Identifying the smaller and more frequent situations and experiences in life is an important skill in order to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.
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In previous articles, there has been discussion regarding the impact of stimuli and cues on our biological state. The description of these situations and scenarios often relates to large and substantial moments and their resulting impact on our biology. While it is certainly true that significant events and stimuli can result in substantial cues that are interpreted through the process of neuroception, they are far from the only pertinent stimuli which we encounter.
It is important that we also give consideration to the more frequent, yet perhaps smaller in magnitude, situations which occur throughout our daily lives. While we may encounter significant scenarios on a regular basis, it is typically the case that there are far more smaller moments which we experience with greater frequency. These events can also provide important stimuli which are processed through neuroception and, potentially, result in shifts in our biological state. It is also the case, as will be discussed in this article, that the cumulative effect of these more frequent situations can have an important impact on our biological state.
Just as with the larger magnitude events in our lives, these smaller moments can similarly produce cues of safety and connection or cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat. Our nervous system will process these experiences in much the same way as the more substantial encounters. Owing to the smaller magnitude of these smaller moments, the resulting shift in biological state may be less drastic than with the larger events. Given the greater frequency, however, of these smaller moments, the cumulative effective may be as significant as the more large scale experiences in our daily lives.
Deb Dana often describes these smaller moments as “glimmers” which can provide important cues of safety and connection. From her description, the significance of these experiences is that they are commonly present and, if we are not attuned to them or sufficiently oriented towards their recognition, are commonly missed. The importance of developing awareness of these “glimmers” is that they can provide frequent cues of safety and connection, even in the midst of high demand situations or high consequence environments that are otherwise providing substantial cues of uncertainly, risk, or threat. In practice, we can develop the ability to more efficiently recognize these “glimmers” and use their presence to provide increased ventral vagal activation, particularly during situations in which we are mobilized towards sympathetic states or experiencing shutdown within dorsal vagal states.
Identification of smaller moments of cues of safety and connection becomes another important tool within our polyvagal informed toolbox. If we are to consider even the most challenging situations we have recently encountered, it is likely the case that during the scenario there were smaller moments or “glimmers” present that would have been capable of providing cues of safety and connection, thereby contributing towards shifts into ventral vagal stabilized states. It is precisely during these high demand situations that it is commonly necessary to increase ventral vagal activation and inclusion of this additional resource to assist with this is beneficial.
In addition to the potential for smaller moments to provide cues of safety and connection, it is also likely the case, from my perspective, that the converse is also true. It seems reasonable to infer that cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat could be provided, albeit in smaller magnitude, from those experiences in which, for example, we complain about an inconvenience or attach to a narrative that increases self-doubt. In such situations, it would seem to be the case that even though there may not be substantial or large magnitude cues of uncertainty, risk, or threat, that there may be sufficient cues present to shift our biology downwards on the hierarchy of biological states. Presuming this is the case, it would then be possible for there to be a cumulative impact of smaller moments of cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat which combine, through the process of neuroception, to mobilize our biology into sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.
The recognition of this potential is important in order to increase knowledge that it is not only large magnitude cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat which result in mobilization towards sympathetic states or shutdown within dorsal vagal states. These shifts can also occur from less evident cues, although the overall impact can be similar. If it is the case that these smaller moments can have such an effect, it becomes important to increase our awareness of all smaller moments, not only those of cues of safety and connection but also those providing cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat. The cumulative impact of all the smaller moments can be significant with respect to the resulting shifts in biological state.
Following the above discussion further contributes to the importance of Deb Dana’s recommendation to develop awareness of the smaller moments. When we are able to increase recognition of the “glimmers” which are almost always present, it becomes possible to further stabilize our biology within ventral vagal states. Also, the identification of the smaller moments of cues of uncertainty, risk, and threat allows us to more efficiently identify when our biology may begin to shift towards sympathetic and dorsal vagal states. The sooner we are able to identify such shifts, the more readily we are able to implement skills and strategies to shift our biology towards preferred states.
In order to optimize our pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance it is important to be able to influence and leverage our biology in alignment with our passion, philosophy, purpose, and values. Identification of the smaller moments, including those providing cues of safety and connection as well as uncertainty, risk and threat, is an important skill to include within our polyvagal informed toolbox. This enhances our available resources to optimize our ability to be at our best within any, and all, situations. This facilitates the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance within the Practices of the Healthcare Athlete through optimizing our biology in alignment with that which matters most to us.
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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.