We humans are storytellers, meaning-making beings, and it is through our autonomic nervous systems that we first create, and then inhabit our stories of safety and survival. The information that begins in our body travels autonomic pathways to the brain, where the brain creates a story to make sense of what’s happening. Subtle changes in our autonomic state translate into new stories about who we are and how we engage with the world. As our biology changes, so do our stories.
The autonomic nervous system is at the heart of daily experience, shaping the way we navigate living, loving, and working. This system evolved over many millennia and is based on a universal design that is a common denominator across human experience. Its role is to store, conserve, and release energy to help us safely move through our daily lives. Polyvagal Theory, developed by Stephen Porges, gives us a framework to understand the autonomic nervous system and with this roadmap, we can begin to tune in to the inner workings of this system. (Read: “The Polyvagal Perspective” by Stephen Porges)
As we get to know the autonomic nervous system we see there are three basic states that we move between in a predictable order known as the autonomic hierarchy. At the top of the hierarchy is the state of safety and connection named ventral vagal. Here we travel four pathways of connection—to self, to others, to the world, and to spirit—and find physical and psychological wellbeing. Taking a step down the hierarchy we leave safety and connection and enter into the state of sympathetic mobilization and the chaotic survival energy of fight and flight. At the bottom of the hierarchy we find the dorsal vagal state where we feel drained, disconnected, shut down, and collapsed.
We naturally move in and out of these states in both big and small ways as we navigate the challenges of daily living. Our preferred place is at the top of the hierarchy anchored in ventral. Here we have the ability to manage the normal and expected demands of a day with flexibility.
[Finding it hard to be flexible? Read: “18 Affirmations for When You’re Overwhelmed.”]
When there are too many demands, the demands are too intense, too frequent, or last too long, when we have health issues, or when we experience times of extraordinary challenge, we can lose our anchor in ventral. When that happens, the autonomic nervous system acts in service of our safety initiating a move down the hierarchy into a survival response. The predictability of the hierarchy means that when faced with an overwhelming experience, we are first pulled into sympathetic mobilization. If sympathetic activation helps us manage the moment, we return to our anchor in ventral. If it doesn’t resolve the situation, if we feel trapped in the overwhelming experience and can’t find our way out, we fall to the bottom of the hierarchy in a dorsal collapse.
Stories emerge at each stop along the hierarchy. From a dorsal state of shutdown, the stories are filled with a sense of collapse, losing hope, being lost, and feeling disconnected. These are stories of not belonging, being a misfit, unseen, and alone. In a sympathetically charged state, the stories are ones of anger and anxiety, action, and chaos. They carry a flavor of danger, of being in a world that feels unsafe surrounded by unpredictable people. From the regulation of the ventral state, the stories bring possibility and choice. Here are stories of connection, of challenges that feel manageable, of feeling safe enough in the world to venture out and explore.
Whether it is through the connection of ventral or the protection of sympathetic and dorsal, the autonomic nervous system responds to each moment with a response designed to help us survive.
Sympathetic stories often come with judgmental and self-critical statements intended to make sure we keep moving out of a fear that if we slow down we will be a failure.
Dorsal stories are filled with words about giving up and how pointless it is to keep going. They offer a rescue from the neverending intensity of anxiety and anger.
Ventral stories deepen our experience of safety and are written in ways that remind us we are okay, we are creative, and we can successfully meet the moment.
When we remember these three states each have their own set of stories, we can tune in and listen with curiosity to the one we have entered into and also hear the other two that are waiting in the background. By listening to the different stories of one moment, we discover the protective intentions of our sympathetic and dorsal survival states and the possibilities that emerge from the state of ventral regulation.