The Dynamic Nature of Cues and Stimuli

Understanding how various stimuli and situations can have differing impacts on our biological states is an important consideration in the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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We are all continuously exposed to stimuli to which our nervous system responds leading to either maintenance of our current biological state or shifts towards other states.  This process, termed neuroception, has been described in past articles.  The polyvagal informed framework predicts that stimuli which provide cues of safety and connection will lead to increased activation of ventral vagal pathways, while those cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat result in mobilization towards sympathetic states or shutdown within dorsal vagal states.

These stimuli and cues are commonly described and discussed as though they, by their very nature, will inherently and predictably lead to specific adjustments or shifts in biological state under all circumstances. There are definitely some stimuli which consistently result in the same impact on the nervous system, such as the strong cues of safety and connection when in the presence of trusted loved ones, or from the other side of the hierarchy, situations that result in clear physical threat and lead to shifts into sympathetic or dorsal vagal states.  Most of the daily stimuli which we encounter, however, can be neurocepted as either cues of safety and connection or cues of uncertainty and risk.  An understanding of the determinants of whether or not these common stimuli are likely to cause ventral vagal activation or shifts towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states is an important consideration.

We have all had the experience of encountering common situations which at times do not lead to frustration, agitation, or anxiety while at other times result in exactly those responses.  Becoming stuck in traffic is a frequent and relatable example.  How is it the case, as we have all experienced, that the same scenario can be associated with dramatically different reactions?

The polyvagal principle of biological state as intervening variable provides the explanation for this experience of the same situation being associated with different responses, both at the individual level and between different people.  As Stephen Porges, PhD explains, the biological state in which we are at the time of the stimulus exerts a strong influence on neuroception.  This results in the capability of the nervous system to impact the response to any given situation on the basis of its state at the time the scenario is encountered.  In practical terms this provides a strategy through which we can leverage our biology in order to influence our responses in better alignment with how we would like to show up in any given situation.

It is important to emphasize that there are certain stimuli which are likely to lead to particular shifts in biology irrespective of the biological state at the time of the experience.  For example, if we are in a ventral vagal state and encounter a direct threat to our life, we will almost certainly shift into either sympathetic or dorsal vagal states.  From my perspective, the principle of biological state as an intervening variable is most significant as it pertains to the common, daily situations that we face.  These are the experiences that could lead either towards a more ventral vagal stabilized response or shifts into sympathetic or dorsal vagal states.  It is precisely our reactions to these common situations to which we are regularly exposed that can exert a substantial influence on the quality of our experience, both in the short term as well as over longer durations of time.

Given the significant potential of this principle to impact our lives, it becomes important to not only understand the pertinent concepts but develop skills and strategies to leverage this knowledge towards optimizing our biology within our experiences, thereby allowing us to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  The understanding of this principle can be recognized through identification that, firstly, most cues and stimuli are not finite or fixed in the response that will be encountered within our biology.  This has been described above.  Secondly, we can acknowledge that by implementing skills and strategies to influence our biological state, we are also able to exert influence over how we will respond to most of the cues and stimuli we encounter.  Thirdly, we can use our biological responses to any given scenario as an informative reaction that reflects our biological state, rather than any fixed characteristic or attribute.

The second of the three concepts requires additional explanation in order to apply within our daily lives.  By employing polyvagal informed skills and strategies we are better able to influence our biology towards preferred states for a given task or activity.  This has been discussed in previous articles.  In addition, we can further promote our preferred states by leveraging the principle of biological state as an intervening variable.  When we are able to maintain greater degrees of ventral vagal stabilization in our daily lives, it is more likely that the situations we experience will not be neurocepted in a fashion that will result in mobilization towards sympathetic states or shutdown in dorsal vagal states, unless that is the preferred response.  Returning to the traffic example described above is informative in this regard.  If we think back to our biological state at the time we became stuck in traffic, it is likely the case that we responded with less frustration or aggravation if we were more grounded in a ventral vagal stabilized state.  Conversely, we were likely already mobilized towards a sympathetic state if our response was more in line with frustration, anxiety, or aggravation.

From the above description, it becomes evident that we are able to exert our greatest degree of influence over our nervous system and its responses through development and embodiment of the polyvagal informed toolbox.  With greater degrees of ventral vagal activation and stabilization, we are better able to manage our nervous system when we encounter inevitable daily stressors and high demand situations.  In addition, we are better equipped to recognize when we dysregulate and shift into sympathetic and/or dorsal vagal states, as we all do, and recover back from these states towards ventral vagal stabilization.

There is frequent discussion regarding the cognitive skill of reframing in order to reduce the impact of potential stressors.  This strategy involves adjusting the perspective from which a given scenario is contemplated in order to provide other possible interpretations of the situation.  The concept is that in so doing, other explanations can be recognized that are inherently less stressful.  While this strategy is effective, it is important to acknowledge that this skill, as with other cognitive tools, is most beneficial when we are in a ventral vagal stabilized state and loses its utility when we are in sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.  The rationale for this has been described in further detail in past articles.  To summarize, cognitively based skills require the capacity for consideration of alternate explanations which is based upon the ability to have an open mind that is capable of exploring other possibilities.  While this is a trait that is common to ventral vagal states, it is not typically accessible while in sympathetic and dorsal vagal states which are characterized, at least in part, by a loss of expansive and open minded thinking.  

This explains why acknowledgement of the principle of biological state as an intervening variable is important.  Application of this concept is more effective in reducing the impact of potential stressors across all biological states than are cognitive skills.  This is because the polyvagal informed skills and strategies are more comprehensive in the consideration of the bidirectional impact of the mind and body and the recognition that in certain states, particularly sympathetic and dorsal vagal states, body-based skills are often more effective in restoring ventral vagal stabilization.  Once we have shifted towards a more ventral vagal regulated state, the cognitive skills can become more effective.

In order to optimally pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance it is important to implement and leverage the concept of the biological state as an intervening variable.  By embodying this strategy, we are better able to reduce the potential impact of the daily and frequent situations and stimuli that can lead to sympathetic activation and dorsal shutdown.  This capacity improves the flexibility of our nervous system and better allows us to pursue health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance even within high demand and high consequence situations.  This provides an additional foundational component to the Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.

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Allison, M.  The Play Zone:  A Neurophysiological Approach to our Highest Performance.

Porges, SW.  Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2021.

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