Updated: Nov 2, 2021
The amount of stress in the world has increased dramatically in the past year. COVID-19 has disrupted our ability to connect with others, our ways of unwinding and releasing stress, our financial security and safety around our health.
Our bodies and our minds could benefit from a little TLC right now.
One way of supporting yourself is to learn more about your nervous system and how it responds to stress. Based on polyvagal theory, there are three states of our nervous system that can help us understand the impact of COVID-19 and other stress.
The Nervous System States
The sympathetic state is when we’re in fight or flight mode. We feel overly anxious and have too much adrenaline and cortisol coursing through our bodies. In this state, most things seem like a threat. COVID-19 has resulted in many of us being in this state far too often. Thoughts like “they should be wearing a mask” or “the government is failing us” or “why are they travelling?” can all get our sympathetic state activated.
The dorsal vagal state is where we’re feeling frozen, numb, collapsed or exhausted. It can feel like there’s just not enough energy to power you through the day. This can go along with a sense of sadness or a “blank” feeling. Often, we get into the dorsal vagal when we’ve maxed out on the sympathetic state. Have you experienced this during COVID-19? Most people have been in the dorsal state more than usual.
The ventral vagal state is when we feel secure, comfortable and content. When we’re in our ventral state, we feel connected to those around us and have a sense of safety that allows us to move through our life easier.
Ultimately, we want to train our body and mind to “find our way home” to ventral vagal.
The Way Home
It’s important to recognize, however, that it’s not realistic or even desirable to be in ventral all the time. We wouldn’t want to feel relaxed and happy when there’s an emergency situation that you need to deal with right now, a tragic world event or when a loved one has died. It’s natural, and helpful, that we feel stressed, a surge of energy or a sensation of sadness and loss when these types of events occur.
A wonderful life is characterized by a continual flow of ups and downs. If we never experienced sympathetic or dorsal vagal, we wouldn’t know the true joy of ventral. It would be like reading a book with absolutely no conflict or difficulty- where everything just works out again and again. It’s actually quite flat and boring.
We get into sympathetic and dorsal states when we perceive cues of danger and our nervous system has a natural response. In order to thrive and enjoy our lives, we can learn to increase cues of safety, which trains our nervous system to learn the route to ventral vagal.
We do this by paying close attention to our responses. By learning what we love and what relaxes our bodies and minds and by honouring those desires. For instance, we were a family that ended up getting two COVID puppies. I can see that our puppies bring our children and my husband back to ventral every time. My husband could sit and cuddle the dogs for hours and every day he says some version of “aren’t they just the cutest?” Truly, nothing brings him more joy and it’s a great example of a path to ventral vagal.
It’s helpful to become an observer of your responses and how you feel in all the situations in your life. Then, when you notice that you’re moving from sympathetic or dorsal into the desired ventral state, make a note of that and practice it in the future.
One thing I notice is that too much social media time can get me into sympathetic or dorsal, depending on what I see or read on there. Sometimes it’s thoughts like, “everyone’s more successful or happy than me” that gets me into a funk (more dorsal). Or sometimes it’s thoughts like, “my kids should be doing more of this or that” that get me feeling anxious (more sympathetic). Many of my clients are triggered into a sympathetic state by reading too much about COVID-19 on social media. Do you relate?
By recognizing how social media impacts my nervous system, I can limit my time to only a few sessions per day and a maximum amount of time per session, allowing me to enjoy it a little, but not be as impacted emotionally by it. Can you think of an example in your life of something that pretty consistently gets you into sympathetic or dorsal? What do you think you can do to work on that?
Think of your ventral state like a friendship, where you tend to that friendship with small gestures and choices that add up over time to become a great connection. We don’t just expect to do one thing together and then be best friends. We build and grow the relationship over many micro moments.
When we choose the steps that turn us toward the ventral vagal state, it builds neural pathways in the brain that eventually become a more natural response for us. It’s an ongoing flow in which we befriend our nervous system and honour our true desires.
Give some thought to what types of activities and experiences move you into the three states of your nervous system. Then do what you can to use that knowledge to gradually build up your path to ventral vagal. View it as a continual process and not as a “one and done” and your life will improve, one choice at a time.