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 In Blog, Polyvagal Theory, Stress

During stressful situations, it can be common for us to lash out only to later regret what we said or did after time has passed. In those heated moments, it might feel like the way you responded was out of your control. Have you ever wondered why?

We can look to our nervous system for the answer(s). Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory explains how our nervous system provides us with a subconscious sense of safety, danger or threat and how that perceived threat, in this case the stressful situation, can impact our behavior and the way we respond to  events we face in life.

Polyvagal Theory breaks down our body’s responses into three levels. Note that we may experience “mixed states of arousal”, which means that even if one of these levels is dominating our experience, there may be elements of the other states that occur at the same time as well.

Dorsal Vagal State. This is our “freeze” state, when we feel our lives are so immediately threatened that we become immobilized. For example, when a possum feels threatened they play dead to throw off the predator. A similar but relatively benign human behavior might be “stage-fright” and an inability to speak because of feeling so nervous.

Sympathetic State. In this state we feel  threatened or perceive danger, and feel the need to either “fight” or “flee” from the situation to seek a sense of safety. Some behaviors related to this state might be hitting, getting verbally defensive, avoiding task that are difficult, or literally running away.

Parasympathetic or Ventral Vagal state. We begin to function differently once we feel safe again. This state is our centered “true self” state, where integration of all parts of the brain is more likely and we are more ready to  socially interact, connect and think more effectively . We’re more open to others and feel a sense of connectivity in this state of arousal, which can lead to collaboration and more learning.


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While it may feel like we lose control in stressful situations, there are techniques to support self-regulation that invite awareness and embodiment. Here are five quick ways to keep calm under pressure:

Figure out which level of arousal you’re at

It’s important to be aware of your three states and what they mean, recognizing that all stages are perfectly natural among everyone. Knowing which state is dominant for you and where you currently are in the hierarchy at a given time, helps you to make decisions that may help to shift your state.

Bring awareness to the signals your body is sending

When faced with a stressful situation, your body will show you physical and emotional indicators that can serve as signals to you and to others that you’re potentially not at your best or not ready for communication or interactions. Use these physical cues to determine what level of arousal is occurring for you and therefore which level of arousal is guiding your behaviors and responses. 

For example, if it feels like there’s a knot in the pit of your stomach and your heart is pounding, you’re most likely in the sympathetic state. If you notice sweating or a lump in your throat this could also signal sympathetic arousal. Dorsal vagal often feels like “shut-down”, apathy/lack of motivation, or numbness.  Sometimes, it can be difficult to bring awareness to the body and sometimes doing so can increase the sympathetic state. However, deep breathing stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, encouraging feelings of safety and signaling the body to decrease its level of arousal.

Try this Box Breathing Tool to practice regulating your breath and draw your attention to your body as you do it. If you feel uncomfortable at any time, notice that and respect that signal from your body and stop.Respecting and responding to the signals your body gives you is a way to practice self-regulation

Reassure yourself

It can be easy to feel stuck in stressful situations and to get overwhelmed. When this happens, recall previous experiences in which you’ve successfully moved through difficulties — use your own past success to remind yourself that you can get through this one, too. Statements of reassurance said out loud or in your own mind can be helpful. Learn more about how setting intentions can affect your behavior here.

Identify your intention

What’s your goal? How are you going to get through this situation? Let go of your ego and identify the purpose and desired outcomes of your next steps. Focusing on your intention mayrelease oxytocin to help you shift into calm.

Oxytocin is one of the four “feel good” hormones released by the brain.  It plays a strong role in connection with others. Read this Harvard Health Publishing article about Oxytocin, what it is and what it does.

Trust the Process

It’s much easier to explore and develop ideas with others when you’re in a ventral vagal state. Having  interactions with yourself and noticing your own process of going between states, is a learning process and may be challenging, but is essential to improving the ability to stay connected to yourself and to support connection with others. It may also help to keep you from returning to a previous level of arousal that wasn’t helpful to you. 

Learn more about Polyvagal Theory and how we can apply this knowledge to our lives. Watch this introduction video, and share with your clients, colleagues or friends:


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