A graphic to illustrate autonomic nervous system functioning

For anyone who’d like to understand a bit more about their autonomic nervous system and stress responses, I created this little graphic.

Our nervous system is constantly scanning the environment for signs of safety and danger, with the aim of setting responses in motion to keep us safe (alive!).

🥰 When we are sensing safety, we are there in the centre, feeling calm and connected. Our ventral vagal nerve complex, which is responsible for social engagement, is switched on.

The ventral vagal also acts as a kind of container for the other branches of the nervous system (sympathetic and dorsal vagal), helping to keep us on track with a gentle up and down rhythm (“homeostasis”).

Sometimes we’ll be more active, like when we’re playing, dancing, or vacuuming. These things take a bit of activation from the sympathetic nervous system, to give us the energy to move.

Other times, we’ll be more still, like when we are cuddling, relaxing, resting or meditating, and these things involve a little bit of activation of the dorsal vagal nerve complex so that we can remain still.

But all the while, when our ventral vagal is activated, we’re feeling safe, we’re feeling good, like “we’ve got this”.

😡 When our amydgala unconsciously perceives a threat (via “neuroception”) in our environment (e.g. an alarm going off), relationships (e.g. our child crying, our partner snapping at us), or internally (e.g. a worrying thought, an uncomfortable sensation) our sympathetic nervous system automatically becomes activated.

It triggers a release of adrenaline and cortisol, and we feel the energy in our body rising, preparing us for movement (mobilization), in an attempt to keep us safe from the perceived threat.

We may experience an urge to lash out verbally or physically to confront the threat (“fight”). Or we might be compelled to use that energy to run away from the threat, escaping from the situation (“flight”).

Either way, the situation will feel “urgent”, like we need to resolve it immediately.

🥶 If these responses don’t help to resolve the threat, our nervous system can have so much sympathetic activation that it is overwhelming, and our dorsal vagal nerve complex will kick in to shut it down.

Its purpose is to make us more still (immobilized) in an attempt to help us survive the threat, and then allow us to get back to fighting or fleeing.

We might “fawn”, where our self expression will be “toned down”. We might unconsciously do or say things that are not true to ourselves, in order to make us appear less threatening to the aggressor, and therefore more safe.

And if that doesn’t work, we might go into “freeze”, where we still have quite a lot of sympathetic activation, but our movement is very limited. At the very least, in this state we will be numb, no longer feeling the emotional or physical pain of an attack.

Finally, if the dorsal vagal is jammed on with no sympathetic activation, we can collapse or “flop”, which is an attempt to keep us safe by feigning death.

꩜ We are not designed to stay in any of these stress responses for very long. Ideally, once the danger has passed, our nervous system returns (back along the spiral) to a safe state fairly quickly.

꩜ Those of us who have experienced chronic stress or trauma are more prone both to sensing threat and reaching the point of overwhelm. We also tend to get “stuck” in the different protective states.

꩜ The further we get in the stress response (the spiral outwards), the further away we become from feeling connected to our body and our authentic self. We can become so mobilized that we are out of control, or so immobilized that we dissociate or collapse.

꩜ I’ve found that just tracking where we are in the spiral throughout our day can be helpful. Knowing that these states happen unconsciously and automatically in the service of helping us to survive, rather than by choice, can also help us to feel more compassion for ourselves (and others).

꩜ What can help even more is to get intimate with our own nervous system, to explore what triggers us into these protective states and what resources can help us to return to a sense safety, and to keep building the “muscle” that brings us back to our centre.

🥰 These are some of the things that Angela Hill of Kinnect and I will be covering in our program, Rewire Through Regulation and Repair, while offering a safe and supportive environment in which to practice together.

We’ll be running our next round in October 2020, and you can find more information and sign up to be notified of future rounds on our website rewireforparenting.com.

🤔 The information presented is based on Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, and is my take on Deb Dana’s “Polyvagal Ladder”. However, Fawn is not an explicitly recognised state in Porges’ work.

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