This is part 2 of our series on working with the physiology of stress. You can read part one here.
In my last post, we learned about the triune brain model and how each layer is responsible for different mental and physical functions. We learned that when we are faced with more stress than we can handle, we “flip our lid,” meaning that we are operating from our lower brain. At that point we are no longer able to regulate our emotions or think rationally– we’re outside of our window of tolerance.
Clearly, the story doesn’t end there, because if it did, I would not be able to write this article and you wouldn’t be able to read it. We’d all be running with the wolves, or something. Instead, here we are, sometimes-rational human beings interacting via the internet. To understand how this all works, we’re going to talk about polyvagal theory*, which is simpler than it sounds, but will make you sound smart when you discuss it with your friends.
First, we need to understand just a little bit more about the autonomic nervous system. This system regulates your body and its functions according to whatever is happening in your environment. The vagus nerve (check out the cool image) communicates between the brain and the body. It goes both ways– information from the brain tells the body what to do, and the body sends information back to the brain.
Our ability to perceive threat is called neuroception. Neuroception is a subconscious process. It “reads” other people and situations to let us know whether or not we are safe. However, we are all very different, and what feels safe to one person may not feel safe to someone else. For example, someone with a history of trauma will be more likely to feel unsafe than someone who has not had that type of experience.
Depending on the information received, our nervous system operates one of three different switches in order to prepare our body for a potential threat.
The first switch is our fight-or-flight response, part of the dorsal vagal complex and the sympathetic nervous system– you can think of this as your nervous system’s fire alarm. If this system perceives that you are in danger, it sounds the alarm and triggers adrenaline release. The sympathetic nervous system has got your back. At the first sign of a problem, it is ready to pump you up for the big fight, or get you out of there pronto. While it’s active, your body suspends its everyday activities (digestion, reproduction, etc)– you can check out the infographic below to see a few more of the functions of this system.
The second switch is the ventral vagal complex, which is tied to the parasympathetic nervous system. We sometimes call this the rest-and-digest system or the feed-and-breed system. The ventral vagal complex is like an all clear signal that lets your body resume regular biological functions that were put on hold during the metaphorical fight-or-flight “fire.” It also allows us to be social, engage with others, and self-regulate. When our ventral vagal complex is online, we are back inside our window of tolerance again, able to engage with others and feel comfortable and happy.
Finally, we have a third switch. This is also a part of the dorsal vagal complex, but it’s a very old (evolutionarily speaking) part. In an extreme case of danger, or if fight-or-flight fails, this third switch triggers the freeze or feign death response. While the first switch speeds us up, this third switch slows us down so much that we can actually pass out completely. Again, please remember that this is a completely involuntary response– the individual has no control over the experience, and no control over what is happening while the response is triggered. This is why many trauma survivors remember being unable to move, fight, or do anything at all during the traumatic event. They could not.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, this is all well and good for someone who’s experiencing a traumatic or dangerous event. But what does it have to do with me? Remember that neuroception is an individual process. Your sense of danger may be triggered for many different reasons– even what seems on the surface to be everyday stress. Anything that threatens your well-being– a close call with a traffic accident, fear of losing a job –can feel dangerous to your nervous system, causing a minor fight-or-flight state. Social danger (difficulty with friendships, co-workers, etc) is a threat to your well-being because we are designed to live with and support other human beings.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we’re prehistoric humans. You and I are out hunting and gathering, when suddenly we see a predator– let’s make it a tiger. Immediately, our neuroception triggers the sympathetic nervous system. Our blood pressure rises, the heart rate increases, and we can feel adrenaline in our bodies. I might not be able to communicate with you in that moment because I am so overwhelmed with the immediate, primal danger. My body turns off non-essential functions– insulin activity, digestion, the immune response.
We begin to back away from the tiger– and we run back to our camp. We could also have fought the tiger (our muscles were primed and ready), but I wasn’t willing to go that far even in my pretend story. Hours later, you and I are back at our cave, laughing and joking together about our escape from the tiger. Our ventral vagal system is back online, and our parasympathetic nervous system is running the show again.
Now, let’s pretend that we are modern humans living in the time of a pandemic. Perhaps you have lost your job and don’t know where you will get the money for groceries, or the mortgage. You are worried about your health and your loved ones. Your neuroception has fired the alarm switch– your sympathetic nervous system is screaming at you to get out of danger– but you don’t have a way to do that, so you are literally stuck in the dorsal vagal response. You’re jittery, on edge, you can’t sit down and relax. After a while (weeks?), your body might begin to trigger the “freeze” switch– you are depressed, tired, numb. Either way, your body isn’t able to resume its normal, healthy functions. This is what many of us are living through right now.
Even pre-pandemic, most people I know were already dealing with the effects of a stress response that they didn’t know how to resolve. If we take a look at the graph showing the functions of the sympathetic nervous system, you might start to worry about the long-term effects of living in a fight-or-flight or freeze response.
The really, really great news is that all of this is a natural biological process and we can work with it. We can learn to harness the energy of this stress response to help us to be more productive and connect authentically with others. There is even evidence to suggest that even having some understanding of how your stress response works will help you to mitigate some of the potentially negative effects of stress. How about that? You’re healthier just for reading this post.
In our next installment, we’ll take a look at how reframing our response to stress can help us to benefit from it.Then, we’ll learn some simple strategies to move through the fight-or-flight or freeze response, and how you can learn to return to your window of tolerance. In the meantime, if you are experiencing any of these effects, try to remember that it’s totally normal. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a polyvagal human being! If you can, get up and move a little bit– take a walk if you’re able, toss a ball in the air (or with another human, or a dog). It’ll be a great start to moving back toward your ventral vagal, rest-and-digest system.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about the polyvagal response, you might enjoy this video– it’s an informative and entertaining look at your nervous system response.
*Polyvgal theory is the work of Dr. Stephen Porges. You can read more about him and his research here.