Polyvagal Theory is foundational because it not only explains the physiology which is at the root of our daily experience, but also provides an actionable framework which allows us to develop skills and habits to influence and modulate our nervous system. The ultimate goal is to optimize our physiological state for any given situation, thereby allowing us to be at our best for ourselves and those around us. Previous articles have described the principles of Polyvagal Theory and the application of the skills and habits that allow us to modulate our physiological state. It is worthwhile to also describe the benefits to healthcare professionals who apply a polyvagal informed perspective.
The benefits of a polyvagal informed lens not only provide direct effects for ourselves, but also positively impact those around us. This applies in both professional and personal contexts. Essentially, by following a polyvagal perspective, we are all able to be the best versions of ourselves in all aspects of life and help others do the same.
Understanding the physiology underlying Polyvagal Theory allows us to gain insight into how we respond and behave under differing situations and to learn how others do as well. The presence of this increased understanding in, and of, itself can lead to increased compassion towards ourselves and others. Understanding and applying the process by which we can utilize our skills and habits to shift our state towards our preferred state, helps us to be at our best in any given situation. In addition to the benefit this has on our immediate performance, it can also allow us to better co-regulate others around us. This allows others to be positively impacted by our physiological state thereby allowing them to better pursue their fullest potential.
It is important to emphasize that through the process of neuroception, our autonomic nervous system is continuously scanning our internal and external environment for stimuli and determining whether there are cues of threat and danger or cues of safety and connection. As discussed previously, if the determination is that the balance of stimuli represents cues of safety and connection, our physiology moves up the hierarchy towards ventral vagal states. On the other hand, if the balance of cues is towards threat and danger, we move down the hierarchy towards sympathetic and, ultimately, dorsal vagal states. This physiology occurs whether or not we choose to learn about it and understand it and whether or not we choose to develop skills and habits to influence it. The choice is ours- do we wish to exert a measure of influence over this process or allow it function without our knowledge and, effectively, be at its mercy? We are in a more empowered position with increased agency and self-efficacy if we are able to influence the process of our autonomic nervous system.
In addition to sustainable high performance, for ourselves and those around us, following a polyvagal informed perspective is the ideal method for pursuing health and wellbeing. The body processes related to recovery and restoration are dependent upon ventral vagal states. Without sufficient ventral vagal tone, we are at increased risk of various physical, mental, and emotional conditions, including increased anxiety and depression, cardiovascular conditions, impaired immune function, and chronic inflammation.
The impact of sustainable high performance as a healthcare professional has numerous benefits. There is an improved ability to provide the highest possible level of patient care and to do so over an extended duration of time, such as a multi-decade career. This provides clear benefit to all the patients who are treated by a polyvagal informed healthcare professional. In addition, sustainable high performance results in improved function as a teacher for trainees, a colleague for other professionals, and a leader both within the local community and across practice specialty organizations. Furthermore, through the pursuit of polyvagal informed health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance, the healthcare professional is better able to manage the high demands of the profession, reducing the risk of burnout and assisting recovery from it.
From the perspective of patient care, the benefit of sustainable high performance has been discussed previously. There is an additional consideration. As all patients are in a process of recovering from an illness, injury, treatment and/or surgery, they are in need of as much ventral vagal tone as possible to allow for restoration. The manner in which healthcare professionals interact with patients can greatly influence the physiological state of their patients. Given the nature of recovery, it can be expected that patients are already experiencing many cues of threat and danger and may be in sympathetic or dorsal vagal states. This makes it more crucial for healthcare professionals to help co-regulate patients and help them to climb the physiological state hierarchy towards a more ventral vagal state. The means by which healthcare professionals can assist in this regard includes co-regulation through maintenance of ventral stabilized states, but also educating patients about polyvagal theory and providing resources to help develop the knowledge and skills needed to live a polyvagal informed life.
Perhaps the most important benefit to integrating the principles of Polyvagal Theory is that it allows us to be the best version of ourselves in all areas of life, including personal aspects of life with family, friends, pets, nature, and any other endeavor of interest. Essentially this equates to being a better human through a greater understanding of how our nervous system works, by developing skills and habits to shift our state, accepting and acknowledging whatever state we may be in, and using our skills and habits to influence and modulate that state towards what is preferred in any given situation. It is through this process that we can optimally pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance for ourselves and those around us.