During stressful situations, it can be common for us to lash out only to regret what we said or did after time has passed. It might feel like how you responded was out of your control in those heated moments. Have you ever wondered why?
We can look to our nervous system for the answer. 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 (such as a stressful situation) can affect our behavior and how 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.” This means that while one of the following levels may dominate our experience, elements of the other states may also occur at the same time.
Dorsal vagal state. This is our “immobilization” state: when we feel our lives are so immediately threatened that we shut down. For example, when a possum feels threatened, it plays dead to throw off its predator. A similar, but more benign, human behavior is stage fright and the inability to speak when feeling nervous.
Sympathetic state. In this state, we feel threatened or perceive danger, and thus feel the need to either “fight” or “flee” from the situation to seek a sense of increased safety. Some behaviors related to this state might be hitting, getting verbally defensive, avoiding tasks that are difficult, or literally running away.
Parasympathetic or ventral vagal state. We begin to function differently once we feel safe again. This is our centered “true self” state, where the integration of all parts of the brain is more likely and we’re more ready to socially interact, connect and think more effectively. In this state of arousal, we’re more open to others and feel a sense of connection, which can lead to collaboration and more learning.
While it may feel like we lose control in stressful situations, there are techniques we can practice to support regulation and to invite awareness and embodiment. Here are five ways to keep calm under pressure.
Track which level of arousal you’re experiencing
It can help to be aware of your three states and any related behaviors that are present, recognizing that all stages are perfectly natural for everyone. Knowing which state is dominant for you and where you currently are in the hierarchy at a given time can help you make decisions that shift your state.
Bring awareness to the signals your body is sending
In each state, your body will give you physical and emotional indicators that can serve as signals to you and others that you might not be at your best, or that you’re not ready for communication or interactions. Use these physical cues to help you determine the level of arousal occurring and guiding your behaviors and responses.
For example, if it feels like there’s a knot in the pit of your stomach and that 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 may feel like “shutting down,” disconnection, apathy, lack of motivation, or numbness.
It can be difficult to bring awareness to the body; sometimes, it can increase sympathetic arousal. Deep breathing, however, stimulates our parasympathetic nervous system, encouraging feelings of safety and signaling the body to decrease its level of arousal and reconnect to self or others.
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, as setting intentions can affect your behavior.
Identify your intention
What’s your goal? How are you going to get through this situation? Let go of expectations, and identify the purpose and desired outcomes of your next steps. This can focus you on the present moment, which also supports connection with the body and may decrease sympathetic arousal.
Focusing on your intention may also release oxytocin, which can help to shift your arousal into calm. Oxytocin is one of the four feel-good hormones released by the brain and plays a strong role in connection with others.
Trust the Process
Exploring and developing ideas with others is much easier 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. It may be challenging but is essential to improve your ability to stay connected to yourself, support your connection with others, and help keep you from returning to a previous level of arousal that wasn’t productive for 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:
Polyvagal Theory Explained
What does it mean to feel safe in a complex world, and why is it essential for our regulation?