What is the benefit of intentional and deliberate training of the nervous system? Is it necessary and is the return on the investment worthwhile?
The previous article discussed the principles of training our nervous system from a polyvagal informed lens. A common question raised, including by healthcare professionals, relates to the need to invest further time in training additional skills and strategies in the midst of an already overly busy schedule. This is a valid consideration. If the return on investment is not sufficient, then a reasonable response might be to not invest additional time and resources. The question then becomes whether or not there is incremental benefit to training our nervous system.
From a polyvagal informed perspective, it is necessary to develop the ability to identify and regulate our physiological states if we are to be at our best in any, and all, domains of life. This applies equally to professional and personal pursuits. Ventral vagal activation is essential for recovery and growth. A blended ventral vagal-sympathetic state is optimal for performance. Sympathetic and dorsal vagal states, while adaptive in certain situations, are not conducive to sustainable high performance, health, and wellbeing. As we are continuously receiving internal and external cues of safety and connection as well as risk and threat, our nervous system and the resulting physiological states are regularly changing. These processes are occurring whether or not we choose to acknowledge it and whether or not we choose to develop skills and strategies to try and leverage our physiology in alignment with our passion, purpose, and goals.
In order to optimize our physiology in pursuit of our objectives, it is necessary to train our nervous system in both the identification without judgement of our physiological state and the skills and strategies necessary to shift this state as needed. The principles underlying such training was described in the previous article. Our capacity and abilities can be markedly different dependent upon our physiological state. The way we think and breath; our muscle tension and posture; and the nature of our voice are all significantly impacted by our physiological state.
While it may be relatively more possible to think our way through our state when we have an element of ventral vagal activation, this capacity is frequently, if not universally, lost when we are locked in a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state. And yet it is during these states that we are most in need of being able to identify and shift our physiology if we are to pursue our highest level of performance. Yet it is precisely this scenario in which our body will typically override our brain and mind and we will reflexively react. How then does it become possible to utilize our skills of acknowledgement of our state and then implement the appropriate skills in the settings in which our body is acting reflexively and without higher level cognition and cortical input?
The answer to this question lies in the training of our nervous system. When we are developing a new skill, we need to invest significant resources, physically and cognitively, in the execution of the skill. Take for example a sports specific skill or learning to play an instrument. When the skills are novel, we need to fully concentrate on the many steps involved in the successful execution of the desired skill. Using the example of playing an instrument, such as the guitar, at a minimum we need to read the notes, cognitively recall what each symbol means, recall how to play the required note, and then co-ordinate this cognitive understanding with the required motor skills. Each of these steps, and there may well be additional necessary steps, cannot be accomplished by the beginner without significant concentration and focus. As the various skills develop and become more proficient, less and less cognitive attention is needed, the motor skills become more fluid, and the overall execution becomes automated.
The same process of skill development applies to embodying the principles of polyvagal theory. Initially, when we are developing these skills, we need substantial attention and cognitive function. This is necessary to not only identify the elements of our physiological state but to understand which skills to implement at which times in order to shift our physiology in the desired direction. At first, this is highly challenging even in situations in which we are not under high stress or demand. As we develop these skills through training, we may develop the ability, at first, to be able to identify and shift our state with less cognitive requirements in relatively low stress situations, typically when we still have an element of ventral vagal activation present. At this time, we may not have the ability to identify and implement skills to shift our state if we are fully in a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state or if we are in the midst of a significant challenge or high stakes environment. With time and training, however, the necessary skills to implement polyvagal theory become better developed. As this occurs, a degree of automation may develop to allow us to better identify and shift our state even in situations where we don’t have ventral vagal activation. In practice, this allows us the ability to better identify and shift our physiology under progressively more challenging circumstances. Essentially, these skills become more automated, similar to the example of learning to play the guitar.
This understanding provides the rationale for the need to train our nervous system. While we may be able to think our way through lower stakes situations, it is highly likely that we will not be able to do so in higher consequence environments. In such situations, it is more likely that our physiology will descend the performance hierarchy and we may become stuck in either a sympathetic or dorsal vagal state. It is particularly during these high stakes situations, however, that we most want to maintain the highest possible degree of control over our physiology so that we are able to be at our best. In order to develop this capacity, it is essential that we intentionally and deliberately train our nervous system.
The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete is a paradigm that promotes health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. In order to pursue these goals, it is necessary that we are able to be at our best during high stakes situations and high demand scenarios. The ability to do this is dependent upon our ability to recognize our physiological state and shift it as needed by implementing skills and strategies that we have developed over time. It is precisely for this reason that training the nervous system is necessary and provides a significant return on investment.