The Polyvagal Informed Toolbox

Training and developing polyvagal informed skills and strategies provides a robust toolbox to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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Previous articles have described many of the mind-based and body-based skills and strategies which are developed as part of the polyvagal informed paradigm to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the framework of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.  It is important that as wide an array of skills and strategies as possible is trained in order to optimally pursue these goals.  Such a process provides a robust toolbox with many different resources that can be employed in the promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  While the details of many of the various skills have been described previously, it is informative to summarize them and provide the larger context for the polyvagal informed toolbox.

Identification of values, purpose, passion, and philosophy are important factors in the cultivation of the robust toolbox.  These elements relate to a clear understanding of that which is of most importance to us and includes consideration of these aspects across all domains of life.  In addition, it is important that we develop a philosophy that best describes how we strive to be and show up within all of our roles and various contexts in our life.  Each of these elements is fluid and can change and evolve over time.  For this reason, it is important to periodically revisit each factor and update our understanding as necessary.  The primary importance of these elements lies in their ability to form a road map that we can follow, particularly during challenging situations.  When we face obstacles, our understanding of these factors can help us continue pursuing that which is of most importance to us and the framework to do so in a fashion that reflects how we choose to be and show up in our various life roles.

Another foundational skill within the polyvagal informed paradigm is development of awareness and attention control.  From this perspective, this primarily relates to our ability to recognize our bodily sensations, thoughts, and identify our biological states.  This is an essential skill as it is a necessary component of being able to maintain or shift our biological state towards that which is most conducive to our current situation.  In order to accomplish this, we must first be able to determine our present biological state so that we can acknowledge it and then identify in which direction on the hierarchy of biological states we need to shift.

While the polyvagal informed lens provides a unified understanding of various mind-based and body-based skills and strategies, it remains convenient to discuss these resources by categorizing them as either mind or body based.  While this distinction is arbitrary and does not reflect the true interaction amongst the various skills, it provides a framework for discussion.  Amongst the mind-based skills that are trained within the polyvagal informed toolbox are optimism and gratitude, the ability to refocus attention, reframing and disputing narratives, and confidence.  While each of these are deserving of a more detailed discussion, for the purpose of this article an overview will be provided.  

Gratitude training is undertaken to enhance an optimistic mindset which allows, at least in part, for improved identification of positive events and experiences which provides cues of safety and connection.  The ability to refocus attention is a two-part process that requires awareness to identify where our attention and focus is placed, followed by a deliberate and conscious choice to focus and place our attention in a different direction.  The skill of reframing and disputing narratives provides the opportunity to question and challenge the story which our brain may create to explain how we are feeling in any given moment.  Often this narrative is not based on consideration of all possibilities and facts, but rather is an attempt to make sense of how we are feeling in our bodily sensations.  Learning to dispute our narratives and consider alternate explanations is important to assist in avoiding identification with these powerful, yet often incorrect, stories.  Confidence is an element which is familiar to most of us and, typically, relates to our ability to believe in our capability to perform a skill or accomplish an objective.  An additional aspect to confidence provided by the polyvagal informed perspective relates to the capacity to manage and leverage our biology towards promoting health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  From this perspective, confidence pertains to the belief we can manage our biology.

There are several skills and resources which are commonly considered as body-based strategies.  Amongst these, breathing is perhaps the most powerful and frequently discussed.  The manner in which we breath can directly and efficiently impact our autonomic nervous system and promote shifts in our biological state.  In addition to this, our breathing is a telltale indicator of our current biological state and can be used to train our nervous system capacity.  The topic of breathwork will be covered in greater detail in a future article.  As an overview, one of the powerful means by which we can utilize our breath is to shift our biological states.  Breathing patterns with prolonged exhalations result in increased ventral vagal activation and those with prolonged inhalation cause mobilization towards sympathetic states.

Another important body-based resource is application of the social-engagement system.  This includes use of our facial muscle tone and posture, hearing, and voice to impact our biological state as well as that of those around us.  This important concept has been described in further detail in previous articles.  Movement is also an important polyvagal informed tool as it can be used to not only maintain physical and emotional health but is an effective strategy to adjust the degree of mobilization within our biological states.  Optimization of nutrition and hydration are also important considerations in order to provide appropriate energy and metabolic resources for our body.  The presence of an undernourished or dehydrated state can be a significant cue of threat and risk.  In addition, ensuring adequate recovery, particularly following high demand activities, is essential in order to restore resources allowing for proper preparation for upcoming situations.  The importance and principles of recovery have been discussed in further detail in previous articles.

It is worth considering why it is important to train and develop this robust polyvagal informed toolbox.  As has been detailed in past articles, it is often the case that while certain skills and strategies may be highly effective in some situations, they may be less useful, or even ineffective, in other situations.  By having many possible resources available to assist in the management of our biological state, we provide ourselves greater capacity to tolerate high demand situations, a higher degree of flexibility and resilience within our nervous system, and the ability to more efficiently recover following high consequence scenarios.

A crucial element related to the application of the polyvagal informed toolbox is development and training of these skills and strategies in a proactive fashion.  There are several reasons why this is necessary.  Firstly, just as with any skill, in order to develop proficiency with these strategies, we must practice them in many different situations, beginning in lower demand and less consequential scenarios.  If we do not undertake such deliberate practice, we cannot realistically expect that we will be able to optimally employ any of these strategies when we are most in need of them.  In addition, the principle of biological state as an intervening variable informs that the state in which we are present at the time we experience a given cue or stimulus will impact the manner in which we neurocept the cue and the resulting shift in biological state.  By training these polyvagal informed skills and strategies, we are able to increase our baseline level of ventral vagal activation, thereby allowing us to experience this specific state on a more frequent basis.  By training these skills and strategies we are able to improve baseline ventral vagal activation, increase the efficiency of our vagal break, and increase the capacity, resilience, and flexibility of our nervous system.  This provides the optimal foundation from which to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

As can be appreciated from the above discussion, it is important to train and develop a wide array of polyvagal informed skills and strategies.  This provides the foundation for the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the framework of The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.  

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

Dana, D.  Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory.  Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, 2021.

Dana, D.  Polyvagal Practices: Anchoring The Self in Safety.  New York:  W.W. Nortan & Company, 2023.

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

Porges, SW.  The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 2011.

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