Knowing your nervous system
Updated: Mar 1, 2022
Apart from counselling and psychotherapy I have also worked as a massage therapist for over 15 years. And what I noticed pretty quickly was that the simple act of massage had a profound affect on a persons engagement with me, particularly clients who had past trauma or suffered PTSD. These clients would walk into my clinic head down, not able to make eye contact and with obvious sad affect. Following massage there was a lightness to them, a clearness to their eyes, which I could see from the eye contact they were now making. There was a shift. The clients I work with now using hypnotherapy also experience this shift. Calm the body, calm the mind and vice versa.
The mind body connection is strong and relevant to the work I do.
So lets talk about the nervous system. Stephen Porges has developed a theory that is a very clear and helpful way of thinking about our feeling states, the Polyvagal theory.
The theory is based on Porges research of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is one of the longest nerves originating in the brain stem and innervating the muscles of the throat, heart, lungs and stomach. Feedback from this nerve is essential in controlling the bodies homeostasis.
Polyvagal theory shows that from the moment of birth our autonomic nervous system, without us thinking about it, is constantly scanning for signs of safety or danger. This scanning process is called neuroception. So the vagus nerve is receiving information and then the brain processes and responds to that information.
What I find particularly interesting is that Porges has shown that neuroception happens before perception. This means that it happens automatically prior to any conscious awareness. Your not thinking about this process of scanning for safety or danger, its just happening.
The systems are not just reacting to immediate safety but to an interaction internally based on past life experiences. An event in adult life might echo an experience internally of childhood of not feeling safe and follow the same pattern of response needed to feel safe again.
Porges describes that neuroception of safety brings us into ventral vagal state. A state of social engagement and connection. In this state we feel safe and happy, active and interested.
If something happens to alert us to danger (e.g. you are driving and you hear police car sirens we go into a sympathetic nervous system state of mobilisation. This is the state of fight or flight. We feel our hearts pumping faster, maybe a hot flush as our body pumps blood in readiness for action. The world may feel dangerous, chaotic, unfriendly. You may feel you need to protect yourself.
If we sense extreme danger we may go into a dorsal vagal state of immobilization. You might feel frozen, numb, not here, hopeless. The world does not seem safe.
They are all normal states and important responses at times. The more time we spend in a particular state the more likely we are to get stuck in negative patterns.
So how do we shift back to a ventral vagal state, to safety.
Understanding your nervous system in this way can change the way you think of these states in yourself. Therefore there can be less self-judgement and more compassion for your state. Simply understanding why you respond the way you do can help shift your feeling state.
By recognising what state you are in a given moment, and understanding how you shift between states, you can change your state so you can feel connected and safer more of the time. You can feel less hopeless even when you’re in the dorsal vagal or shut down state, as you’ll know ways to help yourself out of it. You can also more easily enlist the help of others in this, since as humans we need connection with others to feel safe.
Learn to recognise physical responses in your body and what they mean and recognise how emotions affect our physical response. So clients coming to me for massage for physical issues found that it also calmed their nervous system shifting them into a ventral vagal state of safety. Other clients find counselling and or hypnotherapy is what works for them. Maybe its mindfulness, meditation, exercise.
Maybe you can find what helps you move from a state of upset to a state of calm and therefore respond less or not at all to the cues that activate your stress/anxiety/anger response.
Key words: mind - body connection, nervous system, polyvagal theory, fight, flight, freeze.