Self-Regulation: A Polyvagal Perspective
What do you think about when you hear “self-regulation?” Does it bring to mind other forms of regulation like emotional regulation, temperature regulation, or hormone regulation? It is about balance, right? But how do we balance ourselves? Is it even possible to do on purpose?
One profound and efficient answer lies in the Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. The Polyvagal Theory is an expansion of previous thought regarding our autonomic nervous system (ANS) and its functioning. The old model states that we have two divisions of our autonomic nervous system that controls the automatic processes in our body: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). When we are afraid or about to get in accident, our sympathetic or flight/fright system kicks in to either help us confront a situation or get out of it. When that situation is over, ideally our parasympathetic system activates, returning us to a state of calm. A researcher at heart, Dr. Porges felt that the old model of the ANS did not fully explain all of the experiences we have as humans. So, he began researching the physiology of the ANS as well as the evolutionary development of it through time. What he found is that the original delineation of the ANS into two branches (fight/flight and rest/digest) regulated by the vagus and sympathetic nerves, was not in fact what was really happening. He found that there are really three divisions of the ANS: the dorsal or “old” vagus nerve, the sympathetic nerves, and the ventral vagus that makes up part our social engagement system. Now that is a lot of words to describe three main states that we may be in at any time: shutdown (dorsal vagus), anxious/critical/activated (sympathetic), or safe/grounded/curious (social engagement system and ventral vagus).
Let’s put this into an example. Imagine an open grassland with a herd of antelope grazing peacefully (ventral vagal or socially engaged). Suddenly, they become aware of a cheetah running at them in pursuit. They immediately begin to run away (fight/flight). The cheetah catches one of the antelopes and it goes limp (freeze or dorsal vagal). The cheetah takes its prize to hide it in the bushes while she goes to get her cubs. The antelope sensing the cheetah is gone, becomes alert and runs away (fight/flight) and once a good distance away, goes back to eating grass (ventral vagal or socially engaged). There is a sequential or hierarchical progression between states. In order to move out of freeze, we have to get mobilized and activated (fight/flight) and then slow down into safe and grounded (ventral vagal). Think about it another way: imagine or remember a time you felt depressed and did not want to get out of bed. Could you have immediately sat up and felt like going out with your friends for a meal? Probably not. Would the idea of sitting on the edge of the bed and taking deep breaths seem more reasonable? Then perhaps standing up and walking around swinging your arms. Then maybe turning on some music and singing a little. Then perhaps taking a shower with even more singing. Can you see the progression step by step, taking small actions towards a goal using movement, voice, and breathing to shift your internal state? The challenge is that when we are stuck in a freeze state, it can feel so impossible to change. That is why we start very small and move one step at a time without jumping too far ahead of ourselves. The more you practice self-regulation exercises the more effective and efficient they become. The more you practice them in non-stressful situations, the more likely you are to use them when it really counts.
Another way to think about is in terms of “How fast are you going?” If we look at a range of 0-100 miles per hour, where do you fall on that spectrum, not in physical speed, but the experience of your own internal state including your mind, breathing, and sensations? Sometimes we need to speed up and press the accelerator. Sometimes we need to slow down and put on the brakes. Sometimes we can coast where we are at. In trauma-informed yoga therapy, we use specific exercises and tools to change and shift the state of our nervous system to change our internal state or speed.
Most of us already have things that we do that helps us to slow down or get moving. Many people love to spend time in nature because it feels good. Why? Because it activates our ventral vagus nerve and social engagement system. Some people feel better spending time with others. Why? For the same reason. My husband and I love to take walks because we feel better afterwards. Why? It is just that it increases our circulation and gets our hearts pumping? No. Turning our heads to look around and allow the beauty of nature into our eyes and brains, smiling, talking and laughing, and breathing deeply all stimulate the ventral vagus nerve and the social engagement system. When we understand how we work, then we can consciously apply this knowledge to self-regulate.
So let’s try an experiment. Take a moment and check-in to see how fast you are going. Don’t think about it too much. Even a range of numbers is fine like 65-80. Notice the level of tension in your body, the movement of your breath, the quality of your thoughts. Then, begin to look around the room, noticing each thing you see, looking at the floor, the walls, and the ceiling. Look all around moving your eyes and your head. Already, we are stimulating the vagus nerve because it starts in the brain and moves down through the neck. Now, notice an object or place in the room that is most calling your attention or seems to be the most pleasing thing to look at. Rest your gaze there for 20 seconds. Try not to think too much. Just gazing. Let the image come to you and into your eyes. Then, after 20 seconds, look around the room again. Find a new object that calls your attention and gaze for 20 seconds again. Repeat one more time. Then, check back in with how fast you are going, and how you feel. Has the level of tension in your body changed? What do you notice? By doing this exercise, we are unconsciously sending a message to our body, brain and nervous system that we are safe. If we were in danger, we would not be quiet and still and just look at an object with appreciation.
Want to try another experiment? Let’s use our breath this time. Did you know that how we breathe sends a message to our nervous system about whether or not we are safe? When we inhale, our sympathetic nervous system is stimulated. When we exhale, our parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated. Ideally, this would create balance. How do we breathe when we are anxious or in danger? How do we breathe when we feel safe? By changing how we breathe, we can change our internal state. So let’s try this. Exhale completely. Make your inhale really big and loud, and let the exhale just be gentle and small. Do this 3-5 times. Notice how you feel. Do you feel more awake and alert? Do you feel more activated? Now, let’s try the opposite. Make the inhale small and gentle, and exhale out through pursed lips like you are blowing out a candle, lengthening the exhale as long as you can. Do this 3-5 times. Notice the effects. By accentuating the inhale, we can get ourselves out of freeze or stuck. If we are revved up and anxious, we can slow ourselves down to calm by accentuating the exhale. Practice at home and see for yourselves.
One of the most powerful ways to regulate is to be around another person who is regulated. Our nervous systems talk to each other, and when we are around someone else who is grounded in the social engagement system, our nervous system can shift to match them. Think about how helpful it can be to be around a calm and loving friend. They don’t even have to say anything, and you feel better. However, we can also match our nervous system to someone who is not regulated, so when you are working on self-regulation, try to surround yourself with those who are supportive, calm, and actively working on staying that way whenever possible. In those times where we are struggling to regulate ourselves, being around someone else is a powerful tool. When you are looking for a therapist of any kind (mental health, massage therapist, yoga therapist, or physical therapist), look to see what state they seem to be in: calm/curious, activated/anxious, or shutdown/depressed.
In a trauma-informed yoga therapy session, we design a specific protocol of tools and exercises for each individual specialized for their needs. These may involve movement, breathing, meditation, eye movements, sound or sensing. They are all incredibly simple and may only take 20-30 seconds to do. Some practices work no matter what state you are in, and some are state specific. They all work through specific stimulation of nerves and nervous system responses
If you are interested or have questions, book a free consultation with Lakshmi Om C-IAYT, LMBT #2765, Certified SSP provider at www.flourishwholenesscenter.com or call 919-228-8856.
Lakshmi Om is a certified trauma-informed yoga therapist, licensed massage therapist, and is currently working on her master’s in social work at Widener University. She has over 25 years of experience working with the body and is passionate about helping people overcome the effects of trauma, anxiety, chronic pain, and depression.