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Deep-dive #5: Of ladders and windows

Oh, our Vagus nerve! There is so much more to explore about it that fits into one deep-dive. In #4 we learned that there are two antagonists in the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS): the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SPS). Little did we know: In 1994, Dr. Stephen Porges discovered, that our oh so mighty “traveler” is divided into two more branches:

  • The Ventral Vagus: Two hundred million years young, endearingly called the “new Vagus.” It runs through the front of the body. Its pathways are linked to social engagement, feelings of calm, connectedness, and cognitive activity.

  • The Dorsal Vagus: Five hundred million years young, respectfully called the “old Vagus.” This one runs along the back of the body. It is responsible for states of relaxation, but also for what is often called the “dead man's reflex.”

In our ANS, two important ways of feeling and experiencing coexist under one roof: Our biologically based need for connectedness, and our innate need to survive and be safe. Sometimes both experiences actively co-operate, and sometimes they conflict with each other. To ensure that 24/7, our bodyguard ANS constantly monitors our surroundings and our experiences from three perspectives: Context (What? How? Why?), choice (What are the options?), and connectedness (Am I alone in this?). If the signals it receives convey a sense of safety, all is good: our ANS is beautifully regulated, and our feeling of secured survival is strengthened. If only one of these three is missing though, discomfort arises, and the ANS prepares for a protective response.

How does that work?

A theory that can help shed a light on this question is the Polyvagal theory (PVT) by Dr. Steve Porges. It is based on three key principles:

  • Co-regulation: An indispensable biological necessity! In this process two or more individuals calm each other’s neuronal states by exchanging signals of safety and connections. This helps them regulate their nervous system and remain socially open.

  • Neuroception: The ANS’s very own monitoring system that looks inside, outside, and in between for signals of safety and danger, only without involving the cognitive parts of our brain. It subconsciously and autonomically seeks to answer the 1-million-dollar question: "Safe or not safe?"

  • Autonomous hierarchy: Our nervous system has three levels that react to different situations. Each of them is vital. When we perceive a threat, our ANS goes through these states in a predictable, hierarchical sequence. Imagine a ladder, with an upper, a middle, and a lower rung: Social Engagement: The top rung is occupied by the parasympathetic ventral vagal state. On this rung, we feel connected to others, we are engaged, and that engagement helps us orientate. We have reassured ourselves of the safety of a situation, and our physiology calms down. If though we are confronted with a challenge that makes it impossible for our ventral vagal system to maintain a regulated state, we autonomically switch to the next rung: Fight or flight: When on that middle rung, our ANS prepares for battle or to run away. This state is occupied by the sympathetic nervous system – which btw. Is four hundred million years old. If the challenge cannot be overcome in this way either, we switch to the lowest rung: Freeze: This is where the parasympathetic dorsal vagal state is located and where archaic reflex of our reptilian brain comes into play: To avoid harm, we play dead, disconnect from

We shift between these three rungs many times throughout our day, sometimes casually and sometimes in extreme ways. When life smells like roses, switching is easier. But when we are stuck in the middle or the lower rung due to e.g., traumatic experiences or protective programs from early childhood our survival patterns replace patterns of connectedness. And, because connectedness is a biological necessity, chronic disconnectedness has a traumatizing effect and overwhelms our ability to cope with every-day life. What a cycle!

While it is difficult to argue with the notion that our entire planet is collectively traumatized, at the end of the day we all process our emotions and our experiences in different intensity. Daniel J. Siegel calls this our ‘window of tolerance’: Every time we do something that we do not want to do or for which we have no capacity, we fall out of the window, either upwards or downwards. When we fall out at the top, our state resembles that of a panic attack, if we fall out at the bottom, more that of numbness or depression. What is even more impressive is that the more often we fall out of the window, the smaller it becomes and consequently the less stress-resistant we are. However, the more often we stay within our stress resistance window, the bigger it gets and the things we do seem to come easily to us. So, to function better in situations of stress and to calm our nervous system checking where were currently stand in our “window of tolerance” is a great starting point.

To close, here is an informative video that summarizes the main principles of the PVT in response of extraordinary situations and stress:

The shell of the nut:

There is no denying that our ANS has tremendous power, and rightfully so. This bodyguard in all meaning of the word is on a mission to ensure our survival and to keep us safe. If we sense threat, we switch to fight or flight. If the threat is too much, we might freeze. Yet, there is a discrepancy between what we cognitively think and say about “feeling safe” and our physical perception of safety. The wisdom about what feels safe or not is outside of our consciousness; it is in our body and in our nervous system. When we feel safe, we can connect with others, we can relax, enjoy social interactions, and our body functions well. Remember, 80% of the information transmitted by the Vagus nerve travels from the body to the brain, yet only 20% back from the brain to the body!

The ability to recognize the autonomic state we are in and to regulate is important for the challenges of our everyday lives. It makes us more resilient. The healthy goal worth striving for is not to remain permanently on the rung of ventral-vagal regulation, but to move flexibly up and down the hierarchy.

Happy, healthy people are said to have increased Vagus activity. Finding ways to feel safe and connected does not happen overnight though. Insights are quickly gained, yet first they must be transformed into experiential knowledge. Only when we reprogram the old circuits of our ANS through new experiences, new people, new situations, and new habits (deep-dive #2) do stand a chance. Just like learning a new language.

How Coaching can support:

Our physiological states influence emotions and behavior and vice versa. This underscores the importance of addressing both physical and psychological aspects in coaching. Coaches can introduce practices, just like the ones we have explored in deep-dive #4 to help clients regulate their nervous system.

A coach can furthermore provide impulses, reflections, and feedback to help find the underlying cause of our beliefs, feelings, and behavioral patterns with e.g., lovingly disturbing questions. In search of clues for the dysregulated behavior of our nervous system they can help us dive deeper to explore unconscious layers. By providing a safe space, and hence enabling the social engagement system, coaching can support clients to stay within their ventral vagal state, promoting openness and receptivity. This setup can be a powerful platform for clients to recognize their moments of dysregulation and connect their resources with the aim of returning to a state of regulation and calm. The more resources, the more resilience.

Coaching can also help visualize and celebrate a client’s progress in self-regulation. Everything we learn quickly becomes "normality", which is great! By documenting big and small steps of progress we can strengthen our self-awareness. Creating an inventory with the help of a coach at the beginning of the process and a regular check-in helps to become aware of one's own resources, abilities, and possibilities to heal.

Finally, if trauma is the issue, coaches can refer clients to a specialist or therapist who can help us further if coaching alone is not enough to deal with our trauma.


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