Why Integrate a Polyvagal Informed Perspective?

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The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance amongst healthcare professionals.  Without question, this population of individuals are already high performing, resilient, and high functioning.  The question then becomes why integrate new skills and habits amongst already successful individuals?  

There are many aspects to answering this question, including the ever increasing challenges with healthcare professional burnout, whether there may be more effective strategies by which to promote a more sustainable form of high performance, and the extent to which current and past strategies are actually more efficient and beneficial across all aspects of life.

A polyvagal informed perspective can significantly contribute to improved health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance while addressing all of the aforementioned considerations.  Healthcare professionals have clearly accomplished a significant amount in their professional lives, otherwise they would not be in the position they are, however this should not be equated with an optimal and sustainable pursuit of high performance.  In fact, the ever increasing issue of burnout amongst this population provides some perspective that a better method of pursuing one’s fullest potential may, in fact, be needed. 

The polyvagal informed perspective provides exactly this improved paradigm.  Because the integration of this lens reflects a deep understanding of our biology and physiology at its most fundamental and foundational level, a polyvagal informed perspective allows us to leverage and work with our biology rather than trying to overcome it.  In reality, it is not possible to overcome our biology.  We can try and even have some degree of ‘success’ in doing so, but eventually our body will dominate over this attempt, leading to a descent down the physiological state hierarchy resulting in ever more persisting sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.  This is not conducive to health, wellbeing, or sustainable high performance.  While it is completely normal and adaptive to spend time in these states, it is also critically important to be able to return to a measure of ventral vagal stability in order to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  Integration of a polyvagal informed lens provides the specific knowledge and skillset to accomplish this objective.

By way of an analogy, consider a competitive athlete who has achieved a high level of success in his or her local community.  Let’s presume that this athlete, while locally successful, has a limited repertoire of skills and understanding of the sport.  What happens when this athlete moves to higher levels of competition and encounters other athletes who understand the sport more completely and have a broader skillset?  One of two outcomes will occur- either the athlete will develop additional skills to be able to continue to compete at a high level or the athlete will no longer be effective.  This scenario is similar for healthcare professionals.  Just because one has obtained a measure of success does not indicate that further growth and development is not needed or beneficial.  In fact, in order to continue to be successful, particularly over an extended duration of time, integration of additional knowledge and skills is essential.

This process applies to all of us as humans.  In order to manage higher stakes situations, it is important to have a more complete understanding of how our body works under high consequence circumstances and have an accompanying wide variety of skills and habits to manage such situations.  The polyvagal informed perspective provides exactly this. 

To give an example, let’s consider the use of breathing to manage and shift physiological states.  In order to be highly effective with this skill, it is important to be able to identify the current body state and have well developed breathing skills to both mobilize energy when needed and provide a more grounding effect when needed.  The breathing pattern is different for these two applications and if the incorrect pattern is used relative to the current body state the resulting effect may be counterproductive.  For instance, the most commonly discussed breathing pattern is prolonged exhalation relative to inhalation, which provides a grounding effect.  If this is used when we sense distress but are in a dorsal vagal state, this pattern may be ineffective and may actually result in a further decrease in energy.  This breathing pattern is, however, highly suited to when our body is in a mobilized sympathetic state and we want to increase ventral vagal stability.  Not only will the grounding breathing pattern be likely to be unsuccessful in making us feel better if we are in a dorsal vagal state, its use may result in further cues of threat detected by our neuroception when utilizing what is expected to be a beneficial breath pattern does not provide the anticipated result.  This is an example of how an attempt to ‘overcome’ our biology will ultimately not be successful.  Rather it is more beneficial to understand how our body works and then use the appropriate skills and habits to shift our state.

The understanding that Polyvagal Theory provides regarding how our biology functions at its most fundamental level not only provides useful information but also a framework that allows us to work with and leverage our biology rather than trying to ‘overcome’ it.  By learning to identify and acknowledge, without judgement, our current body state and then using our skills and habits to shift that state as appropriate, we are working with our physiology and have a greater likelihood of success in achieving our goals by optimizing our body state.  An attempt to ‘overcome’ our physiology may actually provide further cues of threat when the attempt is unsuccessful and, effectively, creates a situation in which we are similar to a dog running in circles trying to catch its tail.

Integrating a polyvagal informed perspective throughout all aspects of our life allows us to leverage our biology to promote health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.  No matter the extent and nature of past and present success, we can all be empowered to be an even better and more complete version of ourselves through the application of the polyvagal informed perspective to all areas of our life.

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