Leveraging Our Biology Towards Living The Life We Want

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We all want to accomplish particular goals and live a rewarding life.  How can we best pursue this objective?

Across all domains of life and all populations, there is a commonly held desire to accomplish the goals in our life which are of most importance to us and to live a fulfilled life.  Of course, the details of these goals are individual specific, however the general concept is common across the human population.  What does it mean to accomplish our goals and lead a fulfilled life and how is this determined?  In large part, this requires sufficient congruence between our vision for our life and that which we experience.  In essence, the degree to which we are able to accomplish that which is of most importance and lead a fulfilled life is the extent to which our internal perception matches our experience, both internally and externally.  It is common that we, as humans, conflate our experience with what we term ‘reality’. 

This recognition then leads to the question regarding the nature of so-called reality.  In common day discussions, we frequently contemplate and discuss reality as though it is a singular and objective entity.  Of course this is not the case.  For most everything in life there is no such thing as a single and objective experience that is common across all humans that could be considered to constitute reality.  Consider two individuals watching the same movie or enjoying the same three Michelin star meal.  Even if these two individuals are close friends with similar interests, their experience of these events is likely to differ.  These discrepancies only increase as we consider a greater number of individuals and experiences.

Once we recognize, as we must, that there is no single, objective reality the next consideration becomes a contemplation of what determines that which we refer to as reality.  In effect, this is an internal representation that is unique to each individual, although there may be similarities.  This internal representation is determined by our nervous system and is also significantly impacted by our past history, experiences, and memories.  The interaction of past events and the manner in which they have been imprinted within our nervous system is a major contributor to how we experience events in our life, thereby strongly influencing our version of reality.

It is evident that there is little that we can do to directly adjust or impact the effect of past events.  There is, however, significant opportunity to influence our experience of current situations through our nervous system.  Given the central role that our nervous system plays in our direct experience, by influencing the function of our nervous system we are then able to impact our experience and, therefore, that which we consider to be reality.  

We have all had this experience, whether intentional or not.  Depending on whether or not we are having a good day and are in a good mood, can play an important role in our perception of the events unfolding in our life at that time.  As an example, a potentially frustrating event, such as being stuck in traffic, may have little impact on our experience if we encounter that situation with an optimistic mindset and are calm and connected with our selves and surroundings.  In contrast, if we are in a more anxious mindset and feeling somewhat detached when we become stuck in traffic, we may experience the same situation in a very different way.

How can we understand this discrepancy and, perhaps more importantly, is it possible to employ this knowledge to influence our experience in life?  The answer to these questions lies firmly within embodying a polyvagal informed life.  By applying the principles of Polyvagal Theory within our lives, we are best able to leverage our biology, specifically our nervous system, towards accomplishing that which is of most importance to us and leading a fulfilled life.  As it is not the external events that determine our experience, but rather our internal perception and response to these stimuli, we receive little benefit from over-emphasizing or over-indexing on the external situations.  Since it is our internal experience that determines our perception of reality and that is strongly influenced by our nervous system, it makes sense to focus our attempts on that which we can do to leverage our nervous system to be in alignment with our desires and goals.  By applying the principles of polyvagal theory, this is precisely what we are able to accomplish.

Through the implementation of polyvagal informed skills and strategies, we are best able to leverage our biology and, thereby, orient our experience towards that which we most value.  It is important to emphasize that there are truly hurtful and catastrophic events which may transpire and this paradigm is not an attempt to diminish such occurrences.  Rather this framework allows us to best manage any type of situation, positive, negative, or neutral, in a manner in which we maintain influence over our nervous system and, therefore, our experience.  In so doing, we are best positioned to pursue our best in any and all aspects of life.

Rick Hanson, PhD discussed the concept of the two arrows or darts.   He describes the first dart or arrow as the initial cue or stimulus that occurs.  We do not, typically, have control or influence over this.  The second dart or arrow is our reaction to the initial cue or stimulus.  This is more strongly within our influence and, typically, is more likely to determine how we perceive the entirety of the situation, essentially our perception of reality.  From the polyvagal informed perspective, we develop skills and strategies that allow us to influence our nervous system as soon as possible after the first dart or arrow, thereby limiting the impact of the second dart or arrow.  

As we are all human, there will be many instances in which we are not as successful at reducing the effect of the second dart as we may wish to be.  This is normal and expected.  A polyvagal informed perspective doesn’t prevent this from occurring, rather it helps us recognize that which has occurred, do so with as little judgement as possible, and employ a wide array of mind-based and body-based skills and strategies to leverage our nervous system towards that which is aligned with our vision, goals, and leading a fulfilled life.  In addition, this paradigm assists us with providing the necessary safety and connection so that others around us can do the same.

An overemphasis on external events, demands, and resources frequently leads to a lack of attention on the internal resources that are needed in order to leverage our biology. This is not to say that external events, demands, resources, and support are not important. Of course they are important however they do not directly leverage our biology such that we are able to influence our nervous system in the manner discussed above.  The rationale for this is that while external demands and resources can provide cues of safety and connection, as well as uncertainty, risk, and threat to our nervous system these events do not directly leverage our nervous system and therefore our biology. By developing the internal skills and resources in a polyvagal informed fashion, we are able to flexibly orient our nervous system towards the biological states most in alignment with our goals, vision, and philosophy. While it is important to advocate for improvements to external circumstances, the emphasis should be placed upon developing the necessary mind-based and body-based skills and strategies to leverage our biology.  

The polyvagal informed paradigm provides the most comprehensive and biologically consistent framework with which we can develop and utilize mind-based and body-based skills and strategies in order to leverage our nervous system, and thereby our biology, towards that which is most important to us in any, and all, domains of life.  This is the framework upon which the Practices of the Healthcare Athlete is developed.  

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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.

Hanson R, Mendius R.  Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.; 2009.

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.

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