Mindset Skills and Polyvagal Theory

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In order to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the paradigm of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete, it is necessary to develop mind based and body based skills and habits, which have been described in previous articles.  This distinction between those strategies that are mind based and body based is often academic in nature.  In reality, there is no such clear distinction between mind and body.  We do not consist of a separate and distinct mind, brain, and body.  Rather, we are all a whole individual that includes all three with numerous connections between each component.  It is, however, convenient for the sake of describing the skills and habits to separate them into mind based and body based in origin.

While it is clear that we are all a whole individual and the separation between mind and body based skills is somewhat arbitrary, there is significance in understanding which skills and habits are most foundational.  The reason for this is that in times of heightened stress, in high stakes circumstances, it becomes necessary to return to first principles in order to have the best opportunity to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  By first principles, what is meant is the set of skills and habits that are most foundational to our experience with the best and most reliable ability to interpret internal and external events and, on the basis of the information, respond in a fashion that is most consistent with our goals and objectives.

Mindset skills, including a growth or fixed mindset, as well as our thinking patterns are a foundational component to our experience.  The manner in which we think can determine our understanding of a situation, our emotions and feelings related to the situation, and can guide how we respond to internal and external events.  In addition, what and how we think can influence the physiological states described within Polyvagal Theory, specifically ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal.

As has been described in the previous articles related to Polyvagal Theory, the autonomic nervous system functions to interpret internal and external stimuli through a process termed neuroception.  The result of this process is, essentially, a determination of whether there are cues of safety, promoting a ventral vagal state, or cues of risk and/or threat, promoting either a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state.  The resulting physiological state can have widespread and profound effects upon our physiology, including hearth rate, breathing pattern and rate, muscle tone, mindset, and the way in which we think.  For this reason, our mindset and thinking patterns can be used to identify our physiologic state.

As can be readily appreciated from the above description, there is tremendous interplay between mindset, thinking, neuroception and the resulting physiological states.  Which is more foundational?  Is it mindset and thinking or the body response, as determined through Polyvagal Theory?  While this distinction may seem academic, the importance lies in which strategy is best and most effective to employ in times of high stress and high consequence circumstances.  By emphasizing the most foundational strategy, we are most likely to be able to consistently perform in our desired fashion even in the face of high demand.

While there is definite potential for our thinking to influence our physiological state and, conversely, our physiological state to influence our thinking there are a few key considerations.  The process of thinking typically requires conscious and deliberate attention in order to influence our physiological state.  This is not an instantaneous process.  In addition, many of us have had the experience of feeling a certain way in our body and trying to overcome that with our thinking, only to have the body feeling intensify.

From the polyvagal informed perspective, when presented with either an internal or external stimulus, the autonomic nervous system will function instantaneously beneath our conscious awareness through neuroception.  The result will be a shift in physiological state dependent upon the balance of cues of safety or threat.  On the basis of our physiological state shifts, there are numerous resulting effects, including on our thinking. 

We have all had the experience of thinking about similar situations in very different ways dependent upon whether or not we are in a grounded ventral vagal state, as compared to a mobilized sympathetic state or a shutdown dorsal vagal state.  This process is well described by Deb Dana in her book, Anchored, “…we like to think we are using our wise and wonderful brains to make decisions, in fact, long before information reaches the brain, the autonomic nervous system takes action.” (p. 55).  Further explaining how the brain uses thinking to impact our experience, Dana describes “…brain takes the information that it receives from the body and turns it into a story to make sense of what’s happening…” (p. 56).  Dana elaborates “…biology changes, so do our stories.” (p. 123).  She details how stories within a dorsal vagal state have a theme of losing hope and connection, from a sympathetic state our stories are confrontational and contain worry and anger, and from a ventral vagal state are about “…possibility and choice…connection…challenges that feel manageable, of feeling safe enough in the world to venture out and explore.” (p. 124).

The perspective provided by the polyvagal informed lens helps to explain why, in situations of high demand or consequence, when we try to think through the circumstances we are frequently unable to change the way our body feels.  From this perspective, it is because the body response, as effected by the autonomic nervous system, is the most foundational component.  It cannot be readily controlled or overridden through a thinking process in an instantaneous or rapid fashion.  Corroborating this understanding is the well-established mindfulness practice of noting thoughts but not identifying with them.  A component to this practice may be that our thoughts may be more of a reflection of our physiological state than they are of reality.

If it is the body response that is most foundational to our experience, what strategies should we employ, particularly in high stakes situations?  From a polyvagal perspective, the ideal method would be to identify and accept the physiological state and once that step has been achieved, turn attention to modulating towards the preferred state using skills and habits that have been practiced and developed.  It is important to have several skills which are well-established, including what are traditionally considered mind based and body based, so that we have a ‘large toolbox’ available to use in our attempt to adjust our physiological state towards that which will give us the best opportunity to act in alignment with our goals and objectives in our pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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

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