Integrating a polyvagal informed perspective across all aspects of our life provides the best opportunity to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. The positive impact for ourselves and those around us has been discussed in previous articles. In order to fully realize these objectives, it is important to consider how best to integrate these principles on a daily basis.
A more detailed description of the fundamental tenets of polyvagal theory has been provided in previous articles. By way of a summary, there are three primary physiological states as well as blended states between the primary states. The three primary states are the ventral vagal state which is characterized by being grounded, expansive, and connected. The sympathetic state is a mobilized state which is frequently depicted by the well recognized fight and flight response. The third state is the dorsal vagal state in which we are in shutdown. Our autonomic nervous system shifts between each of these states on the basis of determination of the balance of cues of safety and connection or threat and danger. This process is termed neuroception and occurs beneath our conscious awareness and is essentially instantaneous in response to the cues in both our internal and external environment. For these reasons, we do not have direct control over neuroception.
It is important to emphasize that the process of neuroception is continuously occurring. The implication of this is that our physiological states, as determined by our neuroception, are also dynamic in nature. Our body state can shift from one moment to the next in response to stimuli which are both internal and external. Internal stimuli can include our physical sensations, as well as our thoughts and feelings. External stimuli can be environmental or can emanate from and/or between other individuals. In addition, cues of threat can be provided through what is termed ‘violations of expectancy’. Essentially this relates to situations in which what actually occurs is different from what we are expecting. This can reflect an internal process, such as we don’t execute a technical skill to the level of proficiency we anticipate, or something happens in our external environment that is contrary to what we expect to occur. When our expectations are violated in this fashion, it can be a substantial cue of threat to our nervous system with a resulting descent down the physiological state hierarchy.
The daily application of a polyvagal informed perspective in our lives requires that we continuously accept our body’s physiological state wherever it is in a given moment on the performance hierarchy. It is crucial that this acceptance be without judgement so that we do not, inadvertently, provide further cues of threat through self-criticism. Once we acknowledge our physiological state, it then is possible to utilize skills and strategies to shift our state as needed towards a more preferred state for the current moment.
The first essential skill in the sequence described above is the identification and acceptance without judgement of our current physiological state. Without this ability, we are unable to appropriately shift our state as needed. Without a recognition of our current state, we are essentially blind to our current physical, emotional, and psychological capacities. This is because our body’s physiological state effectively determines each of these capacities. In order to accomplish this skill we need to develop awareness for our internal and external environments.
The second essential skill is the development of proficiency in skills to maintain or shift our physiological state. There are numerous skills which can be developed in this regard and some will be more effective for some individuals than others. The key is to determine which skills are most useful for oneself and regularly train these skills so that we have a proficiency in their application, particularly under high stakes conditions and circumstances. If we do not develop these skills in advance, then they are unlikely to be highly effective when we are most in need of their benefit. An analogy can be drawn to training for a marathon. If we don’t train in advance and develop our capacity to run the required distance, then it is unlikely that we would be able to show up on race day and run at our highest level. An intentional and deliberate regular practice of these skills is essential.
One additional consideration for the daily application of a polyvagal informed perspective is the recognition that each of the aforementioned skills are simultaneously occurring amongst each individual with whom we interact. The physiological state of other people are also continuously changing in response to their internal and external cues. This recognition is important so that we are best able to both self-regulate and co-regulate. In order to do this, we need to obtain a degree of ventral vagal stabilization. It is not possible to ‘fake’ the sense of safety and connection provided by the ventral vagal branch. Rather it is necessary to truly feel within our body that the cues of safety and connection predominate. This can be challenging, particularly during high consequence situations. As it is not possible to ‘convince’ ourselves that we are safe and connected, it becomes necessary to find the cues of safety and connection which exist within our internal and external environment. This is an essential skill for managing high demand scenarios and requires development of proficient strategies to provide ourselves with cues of safety, particularly in high stakes environments.
In order to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the paradigm of The Healthcare Athlete it is necessary to develop the skills of acknowledgement without judgement of our physiological state and strategies to shift our state as needed. This requires deliberate practice of the necessary skills in advance of an attempt to utilize the skills, in particular during high consequence situations. It is this intentional development of skills and strategies that allows us to be the best version of ourselves in all aspects of life.