There are no small steps toward getting unstuck or regulating our nervous systems. The more we regulate, the stronger our nervous system becomes. And a regulated nervous system means getting to spend most of your life feeling good and stepping toward the things you want with ease!
In order to really be in control of our experience and change what’s happening inside, we have to understand our protective parts. So let me introduce you to them…
The first part of our self-protective circuit is called Neuroception. You can think of this as your threat detector. It lives in our brain stem, and every single millisecond of our lives, it is looking to see if what is in front of us is safe, dangerous, or life threatening. It decides this by looking to a receptacle of past information (all of our life experiences) to decide.
So, even though our circumstances might now be safe, if an event reminds it of something that was dangerous in the past, Neuroception will perceive that as a threat.
Then, it communicates the danger to something called our Autonomic Nervous System, which has many aspects within it:
Ventral Vagal Complex
This team is called in when our threat detector says, “coast is clear, we’re safe!” Our Ventral Vagal Complex is our state of regulation where we experience presence, safety, social connection, flow, creativity, joy, and all the things we desire to have more of. This is an “I can, I’m able” experience.
Think of Ventral as: The porridge isn’t too hot and it isn’t too cold. It’s just right.
Sympathetic Nervous System
This team is called in when our threat detector says, “this is dangerous BUT I think we can do something about it!” Our Sympathetic Nervous System is our state of mobilization (you may have heard it referred to as fight/flight). When here we experience things like: anxiety, worry, frustration, fear, anger, panic, tension, too much energy, etc. This is an experience of “I must do something now.”
Think of Sympathetic as: The porridge is way too hot! Everything is too much!
Dorsal Vagal Complex
This team is called in when our threat detector says, “I don’t think we can stop this threat but we can help you not have to feel the pain of it.” Our Dorsal Vagal Complex is our state of immobilization. When here we experience things like: apathy, low energy, brain fog, feeling separate, hopeless, shame, regret, depression, dissociation, etc. This is an experience of “I can’t.”
Think of Dorsal as: The porridge is way too cold and there’s nothing I can do to change it.
Freeze: Dorsal + Sympathetic States
Freeze happens when our threat detector says, “I didn’t see this coming, it’s too much but also very unsafe!” Our blended state of Freeze is equal parts Dorsal and Sympathetic. One part is saying, “WE HAVE TO NOW,” while the other part is saying, “IT’S TOO MUCH WE CAN’T,” meaning there’s a lot of energy in our systems, but we can’t seem to do anything. You can think of this like deer in headlights, it’s two equal and opposite forces working against each other to keep us frozen.
Think of Freeze as: The porridge is too and too cold all at once.
The most important thing to remember is that these parts are coming online and working in beautiful, brilliant, adaptive ways to keep us safe because they love us!
One of the primary ways we heal is by learning how to spend more time in Ventral.
The reason we may not be spending a lot of time here yet is because we don’t yet know it’s safe NOT to be self-protected, so we want to start giving them more experiences of safety.
In order to change our experience we have to know what is happening in our experience. So, we want to begin getting to know these different states, what they’re like, and when they’re present.
We do this through a simple tool called, “Notice and Name.” This means figuring out which of the above states is present, and then in essence saying, “I am in a Sympathetic state right now.”
This might look like:
- I feel a lot of pressure to get through these emails right now! That probably means I’m in Sympathetic, or:
- I don’t even want to look at these emails. I’m probably in Dorsal, or:
- I need to get through all these emails but I can’t! I’m probably in Freeze, or:
- I like my pace and will get through the list when I get through the list. I’m probably in Ventral.
Show yourself you are safe by bringing in regulation.
Anytime you notice team Ventral isn’t around, that’s a clue it’s time to regulate. That’s how we show our ourselves we’re safe!
Remember, regulating resources are anything that help us feel present, “here,” good, and safe. For example: taking a walk outside, yoga, listening to music, etc.). There are no small steps toward regulation!
With kindness and belief in your healing,
Sarah Baldwin is a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and Trauma Coach who is trained in Polyvagal interventions and is on the training team at the Polyvagal Institute.
She specializes in somatic trauma healing; attachment work, parts and inner child work and nervous system regulation.