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  • Dayna Sharp, LCSW

Befriending your Nervous System

To suggest that someone who lives with Too Much Anxiety or has experienced trauma that they can "make friends" with their central nervous system, might seem absurd. After all, it's the nervous system that can make your body feel so uncomfortable and distressed! Our nervous system is our body's security system, it can cause significant suffering when our alarm system goes off too intensely or too frequently when there is no identifiable danger or when it doesn't go off at all when there is actual risk! But in this post, I'm going to do the unthinkable--I will suggest it. You can make friends with your nervous system. Here's how--and first, why you should!


Anytime we are at war with some aspect of ourselves, the very conflict brings more suffering. When parts of ourselves are polarized, it takes alot of energy for one part to try and force another part to change. Or, if we try to will an experience from happening--like trying to just stop a panic attack or a depressed state--it's not going to be effective, and we will likely just feel worse about ourselves for "failing". The same is true with our nervous system. If we "hate" it or just want it to feel better, we're not going to get anywhere. The only way to make it feel better is to tune into it...to try to understand it.


What you need to know:

Your nervous system responds to sensations in your body and signals from your environment through the following three pathways of response.


  • The Ventral Vagus (Social Engagement and Connection System): This pathway responds to cues of safety and supports feeling safe in relationships and socially connected. When this pathway is activated, we feel safe, connected, calm and social.


What are you feeling in your body? Which part of your nervous system is activated?
  • The Sympathetic Nervous System: This pathway is your mobilization response and is activated when we feel unease--when our brain senses some kind of threat to our emotional or physical selves. Our heart speeds up, our breath becomes shallow, we are "on the move". This is where we are when we feel anxiety, panic attacks, anger, and conflict in relationships. The Sympathetic pathway physiologically pushes us to take action, so that we can return to our safe and social place. However, if we can't successfully take action to protect ourselves against the perceived threat, when we feel trapped, the Dorsal Vagal pathway becomes activated.


  • The Dorsal Vagus: This pathway is designed to protect us; it leads us to shut down, immobilize, "play dead" when danger is inescapable. We know that this pathway is activated when we feel frozen, numb, or "not here". We might feel abandoned, hopeless, a sense of despair, foggy, exhausted. This is where we are when we feel depression, isolation, not enough energy to complete daily life tasks.


Tracking and responding to your experience:


The "Ladder" metaphor and image provided by "The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy" by Deb Dana.

Just like my post for kids, "What Zone Is Your Child In?", it's helpful for adults to recognize what's happening in our central nervous system so that we can more easily return to our safe place, the Ventral Vagus, Social Engagement and Connection System. Think of it like a ladder, and try to notice where you are through the day.


As you begin to notice where you on the ladder throughout the day, see if you can bring yourself back up to the safe and social pathway. Here are some ideas of how to do so:


  • Imagine each state as a color. Take a moment to visualize yourself laying peacefully in a safe space. Imagine the color that represents the Sympathetic pathway, perhaps red, flowing through your body, and out your feet into the world. Imagine the color of your safe and social space--maybe blue or green, maybe a soft gold--entering through your head and flowing through your body.


  • Music can help you return to your safe and social place. If it works, listen to something upbeat, something that helps you to feel safe, something you can sign along to. Alternatively, you can choose music that feels like each state. Practice moving through the states with your music playlist, or you can simply listen to the music that represents the state you're in, validate it, and when you're ready, switch to songs that can help move you back to your Ventral Vagal pathway.


  • If you're far down the ladder, do some gentle movements--light stretching. If you're in the middle, you can do some release--running, jumping jacks, whatever helps.



Recognize your triggers:


These sample triggers are taken from the book "The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy" by Deb Dana. Consider for yourself which thoughts, bodily sensations, and environmental/relational cues activate each pathway.

What is it like for you in each state? What kinds of thoughts, feelings in your body, or environmental/relational cues activate which pathway?


Knowing this about yourself can help because it will start to make these felt changes more predictable--"Oh, I'm feeling my heart beat faster because I'm feeling pushed to take a side in this argument" or "I'm feeling angry and hot in my body because I'm late and no one is listening to me". It can also help you to set up your environment so that you can spend more time in your safe and social place. If lateness is a frequent trigger, can you change your schedule around? Decrease busyness? If you are around frequent conflict, is there a way to communicate your feelings so that you can stay out of it, or limit your exposure to certain people?


If you find yourself frequently in a Sympathetic state of mobilization: anxiety, panic or anger or if you're often in a Dorsal Vagal state: feeling trapped, stuck, foggy, or hopeless, therapy can help! Human beings are wired for connection--our safe space is all about relationships and feeling connected. At Creating Space Counseling and Wellness, I can provide a therapeutic relationship that feels safe and can help you better understand yourself, and more comfortably be yourself.


Often when people have experienced trauma at the hands of another person, the "safe space" of relationships and connected can feel anything but. I can offer a strong therapeutic relationship where you can learn to feel more safe in relationships, which will help you to feel better in your mind and body--and allow you to connect with your best, most authentic self!


Call today to schedule an appointment! 856-281-1664





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