Our Nervous System Needs Safety

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In order to express our fullest potential, our nervous system must detect sufficient safety and connection, both internally and externally.  Developing the skills and strategies of providing safety for our nervous system is essential.

The fundamental tenet at the core of polyvagal theory is that our nervous system seeks safety.  This applies to our internal as well as external environment.  When our nervous system detects sufficient cues of safety, there is increased ventral vagal activation which results in further connection to our self, others, and our environment as well as promotes recovery and restoration.  Without sufficient connection we are unable to pursue our best performance in any area of life and without sufficient recovery we are not able to pursue our health, wellbeing, and any high performance which is achieved will not be sustainable.

It can, therefore, be readily understood that there is tremendous importance in providing our nervous system with sufficient cues of safety and connection.  Whether or not we consider this to be the brain, the mind, or the body is less important and ultimately is arbitrary.  It will be referred to as the nervous system throughout this article.  The cues of safety must be interpreted through the process of neuroception and impact the mind, body, and brain.  The cues of safety refer not only to the absence or risk or threat but to the actual presence of safety.  The cues of connection apply to our self, those around us, and our surroundings and environment.  In order for our nervous system to truly feel safe and connected, we must develop the necessary strategies and habits that promote an acknowledgement and recognition of what is safe around us.  While at times challenging, with practice this can be accomplished in the majority of situations.  Particularly during high stakes circumstances, this may require a return to the most basic and fundamental cues of safety within our body or in our immediate environment.

When the nervous system establishes that there is sufficient safety and connection in the current situation, then we are able to be at our best physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.  In essence, all of our capabilities and abilities come ‘on line’ during times of safety and connection for our nervous system.  This allows us to be genuine, authentic, and accessible.  This allows us to express our highest level of performance in all domains of life.

Alternatively, when our nervous system does not feel safe and connected and detects cues of threat we become protective and guarded.  This applies to our physical abilities, our emotional state, as well as our psychological and spiritual attributes.  Initially this may take root in an angry or aggressive sympathetic response.  While such a response may be adaptive in certain situations, it will not allow us to access sustainable high performance as the resource cost of functioning in this state is simply too high.  In addition, due to the lack of ventral vagal activation there is insufficient recovery and restoration to allow for our health, wellbeing, and sustainability to our performance.  If the sympathetic response is not sufficient to resolve the cues of threat and risk, then we descend the performance hierarchy to a dorsal state which is less likely to promote our health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

The full expression and benefit of the mind-based and body-based skills of human high performance can only be realized when there is sufficient ventral vagal activation present.  In the performance context, this is typically in the form of the performance zone with a blended ventral vagal and sympathetic physiological state.  When we are outside our performance domains, this will typically be more oriented towards a ventral vagal state.  Due to the need for an element of ventral vagal activation for full expression of these capabilities, there is a need for identification of sufficient cues of safety and connection by our nervous system.  Our optimal performance, recovery, and restoration can only be realized when our nervous system detects safety and connection.

The need for safety and connection for the nervous system has been established.  The next consideration is how best to provide such cues.  The ability to supply cues of safety and connection to our nervous system is best thought of as a number of different skills and strategies which can all be trained and developed.  These include those which are internal, external amongst others, and external in our environment.  In order to be able to recognize and identify these cues of safety and connection, particularly in high demand and high consequence situations, it is necessary to practice and develop these skills.  This training is best conducted in low demand situations and as our proficiency increases we then apply the skills and strategies to progressively more consequential situations.  Development of these strategies provides the capability to truly unlock our fullest potential.

This understanding permits the realization that safety and connection are at the heart of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  It is, for this reason, that a detailed understanding of what allows our nervous system to feel safe, as well as strategies to bring about cues of safety and connection is so important.  This is precisely what polyvagal theory provides.  Polyvagal informed coaching specifically develops the skills and strategies that will promote safety and connection for our nervous system in a genuine and authentic fashion.  This all begins with an understanding of the biology and physiology of our nervous system that is provided by the principles of polyvagal theory. 

With this understanding in place, we can then develop many complimentary skills to promote safety and connection for our nervous system.  It is important to develop a wide array of mind-based and body-based skills, strategies, and tools because not each of these will necessarily be equally effective for different people and across all situations.  Ideally we would like to have many tools available for use as the situation may dictate.

In order to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the paradigm of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete, it is essential to develop skills and strategies to provide safety and connection for our nervous system.  This provides the necessary and stable foundation for us to be at our best for ourselves and those around us.  Identifying and maintaining our ventral vagal activation is an essential element to our health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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