The objective of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete is to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance from a Polyvagal Theory informed perspective. This requires both mind-based and body-based skills and habits to create a mind-body connection. While many of the skills and habits are considered to be either mind-based or body-based, in reality there is no such clear distinction. In order to reach our fullest potential, we need to develop both mind-based and body-based skills and habits because one enhances the other. Conversely, if we do not develop a strong mind-body connection then we will be functioning at a suboptimal state.
The Polyvagal Theory perspective is at the foundation of the mind-body connection and through the principles described within the theory, both as it pertains to how the nervous system functions and how we can learn to influence and modulate our nervous system. In fact, the theory describes the importance of alignment between mind and body in order to promote the ventral vagal safety and connection that our nervous system seeks and our health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance depends upon.
An example of the necessity for alignment between mind and body can be illustrated through the application of thinking and breathing. If we are in a sympathetic, mobilized physiological state and we try to use only our thinking to move towards a more ventral stabilized state but simultaneously our breathing remains shallow, rapid, predominantly through our mouth, and with a prolonged inhale relative to exhale there will be discordance between our thinking and our body. Our thinking may be trying to move towards a ventral vagal state while our breathing remains in a more mobilized, sympathetic state. Not only will this dissonance prevent our body from reaching the desired ventral vagal state, the discrepancy between mind and body can become a further cue of danger to our nervous system, thereby promoting more of a sympathetic state. In order to resolve this situation, it would be preferred, from the polyvagal informed perspective, to acknowledge the physiological state of the body and utilize our skills and habits to modulate the state towards the desired ventral vagal state. This could be accomplished, for example, through use of deep, diaphragmatic breathing through the nose with prolonged exhalation.
In order to be in our optimal state for sustainable high performance, both the mind and body should, ideally, be in alignment within the same preferred state. This involves our mindset and thinking reflecting thoughts consistent with the physiological state of the body, as determined through the principles of Polyvagal Theory. While our thinking can definitely influence our physiological state, this strategy is not, from a polyvagal informed lens, reliable and sustainable as the primary habit to influence our physiology. The reason for this is that thinking requires intentional, deliberate, and conscious processes whereas the body interprets internal and external cues instantaneously and beneath conscious awareness through the process of neuroception. From the polyvagal perspective, the body response will have occurred before the conscious process of thinking can begin. For this reason, we can try to use our thinking as the primary tool for influencing our physiological state, however the effectiveness of this will likely be limited and eventually the body will predominate in determining the physiological state.
It is also useful to consider the process by which our thinking may influence our physiology. Typically, this will involve reframing either our interpretation of stimuli or the stories we subsequently tell ourselves, or both. From a polyvagal perspective, this reframing serves to redefine what was previously considered a cue of risk or threat to a cue of safety or connection. In so doing, neuroception will then influence our physiological state. Because this process of reframing is a deliberate, conscious, and intentional process it can be postulated that if the cues of threat or risk are too strong then our physiological state may be ‘driven’ too far into sympathetic or dorsal vagal states to allow our thinking to be sufficient on its own to modulate the state.
This purpose of this discussion, in part, is to emphasize the inter-relatedness of the mind and body and crucial importance of developing, through skills and habits, a strong mind-body connection. In order to be able to manage both our mind and body, particularly during instances of high demand and high consequence, it is helpful to understand the most fundamental and foundational aspects of this connection. By emphasizing this, we are able to determine the most reliable and sustainable way to influence our mind-body connection towards our preferred state. From a polyvagal informed perspective, the foundation is the function of the autonomic nervous system and its impact on the mind and body through the principles of neuroception, physiological state, social engagement system, and regulation. From this understanding it then follows that the preferred process to manage our mind and body is to first acknowledge without judgement our physiological state and then utilize out mind-based and body-based skills to adjust or modulate that state as needed towards our preferred state for the present moment.
The polyvagal informed perspective is at the foundation of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete and the development of mind-based and body-based skills to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.