The Incremental Benefit of Polyvagal Informed Training

The incremental benefits provided by the polyvagal informed paradigm allow us to leverage our biology in order to align our physiology and psychology and optimize our life.

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Previous articles have described the benefits of implementing a polyvagal informed paradigm within our lives.  The positive impact of this perspective can improve our health and wellbeing and, simultaneously, promotes sustainable high performance.  This is the framework underlying the Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.  The focus of this article is to illustrate how the polyvagal informed paradigm provides additional foundation for the pursuit of sustainable high performance beyond that which is obtained through the application of the common mind-based and body-based skills and strategies which are widely described across several domains, most notably performance psychology.  Essentially the incremental benefit provided through the application of the polyvagal informed paradigm is based upon the understanding it provides in unifying the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies.

This incremental benefit is best illustrated through consideration of specific aspects of training and developing the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies which promote sustainable high performance.  It is important to note that the integration of mind-based skill training has been a tremendous step forward from the previous paradigm of developing physical, craft specific skills alone.  By integrating the various mind-based skills, the potential for performing closer to one’s capacity and doing so on a consistent basis is greatly improved.  

That being said, the development of mind-based skills alone is not sufficient to truly be able to perform at one’s capacity on a consistent basis over an extended duration of time.  Essentially, from my perspective, there is a ceiling to implementation of mind-based skills alone.  The best illustration is that provided by the case studies of top ranked international tennis players described by Michael Allison. These individuals have trained their craft specific skills and mind-based skills to the highest level.  Despite this, and not of their own choice or fault, there exist situations in which these skills are not sufficient on their own and their biological states descend the hierarchy into sympathetic and dorsal vagal states in response to cues and stimuli they experience.  The resulting impact on their performance is evident.  These examples are beautifully informed by Michael Allison and provide high visibility illustrations of the importance and incremental benefit of the polyvagal informed paradigm to unify mind-based and body-based skills and strategies in the promotion of sustainable high performance.  Given the extensive training undertaken by these professional athletes, there is little question that the same framework applies to us all.

Through specific polyvagal informed training of mind-based and body-based skills and strategies, we are able to develop the additional capacity to recognize our biological state more quickly and implement skills to shift our state in the desired direction more efficiently.  This has a direct impact on our performance.  While training the mind-based skills is highly advantageous, there will ultimately come a time in which the high consequence scenarios in which we place ourselves in the pursuit of being our best and pushing our limits will provide cues of uncertainty, if not risk and threat, to our bodies.  In such a situation, our neuroception will detect these stimuli and respond without our conscious awareness.  We are not able to control this.  The result will be predictable shifts in our physiology and psychology and, depending on the specifics of the situation, shifts in our biological state towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states which do not typically promote sustainable high performance.  The ability to manage these scenarios is why there is a distinct incremental advantage to polyvagal informed training.

Another example of the incremental advantage to polyvagal informed training relates to the benefits of the vagal break.  As described in previous articles, the vagal break effectively allows us to modulate the degree of sympathetic activation we experience in response to various internal, external, and relational cues and stimuli.  The vagal break allows us to modulate our response so that it is not a dichotomy between either being in a ventral vagal state or in a sympathetic state.  In essence, it provides the equivalent of a dimmer switch.  This ability to adjust our level of mobilization has distinct advantages on our immediate performance as well as sustainability of performance.  Given the higher degree of resource consumption typical of sympathetic states, it is often the case that we would benefit from some of the energy mobilization afforded by sympathetic activation without fully entering, or at least becoming locked, in this state.  In addition, we are typically able to perform closer to our highest potential when we have ventral vagal stabilization to offer the attributes of this state.  Optimization of the vagal break is a polyvagal informed strategy which accomplishes this important objective.  This can be trained through polyvagal informed exercises in which we challenge our capacity and then recover back to ventral vagal stabilization.  This increases our ventral vagal tone and efficiency which strengthens the vagal break.

It is also important to recognize that polyvagal informed training provides increased ventral vagal stabilization and vagal break which creates a stable platform upon which the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies associated with high performance can be more fully and completely expressed.  The ability to efficiently shift our biological state affords the capability to leverage our biology in order to align our physiology and psychology in the pursuit of optimizing our life through promoting health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  Without fully developing this ability, we are likely able to express our potential in lower demand situations in which there are fewer, if any, cues of uncertainty, risk, or threat.  However, the relative decrease in ventral vagal stabilization and vagal break results in a reduced capacity and threshold to experience higher demand situations without shifting into sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.  Alternatively, when we increase our ventral vagal stabilization and strengthen our vagal break, our capacity to maintain sufficient ventral vagal stabilization in the midst of higher demand situations is greater which allows us to more closely pursue our fullest potential.  This ability is necessary in order to promote sustainable high performance because the inherent nature of this pursuit involves frequent exposure to high demand and high consequence situations.

The promotion of sustainable high performance is greatly enhanced through application of a polyvagal informed paradigm.  This provides a stable foundation upon which the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies of high performance can optimally be developed and expressed.  In addition, this framework promotes health and wellbeing which are also necessary in order to reach our fullest potential of performance.   This approach develops our ability to leverage our biology and align our physiology and psychology, thereby optimizing all aspects of our life.  

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

Allison M.  How Our Feelings of Safety Guide Our Behavior.  Looking at the World Through a Polyvagal Lens.  Psychol Today, May 30, 2022;

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