18. 12. 2023

Making peace with ourselves


Understanding the autonomeous nervous system

The change in the seasons naturally turns our energy more inwards, there is less to do outside, there is more time to look at oneself. One difficulty many people struggle with is, that despite of understanding situations, despite of “working on” issues, despite of meditating, old unwanted reactions in life keep happening, and do not disappear. This is discouraging, and often a moment of perceiving oneself as incompetent, powerless, even as a hopeless case. The single biggest factor in this is that people are not aware of the functioning of our autonomeous nervous system. Our autonomeous nervous system is called autonomeous because it really is autonomeous. We do not control our autonomeous nervous system with our will. Thanks to Stephen Porges, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who did a huge research on the whole polyvagal system in our body, the longest nerve in our body which connects the three brains with our organs and muscles, we have an understanding which helps us to be more compassionate with ourselves and at the same time shows us a way how to take care for our autonomeous nervous system.

I knew quite some bits of what he says, but it was not all connected, and clear in the way how these bits are connected. Thanks to him, I feel we got a clear path showing us what we can do.

Here is a short overview:

  1. Our autonomeous nervous system consists of three layers one on top of each other. This is called the autonomic hirarchy:
  • The dorsal vagus, the oldest layer, 500 million years old, the shut down system, creating immbobilisation, freezing, undercharge, no energy.

  • The symphaticus, the system of action, 400 million years old, creating energy for action, fight, flight, overcharge

  • The ventral vagus (system of connection), 200 million years old, makes it  possible to relax, connect, comunicate, enjoy, love, be intelligent. This is  the pathway to health and well being.

  1. Neuroception
    Our autonomeous nervous system looks for signs of safety or signals of danger, permanently. Danger creates an activation of the symphaticus, life threat creates shut down. Signals of safety create relaxation, connection, communication

  2. Co - regulation
    Co-regulating with others is needed for survival, we need others to survive. We look at others and “read” them. Damaged co-regulation makes relationships and working together a nightmare. Activation of the symphaticus (fight, flight, overcharge) or the dorsal vagus (immbobilisation, freezing, undercharge) make co-regulation impossible or very difficult.

Depending on our autonomic state, our body transforms, and different systems are activated. This state is the filter through which we experience the world. The outcome of these completely unconscious processes, are the autonomic states.

When we feel safe, to use a picture, we can move on: “Green” means Safety, and our social engagement system is active. The ventral vagus is active. Our heart rate slows down, saliva and digestion are stimulated, facial muscles are activated, our talking is more melodious and we have more eye contact. Our middle-ear muscles turn on, human voice is better heard.

When we sense some danger, we get alert. “Yellow” means warning, possible danger. The Fight Or Flight System (Run Or Fight), the symphaticus is active. the heart speeds up, our pain tolerance goes up, our face gets tense, our middle-ear muscles turn off, we better hear extreme low & high-frequency sounds.

When we perceive an acute threat, we have a strong reaction. “Red” means life threat, we freeze, the dorsal vagus is active. We stop to move, we get immobilized, frozen. 

Healthy individuals can bounce between the green and yellow reactions with ease. Understanding the "Red" reaction allows us to understand trauma, and tells us how we can work with it. When our autonomeous nervous system percieves a threat, it reacts. Depending on the situation by going into overcharge (symphaticus reaction), or by going into undercharge (dorsal vagus reaction). This directly affects our seeing and hearing physically. Our intelligence is gone, we react driven by survival instincts hundreds of million years old.

We can not connect with others in this state, we are separated. Others are too far, can not be trusted, or are a potential danger. When we are not aware what is happening the way back to feeling safety is difficult. When we know, there are ways how we can take care for our autonomeous nervous system:

The way out, the way towards contact, safety, relaxation

We cannot control our autonomeous nervous system with will, but we can influence it.

Breathing is the only autonomic process which we can consciously control. The Vagus Nerve links the effects of the breathing to the rest of our body, to the organs and muscles. Soft and gentle breathing practices are what is most helpful in moments when the yellow or the red reactions have been activated. And everybody can practice such breathing methods at home, one does not need any special set up. One only needs to remember to do them.

Next to breathing the most direct way of influencing our autonomeous nervous system are slow movements. We call this creating new somatic models. Our body has a movement memory. Once a certain pattern is started, the body tends to move on with it automatically. But we do have a choice there, we can create new movement patterns, slower, more flowing. Breathing consciously and creating and practicing these new somatic models regularly are the way to learning self regulation. The way, where you learn to be able to step out of these automatic reactions to perceived threats, where you can find again a good state of flow.

Stephen Porges has given us such a wonderful understanding and tool which helps us to take care for ourselves, instead of beating ourselves up again on the inside, and create even more pressure. When our autonomeous nervous system is relaxed, and our energy is flowing, our intelligence is functioning. We can create, we can relate. We can´t switch this state on like a light in our house, but we can do something for our autonomeous nervous system to relax, so that we again can feel safe, relate and be intelligent. And then there is space for silence, for love, for joy.