Why Integrate Polyvagal Informed Skills and Strategies?

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There are many skills and habits of human high performance that have been recommended to be implemented into our routines.  Why should polyvagal informed skills also be integrated and developed?

Within the realm of optimizing human performance, many complimentary skills have been recommended for integration into daily routines.  These include mindset training, meditation, sleep, nutrition/hydration, exercise, and recovery principles.  Given the number of skills already being implemented, why should polyvagal informed specific skills and strategies also be developed?  Is there an incremental benefit?  In this article, an attempt will be made to recommend that these additional skills are needed to optimally pursue our best performance across all domains of life.  It is also important to emphasize that these skills are also necessary to optimally promote our health and wellbeing.

To start, it is informative to understand the incremental benefit of the already established and widely recommended performance skills of mindset training, meditation, nutrition/hydration, sleep, and recovery.  These principles were applied in a layered fashion as the evidence emerged regarding the additional benefit provided by each skillset.  Taking competitive sports as an example, initially athletes would only train craft specific skills.  Subsequently, the additional skills were layered on to the already present skills.  The basis for adding further skills and strategies was the enhanced understanding of the increased benefit of adding physical fitness training, optimizing nutrition and hydration, including mindset training, meditation, sleep, and recovery principles.  As each successive layer was implemented, it would become progressively more difficult for those athletes who did not include the additional skills to remain competitive with those who did.  It is clear to us all that competitive athletes are not ‘soft’ and are continuously looking for each and every competitive advantage.  It is in this spirit that they include the additional skills of human performance and do so in an intentional and deliberate fashion so as to not miss an opportunity to improve their performance or to leave any aspect of their performance to chance.

This same principle can be applied to all of us, not solely in professional performance areas, but in all aspects of our life.  If we would like to perform our best professionally or in any personal domain in life, such as a partner, parent, family member, pet owner or any other, we need to intentionally and deliberately develop and integrate the skills and habits of human performance.  The choice is completely up to each and every individual whether or not they will develop these skills.  If the choice is made to train these skills, then the best opportunity to perform to the fullest potential is provided.  On the other hand, if the decision is to not integrate these principles, then performance will be left to chance.  An analogy can be drawn from the pursuit of physical health.  If we would like to promote our physical health to the greatest degree, we can choose to integrate regular exercise and a healthy diet into our lives.  If we do so, then we have the greatest chance for optimizing our health.  If we choose to not implement these strategies then we leave our physical health to chance, with the strong likelihood that it will not be as good as we may wish.

The skills considered within the paradigm of a polyvagal informed approach to performance include the aforementioned skills of human high performance.  In addition, there is development of an understanding of the principles of polyvagal theory to better understand how our physiological state can shift, what determines these shifts, and how to manage these changes.  The fundamental additional skills required in this paradigm are development of awareness of our physiological state and strategies to shift the state as needed, including breathing practices, application of the social engagement system, and developing strategies of providing cues of safety to our nervous system.  These skills layer on to the previously mentioned skills of human performance.

To understand the importance and benefit of implementing these additional skills and strategies, consideration of professional athletes can be very insightful.  These athletes, as discussed above, train all aspects of human performance.  They typically develop an intentional and deliberate routine to optimize their physical skills, robustly train their mental skills, and optimize their sleep and recovery.  They are ‘mentally tough’ and ‘resilient’.  If they weren’t, they would not have reached their status within their chosen sport.  Despite their extensive training, it can be readily seen that many, if not most, of these athletes descend, at times, the performance hierarchy into sympathetic and even dorsal vagal shutdown states.  This occurs despite their extensive mindset training and it is not their choice or, necessarily, their fault that these responses occur.  These reactions are the result of physiological states shifting in response to internal and external cues of threat, as predicted by polyvagal theory, and are not within their conscious and intentional control.  Examples from the sports world are very instructive because the players, their responses, and the resulting impact on performance are all highly visible.

These physiological state shifts occur amongst athletes in both team and individual sports, although it is most apparent in the individual setting as there are no teammates present to assist, and essentially co-regulate, the athlete.  The progression along the sequence has been well described and illustrated by Michael Allison, a polyvagal informed performance coach and my friend and mentor.  He has illustrated this sequence amongst two of the top tennis players in the world at the time of the analysis (see the reference below for an excellent description).  Each of these athletes are highly trained, both physically and mentally, and each descended down the performance hierarchy and eventually reached dorsal vagal shutdown states.  Michael’s fantastic illustrations not only demonstrate the different physiological states and progression, but also emphasize how physical training and mental skills are not sufficient to avoid the expression of sympathetic and dorsal vagal states in situations of high cues of threat and risk.  The advanced mindset training that each of these athletes had pursued was not sufficient in those moments to prevent the descent down the hierarchy to dorsal vagal shutdown.  As discussed above, this progression of physiological states is not within conscious control and, therefore, is not intentional or deliberately chosen. 

If this is the case for highly trained athletes who are the best in the world, then the same is true for all of us.  The development of polyvagal informed skills and strategies is necessary in the pursuit of our best performance in any and all domains of life, both professional and personal.  Even the development of robust physical skill and mindset training and meditation will not be sufficient in the face of intense cues of threat and risk to prevent descent down the performance hierarchy, as Michael’s examples of professional tennis players demonstrate.

As the preceding discussion illustrates, there is a definite and significant incremental benefit to the addition of polyvagal informed skills and strategies.  It is necessary to integrate these additional strategies if we are to maximally pursue our fullest potential and optimal performance in our chosen domains of life.  This paradigm equally applies to promotion of health and wellbeing.  A polyvagal informed perspective is, for this reason, an essential component to The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete and the pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance.

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Allison M.  How Our Feelings of Safety Guide Our Behavior.  Looking at the World Through a Polyvagal Lens.  Psychol Today, May 30, 2022; https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/polyvagal-perspectives/202205/how-our-feelings-safety-guide-our-behavior.

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