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How does Polyvagal Theory fit within the paradigm of the skills of human performance? For me, it provides the final explanatory piece of the larger puzzle.
A common question that arises is how does Polyvagal Theory fit within the framework of the well established skills and strategies of human performance? The mind-based and body-based skills have been well described and, in many populations, integrated within daily routines. How does an understanding and application of Polyvagal Theory fit within this paradigm and contribute to it?
From my perspective, Polyvagal Theory provides the final piece to the comprehensive understanding of the necessary paradigm for pursuing health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. Prior to incorporating the principles of Polyvagal Theory, a complete understanding of how to integrate the skills of human performance across all situations and within all scenarios was elusive. In addition, it was not always evident why those individuals who had trained these skills would, at times, not perform to their fullest potential. Polyvagal Theory provides an explanation for these questions and does so in a fashion that is consistent with our biology, integrating both our physiology and psychology.
To begin, it is helpful to understand that Polyvagal Theory provides an understanding of how our nervous system, specifically the autonomic branch, functions. Furthermore, the theory explains how this system is continuously taking in information and stimuli from within our bodies, our external environment, and between ourselves and those individuals around us. These cues are then utilized to determine whether there is a balance of safety and connection or uncertainty, threat, and risk. The shift in our physiological state that occurs is dependent upon this determination of the balance of cues. This entire complex process occurs rapidly and beneath conscious awareness. As such it is not something we can control, choose, or decide upon.
With this understanding in mind, we can then note that Polyvagal Theory itself is not a specific set of skills and strategies. Rather it is a biologically consistent and comprehensive explanation of how our autonomic nervous system works. The manner by which the well described skills and strategies of human performance impact us can then be better understood on the basis of a polyvagal informed knowledge of our biology. These skills and strategies act upon our nervous system in a fashion consistent with and dependent upon the processes illustrated by Polyvagal Theory.
From my perspective, Polyvagal Theory provides two foundational understandings and contributions. With these in mind we can then more completely understand the paradigm underlying the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. This polyvagal informed perspective provides the most comprehensive paradigm through which to live to our greatest potential and be at our best for ourselves and those around us.
The first contribution is the biologically based and consistent explanation for how we make sense of our internal and external experience and that of those around us. By understanding the processes of neuroception, physiological state hierarchy, co-regulation, and the shifting of our states in response to neuroception, we can acknowledge that our responses and reactions are not the result of a conscious and deliberate choice. Rather this occurs beneath awareness and does not necessarily reflect our true intentions. This increased understanding also contribute towards greater compassion towards ourselves and others. Further, this recognition allows us a deeper and more complete understanding of how and why behaviors and actions can change and be different, even under similar circumstances. In addition, we can better understand how these reactions cannot necessarily be controlled or chosen in the moment. We can also recognize why most of us are not able to implement these mind-based and body-based skills consistently across all situations, even if we have extensively trained these skills.
The second, and perhaps even greater, contribution of Polyvagal Theory from my perspective is the strategic framework it provides for optimal implementation of the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies of human high performance. This paradigm provides an informed and biologically based means by which to have the greatest likelihood of bringing about the desired effect through implementation of these skills. Without the polyvagal informed perspective, we can train and develop the skills and strategies of human performance however we may frequently implement these skills and strategies blindly. The explanation for this is that in order to bring about the desired effect, we first must acknowledge where on the physiological state hierarchy we currently reside which then informs the appropriate strategy for shifting towards the desired state. For instance, if we are to move towards the performance zone of blended ventral vagal and sympathetic states, we must first identify which state we are in otherwise we may inadvertently implement less than optimal skills and strategies.
These fundamental principles and related understanding provided by Polyvagal Theory can explain the initial questions posed at the outset of this article. The strategic framework available through a polyvagal informed perspective provides the ability and capacity to optimally and intentionally integrate the skills of human performance across various circumstances and situations. The understanding of the tenets of Polyvagal Theory further explains how even individuals who are highly trained in the mind-based and body-based skills of human performance do not always perform to their potential under certain situations, particularly those in which there are an overwhelming number of cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat.
The contributions of Polyvagal Theory towards understanding how we make sense of our internal and external experience and can strategically implement the skills of human performance allow for the optimal pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. This provides the greatest foundation for The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete. Without these contributions from Polyvagal Theory, we are functioning with less than full information regarding our experience and implementation of mind-based and body-based skills. The polyvagal informed perspective allows for the most strategic and biologically consistent paradigm to be at our best in any, and all, aspects of life.
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