Flexibility and Resilience in the Nervous System

Developing flexibility within the nervous system is an important capacity in order to enhance health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. 

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We commonly encounter descriptions and discussions related to the concept of resilience.  In the usual context, this is synonymous with grit and indicates the capacity to persevere, particularly through difficult situations, over an extended duration of time.  Within the frequent conversations covering resilience is the recommendation to increase grit and resilience.  There are potentially trainable skills which translate to increased capacity in this regard.

When the concept of resilience is considered within the context of the nervous system, there is a different understanding which emerges.  Particularly from a polyvagal informed perspective, resilience relates to the ability to encounter high demand and high consequence situations while maintaining ventral vagal stabilization or, when dysregulation occurs, efficiently regaining regulation.  It can be appreciated that this understanding incorporates a recognition and awareness of biological state in order to maintain ventral vagal stabilization.  This paradigm incorporates the unified mind-body experience that unfolds when we encounter these high demand situations and provides a framework from which we can develop skills and strategies to increase our capacity to manage such scenarios.  This concept is also referred to as flexibility within the nervous system.

An important contrasting feature between the conceptualization of resilience from an everyday paradigm and the polyvagal perspective is important to identify.  The common description of resilience places a value, typically in an admirable fashion, on pursuit of objectives and perseverance through challenging times.  There is little, if any, recognition of the physiological state or awareness of the impact upon the body and mind.  While it is, no doubt, important to persevere through challenges, doing so without an integration of the impact on our biological state undermines our ability to pursue health and wellbeing, as well as sustainable high performance.  Ultimately, this often leads to a negative impact on our ability to pursue our goals or objectives. This recognition is a distinguishing and significant benefit of the polyvagal informed perspective of resilience.

In addition to the advantage described above, the polyvagal consideration also allows for emergence of readily trainable skills and strategies to pursue the desired goal of managing our biological states.  As described in past articles, the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies within the polyvagal informed toolbox provide the necessary tools to leverage our biology in support and promotion of our goals and objectives.  This approach is also distinct from the common description of resilience in that the latter typically does not include specific strategies and skills to enhance this capacity.

From the polyvagal informed perspective, it is important that flexibility of the nervous system is trained and developed.  Doing so provides numerous benefits.  As the nervous system becomes more flexible, it is better able to maintain ventral vagal stabilization during progressively more challenging situations.  This allows us to perform to our highest capacity under high demand scenarios.

An additional benefit of improving nervous system flexibility relates to the ability to regain regulation following instances of dysregulation.  As humans, we share the common reality that it is impossible to avoid mobilization into sympathetic states or shutdown within dorsal vagal states.  The goal is not to avoid such situations as this would be unrealistic.  Rather the preferred capability is to efficiently identify mobilization or shutdown and restore ventral vagal stabilization as effectively and efficiently as possible.  This skill provides the ability to limit any potentially unwanted or undesirable effects resulting from becoming locked within sympathetic and dorsal vagal states when they are not in service of our current goals and situation.

A related aspect to regaining regulation is in reference to our ability to recover following high demand situations.  In such circumstances, even if we maintain ventral vagal stabilization and perform within the ideal blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state, as described by Michael Allison, it is still necessary to recover following completion of the event.  In order to optimally recover and restore our homeostasis, it is necessary to shift into a ventral vagal state.  This further illustrates the importance of developing flexibility within our nervous system.

The final benefit for consideration regarding nervous system flexibility is in respect to the ability to tolerate greater degrees of stress and strain without dysregulating.  In order to perform at our best and develop our abilities in any aspect of life, it is necessary to tolerate progressively increasing levels of demand and consequence.  The ability to do so while maintaining stabilization from ventral vagal states is provided through enhanced flexibility of our nervous system.

Within the healthcare system, there is common discussion related to resilience and grit.  This typically emerges during consideration of healthcare professional burnout.  It is suggested, by some, that a strategy to combat this critical issue is to increase the resilience of healthcare professionals.  From the common description of this attribute, as outlined above, it is evident that all healthcare professionals, and for that matter high achieving individuals within any domain, inherently possess high levels of resilience.  Without such an attribute, they would not have accomplished what they have given that persistence over extended durations of time is necessary.  As such, increasing resilience in this context is unlikely to be of benefit as it is not lacking in the first place.

Due to this discordance between the common parlance regarding resilience and that which emerges from a polyvagal informed consideration of the nervous system, my preferred terminology is to refer to flexibility of the nervous system.   It is hoped that this term will avoid the confusion between common considerations of resilience and the specific definition of the term when utilized within a polyvagal informed paradigm.

Training nervous system flexibility is attainable through a similar process to developing the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies which comprise the polyvagal informed toolbox.  Through development of these tools, flexibility of the nervous system will emerge as proficiency of the various skills is increased.  It is important, as has been described in past articles, that this training is conducted in advance of high demand situations and that use of the skills and strategies be implemented in progressively more challenging scenarios.  This rubric is needed in order to develop optimal proficiency with these skills and strategies, as would be the paradigm for training of any physical craft related skills.

In order to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the polyvagal informed paradigm of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete, development of nervous system flexibility is necessary and beneficial.  There are many positive attributes which emerge from a nervous system that is flexible.  It is crucial to acknowledge that avoidance of dysregulation is an impossible, and undesirable, goal.  Rather, the ability to leverage our biology through our nervous system provides the optimal capacity to positively impact ourselves and those around us in the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.  https://theplayzone.com.

Dana, D.  Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.

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

Porges, SW.  Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2021.

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