Ever feel like your anxiety has a mind of its own? Well, what if I told you that there’s a way to understand it better and even control it? Today, we’re talking about something called the Polyvagal Theory. Don’t worry. It’s not as complicated as it sounds! Grab a snack, get comfy, and let’s dive in.
What is the Polyvagal Theory?
So, what’s the Polyvagal Theory all about? Imagine your nervous system as a control center for your feelings. This theory helps us understand how that control center works, especially when we’re feeling anxious or stressed. It introduces us to the “polyvagal ladder,” which is like a mood meter that goes from feeling awesome to feeling not-so-great.
The Polyvagal Ladder: Your Mood Meter
Picture a ladder. At the top, you’re feeling like a rockstar—happy, calm, and ready to connect with loved ones and friends. That’s where we all want to be, right? Well, that’s a part of your nervous system called the Ventral Vagus. It’s also known as our Social Engagement System. This part of our nervous system is the only part that allows us to feel calm, confident, and connected.
As you move down the ladder, you start feeling more stressed, like you’re ready to either run away or fight someone or something. That’s your fight-flight system or sympathetic nervous system. While that feels less than awesome, it is evolution’s way of getting us in gear to get away from danger so that we survive.
Imagine you are a caveman walking through the forest, and you see a sabretooth tiger. Evolution doesn’t want you to sit there thinking about what to do next; it wants you to run first and ask questions later—or to fight the tiger if that is a better option (or the only option) for survival. If we were sitting around trying to size up the situation with our very slow “thinking brain”, we would have been eaten before our brains finished the thought, “You know, I think that might be a sabertoo. . .”.
While there aren’t many sabretooths walking around these days, humans and other mammals have built-in security measures that create the same physiological response for anything we might have learned was dangerous throughout our lifetimes. So, for example, if we grew up feeling negatively judged by others or that the world was dangerous, or that we weren’t enough, those messages will work within our nervous systems to shift us toward fight, flight, or shutdown automatically.
The bottom rung of the ladder is the oldest part of the nervous system, the Dorsal Vagus. This part is evolution’s bests way to help us survive if fight or flight doesn’t work in a dangerous situation. This part of our nervous system causes us to shut down to conserve energy until the danger has passed. It’s the part that has us in bed with the sheets pulled over our heads, unable to get up enough energy to brush our teeth, much less engage with the world.
Easy Polyvagal Exercises to Climb the Ladder
The good news is that you can climb back up the polyvagal ladder when you’re feeling wound up or in the dumps. Here are just a few ways to hack your polyvagal system:
1. Belly Breathing
Our breathing is connected to the relaxation response of our nervous system. When we breathe air into our tummies so that they expand, the rib cage expands, and the diaphragm lifts. This engages the relaxation response during the exhale.
Find a quiet spot and take some belly breaths. Inhale through your nose, breathing air into your tummy so that it expands. Inhale counting to four, and then exhale through your mouth, counting to six. This is like giving your nervous system a “chill pill.”
2. Humming or Singing
Ever notice how you feel better when you’re singing in the shower? That’s because your vocal cord is attached to your polyvagal system. Using your voice, particularly in a way that creates vibrations in your vocal cords, can actually help you feel calmer.
So go ahead, hum a tune, or sing your favorite song!
3. Grounding Techniques
When our fight-flight system gets engaged, our “thinking brain” shuts off. Evolution knows that this part of our brain works way too slowly to get us away from danger in time to survive. When we start to get emotionally flooded, it can be difficult to stay grounded in our bodies.
When you’re feeling anxious, use your senses to bring you back to the present. Feel the fabric of your shirt, listen to some calming music, or smell something nice like a flower or your favorite perfume. See if you can notice just one thing with your senses. Pay attention to it with curiosity rather than trying to judge it. If you were noticing this sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste for the first time, how would you describe it?
This exercise can bring you back to your body in the present and uses a part of your “thinking brain” to do it so that it starts to come back online.
4. Social Connection
Engaging with someone you trust, someone who feels safe, can help you to climb the polyvagal ladder by shifting you to the social engagement part of your brain.
Call a friend or family member that you feel safe and connected to. Touch can also be powerful when it feels safe. There’s a reason warm hugs make us feel better.
Understanding the Polyvagal Theory gives you a cheat code for understanding your feelings, especially anxiety. There are tons of ways to hack your own emotional system with easy-to-do exercises just like these. These tools, when used consistently over time, can help you climb back up your mood meter and conquer your anxiety and shut down. So, the next time you’re feeling anxious or stressed, remember, that you’ve got the tools to turn things around.