Learning About Your Nervous System Can Help You Feel Better Faster

Therapy involves so many things. Connecting with someone new, talking about hard things, and building new skills that support healing, growth, and healthy change. The work takes time, dedication to practice, and lots of vulnerability. Therapy would also not be complete without building new awareness through learning.

One of the most important elements of therapy is learning about our nervous system and how it responds to the environments we live in. Without this learning, we may become stuck in ineffective patterns of trying to feel better.

One model that helps us understand this is Polyvagal Theory. In short, this theory describes a hierarchy of physiological states that determine our sense of safety and capacity for connection. This model posits three distinct nervous system responses to environmental cues which dictate what our body is working on, and therefore what we are going to be effective with at any given time.

When we learn to recognize what state we are in, we can make more effective decisions in regulating, pursuing our goals, and building relationships.

 

illustration of safe, distressed, and overwhelmed states

As described in the model (and what may be very naturally observed in our bodies), we are continually moving between states of regulation (safety), threat response (distress), and disconnect (overwhelm). This pattern will be different for each individual and will vary according to the environments our nervous systems have been habituated to. Depending on the current state we are experiencing, our ability to accomplish certain objectives will either be supported or hampered by what our nervous system is ready for.

Ultimately, this becomes a guide to assist us with what to work on when we are looking to feel better — an order of operations manual if you will. If we have just experienced a cue for stress or danger, we need to attend to that process in our bodies (regulate our system) before we can move forward with important tasks like learning and connecting with others. Our nervous systems are in charge!

One quick way to summarize this is to say that our states dictate our stories.

The state of our system also plays a significant role in the way we think about what is happening at any given time and how we perceive others. If we are overwhelmed or cued for danger, our thinking will be very pessimistic and defensive. Only after attending to the needs of our nervous system (think regulation!), will the story become more balanced and objective.

All of this may seem really natural, even obvious. However, recognizing the way this process works and implementing change are two very different things. It takes awareness, willingness, and skill practice to help our systems achieve more consistent balance. Once we learn to recognize our own cues and patterns, choosing helpful tools is vital. From my experience, that is not easy. Please be gentle with yourself as you work to learn more about your own system and what it needs from you to feel regulated, safe, and connected.

For a deeper dive into Polyvagal Theory and how you can work to understand your own patterns, click here!


Written by Shawn Hazen, LSCW