Navigate the Nervous System

I recently had the incredible opportunity to spend two days immersed in a transformative training session with the renowned Deb Dana, delving deep into the intricacies of Polyvagal Theory. For those unfamiliar, Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, offers a groundbreaking framework for understanding how our autonomic nervous system (ANS) operates.

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Navigate the Nervous System

With Willow Woolf, Medical Herbalist, RTT Therapist, NLP Coach at Optimal Health Group

Photo credit: Lisa Case

I recently had the incredible opportunity to spend two days immersed in a transformative training session with the renowned Deb Dana, delving deep into the intricacies of Polyvagal Theory. For those unfamiliar, Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, offers a groundbreaking framework for understanding how our autonomic nervous system (ANS) operates.

The ANS consists of two main branches:

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): Associated with the fight or flight response, this branch prepares the body for action, increasing heart rate and energy levels.

Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS): Responsible for rest and digestion functions, it includes the vagal pathways that promote relaxation and restoration.

Polyvagal Theory further breaks down the parasympathetic branch into three primary pathways:

Ventral Vagal Pathway: Associated with feelings of safety and social connection. We feel calm, connected, and engaged when this pathway is active.

Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS): Engaged during fight or flight responses, preparing the body to deal with perceived threats.

Dorsal Vagal Pathway: Associated with shutdown and immobilisation. This pathway becomes active in extreme stress or danger, leading to feelings of numbness or disconnection.

During these two days, I got to know my autonomic profile intimately. By identifying and understanding the patterns of my nervous system, I developed the ability to navigate these pathways flexibly. This newfound flexibility has significantly shaped my interactions with clients and their nervous systems.

One of the most enlightening aspects of the workshop was the experiential learning. Deb Dana’s approach ensured that we didn’t just learn about Polyvagal Theory intellectually but also embodied it. Through guided practices, we experienced the theory “from the inside out,” giving us a deeper, more intuitive understanding of its principles. This embodied understanding has profoundly impacted my ability to attune to my clients’ autonomic states and respond with greater empathy and effectiveness.

The importance of autonomic regulation cannot be overstated. It is the foundation for creating a safe and supportive therapeutic environment. When anchored in autonomic regulation, I can serve as a stable, co-regulating presence for my clients. This stability helps them feel safe enough to explore and resolve the autonomic patterns that were once essential for survival but now hinder their well-being.

As a therapist, integrating Dr. Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory into my practice has profoundly enhanced my understanding of the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and emotional well-being. This theory provides a scientific framework that helps us comprehend how our nervous system influences our reactions and interactions.

One particularly enlightening moment in my practice comes to mind. I was working with a client, let’s call her Sarah, who often felt overwhelmed and disconnected during our sessions. One day, instead of diving straight into her narrative, I asked her a simple yet powerful question: “Where is your nervous system now?”

At first, she seemed puzzled. It’s not a question we’re used to contemplating. But as I explained the three neural circuits of the polyvagal theory—the social engagement system, the mobilisation system, and the immobilisation system—she began to understand. I asked her to notice her body, her breathing, her heartbeat.

As Sarah took a moment to check in with herself, she realised she was in a state of sympathetic activation—her mobilisation system was in full swing. Her heart was racing, her muscles were tense, and she felt a sense of impending doom. This realisation was a turning point. Instead of zoning out, Sarah could now tune in and assess her internal state.

Understanding this was deeply insightful. It allowed us to address her anxiety from a physiological perspective. We didn’t just talk about her feelings; we worked on regulating her nervous system. We practised deep breathing exercises to engage her ventral vagal complex, promoting safety and calm. Over time, Sarah learned to recognise the signs of her sympathetic activation and had tools to shift towards a more regulated state.

However, this journey wasn’t without its challenges. At times, tuning into her body was unsettling for Sarah. When she identified that she was in a state of sympathetic arousal, there was often resistance. It’s a natural response; our bodies are wired to protect us. But acknowledging this resistance became a crucial part of our work. It was an opportunity to explore what her body was trying to communicate and find ways to soothe her nervous system gently.

Through these experiences, I’ve come to see the power of polyvagal-informed therapy. It’s not just about understanding the nervous system intellectually; it’s about embodying that knowledge, helping clients like Sarah connect with their bodies and find a sense of safety within themselves. This approach has transformed my practice, offering a profound pathway to healing that honours both the mind and the body.

In our fast-paced world, we often neglect our bodies’ signals. We push through stress, ignoring the toll it takes. But by tuning into our nervous system, we can understand our responses and work towards balance. Polyvagal theory offers a roadmap for this journey, guiding us to listen, understand, and heal.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to ask yourself: “Where is my nervous system at this moment?” It might be the key to unlocking a deeper understanding of yourself and your path to well-being.

Optimal Health Group run a MINDWORK Centre of Excellence in our Hampshire clinic.  Proud to have a team of experienced and dedicated clinicians and therapists who, with their combined knowledge, is able to help clients who are facing challenges with their mental wellbeing.  Using techniques and technology – such as brain mapping, hypnotherapy, RTT, constellation counselling and sound therapy – we create a bespoke treatment pathway, supporting clients through their wellness journey every step of the way.

If you want to know more or book an initial assessment, talk to our Care Team – 0330 223 6553 or email careteam@optimal-healthgroup.com.

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