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Coaching has become a common and widespread service to assist individuals and teams in skill development to optimize wellbeing and performance. Within the healthcare domain, there are executive coaches and physician coaches. Polyvagal informed coaching is a much less commonly encountered perspective which provides several advantages, benefits, and opportunities. Because the perspective, skills, and strategies incorporated within a polyvagal informed coaching paradigm are based upon the principles of polyvagal theory, they are the most closely aligned with the fundamental function of our nervous system. By following such a perspective, we are able to work with and leverage our biology, rather than trying to overcome it.
Previous articles have discussed the principles and applications of polyvagal theory as well as specific examples within the healthcare domain. This article will focus on the distinct and unique benefits of polyvagal theory informed coaching. Please see the past articles for more detailed descriptions of the principles of polyvagal theory.
The two most significant benefits of incorporating polyvagal theory into coaching for promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance are the physiological basis for the theory and the framework which it provides. These benefits will be discussed in turn.
Firstly, polyvagal theory is based upon the fundamental understanding of how our nervous system is organized and functions, at the level of the autonomic nervous system. It is this branch of the nervous system that is responsible for the initial intake of information, both internal and external to our body, and the subsequent interpretation of whether these stimuli represent cues of safety or risk, a process termed neuroception. As this function is the primary and initial determinant of how we experience events in both our internal and external world, an understanding of the process is essential. This is how our nervous system functions at its most fundamental level to allow us to experience everything we encounter. Furthermore, polyvagal theory emphasizes the bidirectional influence of the mind and body through the organization and function of the vagus nerve. There are few, if any, other theories or coaching paradigms which integrate in such a comprehensive fashion both our mind and body.
Secondly, polyvagal theory provides an actionable framework with which to apply the knowledge of how the autonomic nervous system functions. While the knowledge of our nervous system function is of interest and importance, it is even more beneficial that this paradigm provides a highly actionable paradigm with skills and strategies which can be developed to help leverage this knowledge. As with the knowledge component of polyvagal theory, so too does the actionable framework incorporate the integration of the mind and body. Not only does this provide the most representative framework of how our mind and body function together, by its very essence it provides numerous skills and strategies that can be developed to influence our nervous system and bring it into alignment with our goals and objectives. Given the nature of the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance it is highly advantageous to have numerous skills and strategies which can be employed as needed. The more challenging the situations we face, the more likely we will need more than one or two skills and habits.
The knowledge provided by the polyvagal theory is instrumental in understanding our reactions and performance across all the situations we may encounter. It is only by integrating these principles that we can fully understand how our mental and physical capabilities, reactions, attributes, and performance can fluctuate over time. Perhaps more importantly, we can better appreciate how less than ideal and even destructive responses are not the result of an intentional choice or decision by the individual, but rather are the result of the influence of the physiological state at the time.
For example, it is not the individual’s fault if they underperform, or ‘choke’, while in a shutdown, dorsal vagal state. Similarly, it is not necessarily a conscious decision on the part of an individual in a sympathetic state to respond to additional cues of threat and risk with anger or aggression. It is important to note that while this may provide an understanding, it should not be misconstrued as an excuse for poor or unacceptable actions or behaviors. That said, this understanding of the significant impact of our physiological state on our physical capabilities and mental attributes can help us become more compassionate towards ourself and others when we don’t respond or perform to the level we expect or the same occurs for others. This understanding also provides deeper insight into the determinants of our performance and a framework to improve performance through optimization of physiological state. As an example, our physical skills do not change from one moment to another, however a change in physiological state from the optimal performance state, a blended state of ventral vagal and sympathetic states, to a pure sympathetic state will result in predictable changes, specifically a decline down the performance hierarchy, in the ability to execute physical skills. The same is true of mental attributes, such as confidence, mindset, focus, and decision making. The polyvagal informed coaching lens is unique in its perspective in this regard.
Another aspect of the concept of the influence of physiological state on performance is that it provides agency and self-efficacy. When we understand that our body state plays a significant, if not determining, role in our physical and mental performance and we develop the skills and strategies to acknowledge our state without judgement and shift our state as needed, we develop a significant ability to determine and affect our reactions and performance.
Other coaching paradigms incorporate many skills of human high performance, including mindset training, breathwork, recovery principles, sleep, nutrition and hydration, and exercise. There is no question that all of these factors are necessary for the optimal pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. Each of these skills are also incorporated into a polyvagal informed coaching perspective. The relationship of these skills and strategies to the principles of polyvagal theory seems to best be understood through the recognition that all these skills can serve to either maintain the current physiological state or shift the state to one that is preferred for the given context. In essence, the importance and application of these skills is more completely understood through the polyvagal informed lens.
The polyvagal perspective is also beneficial because the principles and strategies apply equally across all domains of life. The physiological state that may be the result of a stimulus in one aspect of life can continue to impact other phases of life as the state will not shift simply because we engage in a different activity or domain in our life. It is important to remember that our physiological state, as well as that of all those around us, are continuously changing and what may have occurred in a separate facet of life can result in a body state that continues to impact another area of life. As humans, we all will have times of dysregulation to sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. As Deb Dana describes, the hallmark of a healthy and resilient nervous system is not the absence of dysregulation, rather it is the ability to regain ventral vagal stability following dysregulation. The pursuit of performing at our best requires pushing our limits which, inevitably, will cause periodic descent down the performance hierarchy to sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. By understanding the continually changing nature of our physiological state from the polyvagal informed perspective, we can approach such situations with compassion and understanding that it is not our fault that we are in a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state. We can then utilize our skills and habits to find safety for our nervous system, thereby allowing us to ascend back up hierarchy towards our preferred physiological state.
The above discussion reveals the truly transformative nature of polyvagal theory and its application to coaching and promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. In order to pursue these goals in a way that is most aligned with our biology, a polyvagal informed perspective is highly advantageous. Without such a perspective, too many factors are left to chance on the basis that we would not fully understand the basis for our reactions and performance and, therefore, would not be able to best incorporate skills and strategies to support our preferred reactions and performance.
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Dana, D. Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory. Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.