I’ve posted before about how when our nervous system is in a “protective” state (Fight/Flight/Freeze), it tends to be “self-reinforcing”. That is, when our nervous system is already sensing threat, we have a tendency to perceive more things “going wrong”, in our environment, in our relationships and internally in our bodies.
This makes sense! If we are already sensing some threat in our environment, then our nervous system is wise to take extra care to pick up any other potential threats, so it can be sure to prepare us to respond in a way that will keep us safe! The down side is that it tends to keep us stuck in those states of defence and disconnection.
But did you know that when we are in a “safe” (ventral vagal dominant) nervous system state of calm and connection, it also tends to be self-reinforcing? Have you ever noticed that when you’re feeling good, everything in your life and around you seems to feel much more wonderful (or at least more manageable)?
I had a really clear experience of that this morning. I had the luxury of taking my car to the mechanic for a quick check! I had to leave it for an hour, and I was able to leave my son at home with my husband, so I had a whole hour to do as I pleased!
I was able to tune into what I would really enjoy during that time, and actually follow my impulses, because I didn’t have anyone else I needed to consider in my choices!! I could prioritise what would give me more pleasure at every turn! Even simple impulses, like which path I wanted to take.
I went to a cafe and enjoyed a leisurely chai tea. I connected via text message with a friend. As I was leaving the cafe, I noticed the wonderful plants and flowers being grown on the kerbside outside. As I walked down the street, I saw a gorgeous baby in his pram. It was cold, but it felt enjoyably fresh dressed in my puffy coat.
As I walked along the harbour front, I noticed the beautiful architecture of the houses, the rich blueness of the sky, the “ting-ting” sound of the boats bobbing up and down on the water, and the smell of seaweed! These were all little “glimmers” for me (safety cues for my nervous system)!
I was feeling good, and the better I felt, the more beauty I saw in the world around me! And from this “safe” state, I was naturally smiling and making eye contact with other people as I walked down the street. And they were smiling back! Natural, friendly smiles! I got lots of them!
These smiles were ones that I wouldn’t generally be receiving (or at least noticing) if my nervous system was in a stressed state. My “safe” state was inviting these enjoyable, welcoming responses from the nervous systems of the people around me, because my smiles helped them to feel safe and good too (through the process of “neuroception”)!
And that is the nature of being in a “safe”, ventral vagal state. When we’re in it, everything tends to look more beautiful, more friendly, and we actually invite more enjoyable interactions with the people around us. It reminds me of that line from the Frank Sinatra song, “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you”.
And, of course, that isn’t to say that we always need to be smiling, that we should “put on” a smile if we aren’t feeling it, or hide our less enjoyable feelings. But it is a reminder that intentionally tuning into what feels good, what makes us feel like smiling, can take us into a kind of “positive spiral”, bringing us further into that pleasant-feeling ventral vagal state.