I wanted to share with you this month a simple map of the defensive part of the nervous system that I’ve found useful in my own life and when working with clients. I hope this will provide a handy model for you to use to map your stress response and mental well-being. It will also illustrate the sorts of issues that lockdown is causing for us.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Our Autonomic Nervous System is the part of the nervous system that largely deals with unconscious processes such as heart rate, breath rate, urination, digestion and blood pressure. For the purposes of this article, we’re concerned with the ANS’s role in keeping us safe.
The ANS is always on in the background, mostly below our conscious awareness, learning about the World, being shaped by our experiences and looking out for our well-being. When it detects a threat to our survival, it has hard-wired defensive strategies linked to the primitive parts of our brain that kick in instinctively and usually below the threshold of our conscious awareness. Think about when you go to the dentist to get a tooth filled. Rationally you know it’s going to be ok because you’re experienced it before, but still your palms get sweaty, and your heart rate increases when you see the needle or hear the drill.
When I first started studying yoga in terms of mental health and neuroscience, we were taught that there were two parts to this protective function of the ANS – the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. The former was responsible for our Flight or Fight response to stress. The Parasympathetic, linked to the Vagus Nerve, helped us relax, digest our food, sleep and heal our body.
Our Defensive Strategies
The reality is a bit more complicated. Dr Stephen Porges has demonstrated that there are two parts to the Parasympathetic part of the nervous system – an old part, the dorsal vagal and a new part, the ventral vagal. His Polyvagal Theory gives us three defensive strategies rather than just Flight or Fight.
Porges has shown that as mammals we have evolved to first tackle stress or threat through social engagement – we may attempt to talk our way out of something, or to reason.
If that is unsuccessful then we move to the second newest part of the ANS, the sympathetic system. We run away or we fight. This is the part we usually associate with the stress response – the dry mouth, raised heart rate and shortness of breath, the rush of blood to the head, the boost of adrenaline that gets us motivated and often angry.
And if we fail to run or fight our way out of the situation, the most primitive part of the system takes over. We dissociate, we get numb, we freeze – to all intents and purposes we play dead.
Stress takes many forms from a traumatic one-off event to persistent work-related stresses, illness or a relationship breaking down. If you’re engaging with the world in a healthy way, of course you’re going to encounter stress. Mostly you’ll experience a mild state of arousal and then later, once the adrenaline has been processed, your body will return to a base level of relaxed social engagement. That’s resiliency.
If you experience persistent stress or trauma, then it’s possible that your Autonomic Nervous System will get stuck in Flight or Fight or Freeze mode. Since that system is running below your conscious awareness, you may find yourself behaving in ways that you can’t explain – flying off the handle for no reason or feeling drained of energy for example.
The Defence Cascade
The following graph shows the Defence Cascade, an overview of our defensive responses.
At the bottom of the graph is the Ventral Vagal area of Social Engagement. This is where we feel safe, grounded and present. We love, we hug, we connect with the people and places around us. From this arena of safety, we feel confident to explore, to play, create, to be curious and open. The wiggly line represents the boundary of our comfort zone. Here we dip our toes in and out of the unfamiliar with slightly higher risk thresholds. We confidently pursue our curiosity, happy that we can return to a place of safety.
Sympathetic Nervous System
Let’s say we’re experiencing stress at work. That starts to take you into the middle part of the graph, the Sympathetic Nervous System. Let’s say that the work stress is unrelenting – it may start out as mildly irritating. But if you don’t return to a place of safety, stress on top of stress takes you higher up the curve to anger or rage. You might take (simultaneously) the Flight route and what starts out as concern or worry about your job quickly turns into anxiety and then panic attacks.
At the top of the graph, we move into the oldest part of the system. Either an overwhelming traumatic event or the final straw in flight or fight, tips us into the Dorsal Vagal area. Don’t forget, your body, your Autonomic Nervous System is trying to protect you, to keep you alive. If it feels that the levels of stress are too high for you to bear, it shuts the system down. This is the realm of fatigue, dark thoughts, depression, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, system shut down. This is the hardest part of the system to get out of because often it feels nice. It’s an avoidance of arousal, and avoidance of feeling. Drug use, alcohol, constant scrolling of social media, TV, spiritual bypassing, limiting social contact, limiting your experience of the World – all are strategies of dissociation from your feelings and from life.
A Map to Good Mental Health
You can use this graph as a map of your own mental well-being. Are you stuck, are you moving up the graph or down? None of these areas on the graph are necessarily bad unless you get stuck there. The Sympathetic part of the system motivates us and gets us moving and exploring. The Dorsal Vagal part can help us access deep relaxation and meditation.
You can also use it to make sense of the pandemic and the potential mental health challenges it poses. If our baseline mental health is achieved when we feel safe, are socially engaged, where we hug, love, laugh and explore then we’ve been hit where it hurts most. Life at the moment is so uncertain, there is an invisible threat and few of us can explore life from a place of safety, Furthermore, as social animals, the lack of social contact is hugely detrimental.
I’m sure that all of us have experienced worry or anxiety during lockdown, possibly even anger or rage or panic. For some, this response will be stuck “on”. Many have hit overwhelm and have tripped over into dissociation. We know that levels of alcohol consumption are really high, as is comfort eating. How many people can’t face the news anymore? How many are turning to social media and TV for distraction. Or more comforting versions of events such as conspiracy theories? Ask yourself is it safety you feel in your home or disconnect, numbness and helplessness?
Your Yoga and Tai Chi practice will help to restore balance to your Autonomic Nervous System. In Kundalini Yoga, you are actively taken through the layers of the ANS, one minute stressing the system, then connecting to compassion (the Ventral Vagal), then into the Dorsal Vagal as you experience deep meditation and relaxation. In this way you learn to move safely between all three and are able to ensure you don’t get stuck in either freeze or flight or fight. Yin Yoga builds and strengthens both the Ventral Vagal and Dorsal Vagal.
Just thinking about how you approach your practice is a wonderful way to notice where you are on the graph. If you are flooded with thoughts, are impatient for results, hate the relaxation part of the class or can’t sit still then you’re in Flight or Fight. You’ll need a strategy to relax, and down-regulate the system to activate the Ventral Vagal. Breath focus would be a great way to do this or some kind of grounding practice like Qigong. Get into your body and feel, be curious and explore it.
If you’re sleepy, lethargic, can’t be bothered, or avoiding thoughts or emotions then that is likely the Dorsal Vagal response. And the best way out of this? Mobilise, move, do some TRE, stomp your feet on the ground, shake it off. Or try cold showers or rapid breathing, up-regulate your system.
Heart Based Practices
Meditation is a wonderful way to journey through these defensive strategies & learn to control them. Use rapid breaths such as Tummo, Breath of Fire or Kapalbhati to up-regulate into Sympathetic & turn off the frontal cortex. And follow your slowing breath into the oldest part of the ANS, the dorsal vagal. Heart-based practices and mindfulness are a great way to activate the Ventral Vagal.
For more information on Flight or Fight, try this article