The increasing popularity of meditation, yoga, and mindfulness has boosted awareness about the mind-body connection. Perhaps you have a friend who is passionate about these practices who often talks about the wisdom of the body, and encourages you to “listen to your body” - but what does that actually mean?
Our minds are actually one with our bodies. After all, your brain and your nervous system are part of your physical form. They detect and make sense of your lived, physical experiences - and in turn, create physical sensations within you that can be explored and interpreted.
In the 1990s, Dr. Stephen Porges developed a framework for understanding some of these messages that we receive from our nervous systems called Polyvagal Theory, which has since been elaborated on further by clinicians such as Deb Dana, LCSW. Polyvagal Theory examines how our nervous systems respond to safety and danger (or the perception of danger).
While it’s important to keep in mind that this framework is a theory (that is to say, it has not yet been empirically proven with research), many therapists and clients have found it to be a helpful way to think about physical and emotional reactions that previously seemed mysterious.
How the nervous system reacts to threats
Without getting too technical, according to Polyvagal Theory, there are a few key parts of the nervous system that are activated when we perceive safety or danger - the vagus nerve (which is divided into the ventral vagus above your diaphragm and the dorsal vagus below your diaphragm) and the parasympathetic nervous system (which has to do with your heart and lungs).
The key reactions that occur in response to safety or danger are:
Engaged is the state we enter when we feel a sense of safety. The ventral vagus nerve is most involved in feeling that sense of safety, and orienting us toward engaging with the world, interacting socially, and communicating with others. Because safety and communication are so strongly linked, it’s important to create trusting relationships (for example, with people close to you or a therapist) so that you can truly open up about how you feel.
Fight and flight are states that occur when we sense danger and are actively responding to it. Since the parasympathetic nervous system is activated during fight or flight, you might notice your heart rate or breathing change when you’re having an argument with someone and are getting angry (that’s a fight response) or when you think someone is following you on the street and you duck into a store to escape them (that’s a flight response).
Freeze is a state where we sense danger but the intensity of it all locks us in place, where we hope it will pass if we just stay still enough. Think of a deer in headlights to imagine what freeze feels like - the deer knows that danger is coming but thinks the best course of action is to stand still. The dorsal vagal nerve, which is also connected to the digestive system, is involved in the freeze state - some clinicians theorize that people who are “stuck” in freeze mode disproportionately experience gastrointestinal difficulties.
Collapse is the state that happens when the body senses that there is no way to escape the danger that is coming but there might be a way to minimize the harm by not fighting back. Too often victims of physical or sexual violence are questioned about why they didn’t try to fight off their attacker, while in the reality of many of those situations collapsing is the most self-preserving thing to do - it doesn’t stop the harm of the moment, but it’s what allows them to survive it.
Working with your nervous system
It’s easy to jump to pathologizing the many reactions of the nervous system, especially uncomfortable states like freeze and collapse, but each one of these states are important, appropriate reactions at different points in time.
The challenge that can come up with the nervous system’s different states is when it becomes too difficult to move between them as the safety or danger situation changes around you or when you get stuck permanently in one mode regardless of the safety or danger around you.
These challenges may be triggered by:
- Surviving a traumatic event
- Chronic stress
- Chronic loneliness or emotional neglect
Worldviews that minimize or discourage the body-mind connection can also affect the functioning of the nervous system. For example, many of the classic philosophers of the West prioritized thinking and logic over emotions and feeling - this paradigm deeply shaped European culture and continues to impact the dominant culture of the United States today.
Religious traditions that demonize sexuality can profoundly impact the mind-body connection and the lived experience of being in the body. Together with my colleague Sister Shannon, I developed a workshop for people raised in Catholicism and/or other religious backgrounds to learn about tools for connecting to your nervous system and listening to your body. If you are interested, join us on Tuesday 1/11/2022 at 8 pm EST!
Taking care of your nervous system
There are many ways to practice soothing ourselves out of fight or flight or energizing ourselves out of freeze and collapse when those states are no longer serving the purpose of protecting us. Therapy is a great place to develop tools for this, including practicing movement, guided imagery, and perhaps most crucially connecting and co-regulating with a safe, engaged person.
If you’re ready to explore more about what your body is trying to tell you and take care of your nervous system at the parts where it needs help, click the button below to set up a free phone consultation. You deserve to grow your relationship with your body and provide yourself with the care you need.