By embodying the principles and practices of a polyvagal informed paradigm, we are able to be the driver of our experience in promoting health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.
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The numerous benefits of incorporating polyvagal informed skills and strategies within our lives has been described in detail in past articles. To summarize, such a paradigm provides the optimal understanding and ability to leverage our biology in alignment with our goals to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. In addition, through co-regulation, we are able to positively impact those around us so that they can pursue the same objectives.
Within this discussion it is important to recognize that our nervous system will continue to function irrespective of whether or not we choose to understand, to the limits of our knowledge, the means by which it impacts our experience or develop the necessary skills and strategies to leverage our inherent biological processes to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. Stated differently, our nervous system is continuously functioning to identify cues within our internal, external, and relational environments through neuroception with the accompanying predictable shifts in our biology in response to those stimuli. This is an ongoing process whether we choose to acknowledge and work with it or not.
Much of the discussion within previous articles has focused on the benefits of developing and implementing skills and strategies to leverage our biology in alignment with the principles of Polyvagal Theory. This article will consider the converse situation. Specifically the predictable consequences of not embodying the polyvagal informed paradigm will be contemplated.
As it pertains to other aspects of our physiology, we attempt to understand the processes and functions of the system of interest and apply this information to benefit the promotion of our goals and objectives. For example, an understanding of our physiology within the context of exercise and strength training is utilized to optimize workout routines specific to the goals of the individual. This paradigm is no different when it comes to understanding the biological processes involved with our internal, external, and relational experiences. This is best explained through the principles of Polyvagal Theory.
It is informative to build upon the concepts of our nervous system’s ongoing and continuous function in conjunction with the importance of understanding the pertinent processes. As the nervous system is the primary determinant of our experience and is continuously functioning, we can choose to leverage our understanding of these processes through development of polyvagal informed skills and strategies in order to optimize our experience. This is similar in concept to the exercise example described above. Deb Dana refers to this paradigm, within the context of the nervous system, as being an “active operator” of our nervous system.
The paradigm described by Deb Dana can be further expanded to reflect our ability to choose to implement the necessary skills and strategies to leverage the function of our nervous system or not. By analogy, in our lives any goal or objective, be it health, wellbeing, or sustainable high performance, that we choose to pursue can be considered as a final destination on a journey. The internal, external, and relational cues and stimuli we encounter can be considered as factors along our path as we move in the direction of these goals and objectives. The manner in which we respond to these stimuli is determined by our nervous system, which within this analogy can be considered the vehicle in which we are traveling. We then make the decision whether or not we develop an understanding of the means by which the vehicle functions and develop the skills and strategies to influence how the vehicle moves along our path. If we choose to embody the principles and practices of a polyvagal informed paradigm, we will become the driver or our vehicle, whereas if we choose not to do this, we become the passenger. While the driver of the vehicle does not have complete control over the vehicle, there is definitely a greater degree of influence than that of the passenger who will end up wherever the vehicle goes with no degree of control or influence. It is also important to recall that the bias of our nervous system, for reasons of survival and natural selection, is towards neurocepting equivocal stimuli as cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat. This was further described in a previous article.
It is important to also consider that given the current culture and climate, we are often exposed to stimuli which can provide powerful cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat. If we are not the drivers of our vehicle, these experiences can strongly influence our biology with resulting shifts towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. Past articles have described how this can negatively impact our ability to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. In addition, when we shift into these states, we emit cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat to those around us, potentially leading them to shift into such biological states as well. This occurs through the process of co-regulation, which describes how our biological state can influence that of those around us. When we emit such cues and those around us respond in predictable ways to these stimuli, it can reinforce the presence of the cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat which we neurocept. The result can be a further shift into sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. It can be appreciated how this can easily become a negative and self-reinforcing cycle.
The above example provides an important additional explanation as to why it is important to become the driver of our vehicle. When we leverage our biology, we are better able to maintain ventral vagal stabilization, even in the face of cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat. In addition, when we do shift into sympathetic and dorsal vagal states, as will inevitably occur on account of being human, we are better equipped to recognize the shift and implement skills and strategies to shift our biology towards a ventral vagal stabilized state. When we become the driver of our vehicle, we exert a degree of influence and control over how we reach our final destination. Conversely, if we do not choose to develop the necessary skills and strategies, we will have little, if any, influence over the journey or final destination.
This paradigm is particularly important within the current context of the healthcare system. While it is undeniably the case that there must be changes within the culture and structure of the system, it is also important that each of us working within the system become drivers of our own vehicles. This promotes our ability to positively influence our own health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance as well as that of those around us, including colleagues, co-workers, and patients. This perspective allows us to exert control over that which we can influence and optimize those factors which are within our ability to control.
As can be appreciated from the above discussion, particularly in the context of prior articles, implementing a polyvagal informed paradigm provides the optimal ability to become the driver of our vehicle as we promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. This concept is at the core of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.
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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.
Porges, SW. The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.