Polyvagal Informed Training is More Than Self-Care

Self-care is commonly discussed in many domains.  While these activities are beneficial, there are substantial and important advantages to a polyvagal informed training paradigm.

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We all frequently encounter discussion and recommendations regarding self-care.  This is present across all media platforms and in conversations amongst individuals.  Typically, self-care refers to enjoyable activities with which an individual engages in order to relax and renew.  There are many types of activities which meet these objectives and, for the most part, they are individual specific.  For instance, going for a walk, reading a book, having a hot bath or shower, and spa activities are commonly described activities of self-care.

There is no question that self-care is an important aspect when considering recovery and restoration.  There seems to be, however, a common misconception that self-care is all that is needed in order to recover and fully promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  While there are absolute benefits related to the typical activities of self-care, there are limitations when it pertains to relying solely on such activities in order to be at one’s best across any, and all, domains of life.  In addition, improving health and wellbeing solely through self-care is inherently limited.  In large part, the explanation for why this is the case relates to the recognition that self-care does not provide an understanding regarding how best to leverage our biology towards recovery and the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  In addition, while there are benefits to self-care activities, they do not develop or train our ability to optimize our biology in order to promote recovery and provide the best opportunity to achieve our goals in any aspect of life.  Furthermore, engaging in these activities does little to promote health and wellbeing amongst those around us.

Polyvagal informed training provides the ideal framework from which to truly and authentically promote recovery and the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  As has been described in previous articles, this perspective unifies our mind-based and body-based processes.  From this paradigm, a framework emerges from which we can not only understand and, often, predict how our biology will respond to given situations, but we can also train and develop skills and strategies which allow us to exert influence over our biology, in particular our nervous system, so that we are best positioned to recover and promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance for ourself and those around us.

In essence, the additional understanding and ability to intentionally apply skills and strategies provided by a polyvagal informed perspective provides far more benefit than reliance solely on self-care activities.  Polyvagal informed training incorporates an intentional and deliberate process through which the principles of Polyvagal Theory are applied towards better understanding our biology and its predictable responses to various cues and stimuli.  In addition, this knowledge is further applied in the development of a wide array of mind-based and body-based skills and strategies which allow for our biology to be leveraged towards states which are most consistent with our values and goals.  

The application of this combined knowledge and skill development leads to the capacity to enhance the flexibility of our nervous system.  This relates to the ability of our biology to encounter various cues and stimuli in our internal and external environments while maintaining stability provided by ventral vagal activation.  In particular, the flexibility of our nervous system is illustrated when we are able to encounter cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat while maintaining sufficient ventral vagal activation or, if dysregulation occurs, efficiently returning to a ventral vagal stabilized state.  When we are able to influence our nervous system in such a fashion, we are ideally positioned to pursue our best performance ability across all domains of life, co-regulate those around us, and effectively recover following high demand activities.  Such a capability optimally promotes health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

From the above description, it can be appreciated that, from a polyvagal informed lens, self-care activities may provide relaxation and important cues of safety and connection, however they do not train the nervous system or assist in enhancing the flexibility of the nervous system.  By extension, it can be asserted that while an important component of a regular routine, self-care activities are not sufficient on their own to fully recover and promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  While there is definite overlap between self-care activities and certain components of polyvagal informed training, the additional intentionality towards the development of skills and resources inherent within the polyvagal informed perspective is an essential element in the pursuit of our goals and objectives in alignment with our values and purpose.

Another important aspect inherent within polyvagal informed training which is not present to the same degree through self-care is the ability to positively impact others.  When we are able to optimize our ventral vagal activation and self-regulate, the ability to co-regulate others naturally emerges.  This capability is an important component in the process of providing safety and connection for the nervous systems of those around us, allowing them to pursue their own health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  The ability to effectively co-regulate is significantly enhanced through a flexible nervous system given the inherent ability of such a biological state to maintain and restore ventral vagal stabilization, thereby allowing for effective co-regulation.

As can, hopefully, be appreciated from this discussion there are important benefits provided by a regular self-care routine.  There are, however, limitations in the ability to optimally pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  The reason for this primarily relates to the limited capacity of self-care to intentionally develop skills and strategies which promote flexibility of our nervous system.  It is through a polyvagal informed training paradigm that we are able to develop and enhance the flexibility of our nervous system.  Such an attribute is indispensable as we encounter the frequent cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat that are inevitable within our internal and external environments.  The intentional and deliberate application of a polyvagal informed paradigm provides the ability to encounter such cues while maintaining, or efficiently restoring, ventral vagal activation.  This capability is essential in order to fully promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

The polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete provides development of the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies that promote nervous system flexibility, thereby allowing for the optimal pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance across all domains of life.  

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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.

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