The Dynamic Nature of Our Attributes

The polyvagal informed paradigm provides a greater understanding and an actionable framework to manage the inevitable variations in our experience.  

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Previous articles have described the benefits of a polyvagal informed paradigm in the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  The emphasis of the past discussion has related to the benefits provided by ventral vagal stabilized states, particularly pertaining to the expression of mind-based skills and strategies.  This article will expand the discussion to consider how the polyvagal informed perspective provides a more complete recognition and understanding of our experience across all domains of life and how this can inform our implementation of skills and strategies.

Prior to exploring this in further detail, additional considerations regarding the common paradigm of the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies are necessary.  Within the typical discussion of the various mind-based attributes, such as confidence, optimism, calm, and grit is the recommendation for development of these skills and traits.  This requires intentional and deliberate training as each of these skills, as well as the body-based tools, require practice in order to develop a measure of proficiency in the ability to employ these tools.

In addition, there is an underlying presumption that while ongoing training is beneficial, once a threshold level of competence in each skill is reached, it will continuously be present and accessible.  This is another consideration with which to view the benefit of a polyvagal informed perspective.  Most, if not all, of us have had the experience in which we feel a degree of proficiency with any, and all, of these mind-based and body-based skills and strategies in one situation only to find that our perceived ability changes under other circumstances.  While there may be identifiable factors leading to this change at times, it is more often the case that there is no recognizable inciting event.

The above description of variation in the proficiency level of any number of mind-based, body-based, or even craft specific skills is not the exception.  In fact, it is more the general experience we share.  We have all encountered these types of scenarios.  More out of the ordinary would be an experience in which there are no fluctuations in the ability across such skills and strategies.  This degree of continuous change reflects the Buddhist and Zen concept and recognition of impermanence.

To this point in the discussion, we have considered how our mind-based and body-based attributes are dynamic in ability and proficiency.  It has also been acknowledged that the typical paradigm utilized in the development of these tools is that once they have been trained, they are accessible in a relatively consistent fashion.  This expectation contrasts significantly with our experience and reality.

Having established these considerations, we can now turn attention towards the polyvagal informed understanding of this phenomenon of fluctuation in capability of the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies.  As with the past discussion of the benefit of the polyvagal informed perspective in the development of these skills, it was noted that the ventral vagal stabilized state provides a more stable platform for development and expression of these attributes.  When we consider the dynamic nature of these skills and strategies, the polyvagal informed perspective also provides additional insight.

While the common performance psychology perspective seems to consider these attributes to be relatively static once they have been developed, that is to say they are present and expressible under all situations, the experience we all share suggests a more dynamic reality.  When considered from the polyvagal informed paradigm, this is more readily understandable.  Application of the Polyvagal Theory provides an understanding of the various physical and psychological characteristics of the recognized biological states.  When these traits are considered in detail, it can be readily appreciated how distinct the mind-based attributes, for instance, would be within the different states.  This provides the basis for understanding the dynamic nature of these skills and strategies.

The above explanation can be reinforced with an example.  Taking confidence as the attribute for analysis and considering the relative levels of confidence we may express and experience across ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal states provides an understanding regarding why we encounter variations in our level of confidence in different situations.  The same rationale applies to all mind-based and body-based skills and strategies.

While we may develop a level of proficiency in the application of the various tools, the level of proficiency we experience and are able to express is also a reflection of the current biological state.  In fact, it may be a greater reflection of the biological state than our degree of training and usual proficiency of that attribute, once a particular level of ability has been developed.  Not only does this understanding provide insight into the explanation by which the proficiency of these skills and strategies varies over time, but an actionable framework to manage situations in which we are not expressing typical levels of proficiency across these skills.  Given the above described polyvagal informed perspective, it follows that if we experience decreased levels of confidence, to continue the previous example, an effective strategy would be to employ skills and strategies within the polyvagal informed toolbox in order to increase ventral vagal stabilization.  If we are to consider our typical experience, this theoretical framework emerges in everyday examples.  It is often the case that we feel more confidence in those instances in which we are grounded and connected with ourselves and others.

It is important to recognize that this dynamic nature of our attributes also applies to external and relational cues and stimuli.  Just as we can easily encounter variability in our proficiency with these tools, so too can those around us.  In addition, the external environment is typically continuously changing as well.  In essence, all of the cues and stimuli which our neuroception encounters, including internal, relational, and external, are all dynamic.  This is reinforced through one of Michael Allison’s foundational principles, which he describes as meeting the body where it is.   This concept refers to the importance of using our attention to acknowledge our biological state and can be expanded to include recognition of those around us and the external environment.  In practice, it is beneficial to accept and meet the entirety of our experience where it is.

As with the discussion regarding the polyvagal informed understanding of the dynamic nature of our attributes, the concept of meeting our experience where it is can be appreciated across multiple levels.  At one level is the understanding it provides for changes we may experience.  This also applies to those around us and our environment.  Another level provides a more actionable framework.  By accepting internal, relational, and external situations for what they are can help us avoid creating additional cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat which can predictably shift our biology towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.

Those situations in which there is a dynamic shift in our internal, relational, and external experiences most often are in a direction that may be considered to be less favorable, particularly as it relates to our performance capability.  After all, if the variation were in a more positive direction it would be welcomed and not a likely cue of uncertainty, risk, or threat.  Conversely, when these shifts occur in unfavorable directions, the very presence of the shift can provide cues towards shifting into sympathetic and/or dorsal vagal states.  Once these changes have occurred, if we are to not meet the situation where it is, then we can easily provide further cues of mobilization towards a sympathetic state or shutdown into a dorsal vagal state.  If, however, we acknowledge the change in circumstance and meet it as it occurs, as Michael Allison describes, we avoid these additional cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat.

This discussion provides additional insight into the benefits of embodiment of a polyvagal informed paradigm.  Such a perspective provides greater understanding of the dynamic nature of our experience and actionable strategies to manage the inevitable variations which we encounter in our internal, relational, and external experiences.  This polyvagal informed paradigm provides a strong foundation and framework with which The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete promotes health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  

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

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