Re-Couping from a Hard, Hard Year – Part Two

Re-Couping from a Hard, Hard Year – Part Two

In last week’s post, Re-Couping from the Revving Up and the Shutting Down of a Hard, Hard Year, I suggested practices for skillfully re-emerging from the pandemic year into the larger world again, based on science’s traditional model of the nervous system – energized and creative v. stressed out and revved up into “fight-flight”, relaxed and at ease v. shut down into collapse and inertia. 

The practices were summed up in “Shit happens. Shift happens, too.” That we can shift our perceptions of catastrophes and hard times from threat to challenge, responding to everything that ever happens, including our revving up and shutting down, as cues to shift the responses of our nervous system from frantic frenzy to curiosity and enthusiasm, from collapse and “I don’t want to” to calm, contentment, and “I’m so grateful that I can.”

This week’s post, Part Two, is based on the newer polyvagal model of the nervous system, developed by neurophysiologist Dr. Stephen Porges and accessibly described by my colleague Deb Dana in Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection.

In this newer model, we consciously strengthen the unconscious capacities of the ventral vagus nerve (the long meandering nerve that connects the face with the heart) to come into and stay in a state of calm nourishing connection and safe social engagement.  We can acknowledge any distress we’re experiencing, yet still have the presence of mind to explore options and expand our choices and possibilities. We can anchor in trust and in a sense of aliveness.  This ventral state at the top of the hierarchy, is where we want to be, and can be, most of the time. 

When we are startled or stressed, the ventral vagus acts as a brake on the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. (The revving up into fight-flight.)  We get the signal of “Something dangerous-threatening is happening here; pay attention!” And are able to respond with conscious awareness of what’s happening (and our reactions to what’s happening) with skillful behaviors, especially with our biologically-hardwired-by-evolution instincts to reach out to other people for help. 

If our anchoring in safe relational connections and our trust in our own capacities to deal with the tsunami coming at us is overwhelmed, the sympathetic nervous system takes over, cortisol is racing through our system to get us to act – NOW! – and we do, though perhaps not always wisely or effectively.  And we can remain in that state of racing anxiety or panic for quite a long time.

If the revving up of the sympathetic solves the problem it was meant to solve, or resolves the danger it was meant to resolve, we calm down again. We return to the ventral vagus state, our range of resilience, and hum along again until the next upset. 

If the behaviors catalyzed by the functioning of the sympathetic don’t solve the problem or resolve the danger, and if we remain in a revved up state for too long, the nervous system sort of poops out and we collapse into the functioning of the dorsal vagus (the negative parasympathetic) and shut down, numb out, become immobilized, and don’t take any action at all.  “There’s nothing you can do and nobody cares.” (This is not the pleasant side of the parasympathetic, relaxed and content.)

My book Resilience: Powerful Practices for Bouncing Back from Disappointment, Difficulty, and Even Disaster and many posts on my website offer many, many tools for both calming down the activation of the sympathetic and re-energizing the immobilization of the parasympathetic.

Here I want to pass along the recommendations of Deb Dana from her Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection.  In the polyvagal view of the nervous system, in order to move from the collapse of the parasympathetic back into the safe connection and social engagement of the ventral vagal, you have to pass through the activation of the sympathetic (to get you moving again) and if it’s scary or distressing or even potentially traumatizing to do that, you might make the choice to not choose.  It might be more appealing to stay “low and slow” until the world looks safer (or unless you have compassionate companions who can help you risk re-engaging).

My suggestion for re-activating, re-engaging now when so much in the world still looks scary, or uncertain, or we’ve simply forgotten how, is to begin doing things you already know how to do (or can easily remember how to do): have close friends over for a barbecue, masks off, whatever distance feels safe, and enjoy the deep joy of connecting with real people in real time again. (When my Gourmet Poets Society met in person for the first time in 15 months, we were positively giddy, and it wasn’t just the good wine, good poetry, and chocolate fondue.  It was the safe social connection of the ventral vagus again.)

Visit a place you used to frequent – the public library, the local gym, get your hair cut – with a wide-eyed appreciation for “coming home” as you expand beyond home. 

Eat dinner at your old favorite restaurant, and then try a new one.  Walk through your old favorite park or garden, and then visit a new one. Connect with family and friends you’ve been Zooming with for a year already, and then re-connect with family/friends who became a little ghosted during the pandemic.

You are making conscious choices. You are also be-friending your nervous system as you help it recover from so much revving up and shutting down in the last year+. And your nervous system will recover its range of resilience again, anchor in the ventral vagal state, ready to take on harder tasks, bigger adventures.

Polyvagal theory is the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living.

– Deb Dana, Anchored:  How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (forthcoming)