. It is through adoption of such a perspective that we are best able to unify our mind and body and implement the respective skills and strategies of each. This includes the important understanding that the effectiveness of these skills and strategies will not necessarily be equal across all situations. For this reason, it is important to develop as large a toolbox of strategies as possible so that we have many available resources to employ in order to obtain the needed effect.
Given the currently prevailing narrative, it often can seem to be the case that the mind is prioritized over the body. There is no question that the human mind possesses significant power and influence. That said, the common cliché of ‘mind over body’ does not reflect the unified bidirectional function that is illustrated through the polyvagal informed paradigm. Given the frequency with which we encounter this, and similar clichés, it can become enticing to prioritize that which the mind may interpret over the body. The polyvagal informed paradigm, however, leads to the understanding that discordance between the mind and body does not lead to the desired outcome and, in fact, it is the process of neuroception within the nervous system that commonly will become dominant. As such, an attempt to utilize the mind to overcome the body will commonly result in shifts in biological states towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. This typically is not conducive to pursuing health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance, particularly if it is sustained over time.
Integrating this understanding within a practical application is important to illustrate the point further. The human brain functions to identify patterns and, essentially, to make sense out of the cues that we encounter. In effect, the brain will generate an existing or develop a new story or narrative to understand that which we experience. Typically, these stories are generated so quickly that we can easily mistake the story for the experience, leading to identification with the story and assessment that the narrative is reflective of reality. From a polyvagal perspective, our brain will generate a story in order to explain how we are feeling, in essence to make sense out of the bodily sensations we are experiencing at the time.
This understanding is particularly important when we are in sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. In such circumstances, the predominant function of our mind is to contribute towards protection and/or survival. These are the hallmark goals of these states. In such situations, the narratives which are likely to be determined by the mind are those which will firstly explain the feelings of protection or survival being experienced within the body and, secondarily, to provide an explanation for these sensations which serves to provide protection for us.
When a protection or survival narrative is developed within the brain, there are certain characteristics of these stories which are reflective of the underlying biological state. The ability of our brain to consider alternative explanations and to dispute the narrative that is created is significantly reduced, if not lost completely. In effect, the story which may be told may not consider all factors and may not reflect many factual elements. The story may not be consistent with our actual values, passion, purpose, or philosophy. The narrative may well be effective in protecting us in that particular moment; however this may result in decreased social engagement, further promoting protective and survival states. It can be appreciated that a negative cycle can quickly be created and become self-reinforcing.
Due to the mind-based hallmarks of these states, our ability to utilize the commonly described mind-based skills and strategies are reduced. Inherent within the nature of these states, our capacity to consider alterative explanations, to dispute our stories, to be optimistic, as examples, are all substantially reduced. As the primary goal becomes protection and survival, we may lose alignment with our values, passion, purpose, and philosophy. Inconsistencies between our perceptions and interpretations of events within these narratives compared to an external reality may be evident. In combination, these characteristics may lead us to believe a certain course of action is needed, however it is not reflective of all relevant factors.
It is important to recognize that our brains our wired and biased towards protection and survival states due to evolutionary pressures. This is not our fault or choice. It is simply the byproduct of evolution. Particularly in pre-historic times, if we did not identify a potential threat, it may well have led to our demise and inability to propagate our genes. For this reason, there must be an intentional and deliberate process in order to work with our biology and not become locked in protection and survival states when these states are not needed.
The question then becomes how best to avoid the scenario in which we become stuck in these states. This begins with developing the ability to identify our biological states and then implement skills and strategies to shift our state towards one that is more in alignment with our values, passion, purpose, philosophy and preferred given the current situation. These capabilities have been described in further detail in previous articles. For the reasons described above, when in protection and survival states, it is often the case that mind-based skills will be less effective in shifting towards ventral vagal stabilized states. In particular, this is due to the reduced cognitive capacity inherent within the sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. In essence, while in these states it can be beneficial to not identify with the mind-based narrative and ‘not believe the hype’ generated by our mind. It can be helpful to start with body-based skills in order to increase ventral vagal activation and then once our biology begins to shift, employ mind-based skills.
Identification of the mind-based and body-based hallmarks of these protection and survival states is important. In addition, once such states are recognized, it is important to not identify with the narrative being told by our brain and, in particular, avoid making significant decisions while in such states. Given the limited and constricted capacity of our mind and the resulting impact on our decision making ability in such states, any actions made from these states may not reflect that which is of most importance to us or that which is most in alignment with our values, passion, purpose, and philosophy.
By embodying a polyvagal informed paradigm, we are best positioned to work with our biology in alignment with that which is of most importance to us. Through the development of polyvagal informed mind-based and body-based skills and strategies, we are able to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance to the greatest degree. This is the philosophy of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.
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Dana, D. Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.
Porges, SW. Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2021.
Porges, SW. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.