The Stories We Tell Ourselves
As I was checking in with a client at the beginning of our therapy session by asking how she was doing, I noticed there was a long pause before she answered. She seemed to be searching for just the right words to frame her response. “Well,” she finally said, “It seems like the world is on fire.”
It certainly does seem that way. On top of the stress and uncertainty many of us are experiencing with the COVID 19 pandemic, racial tensions have also exploded to the forefront, challenging our over-taxed brains to examine our belief systems and biases, which is already a difficult task even in calmer times. (It is more efficient and comfortable for the brain to hold onto long standing belief systems because developing new ones involves laying new neural pathways, which requires a lot of energy and often great discomfort as well.)
Not only the world around us seems to be on fire, but our nervous systems feel that way too. (Hang in there with me for a brief, and vastly over-simplified primer on some basic neurobiology.) Our nervous system was traditionally pictured as a two-part antagonistic system, where the vagus nerve (the longest of the 12 cranial nerves) is divided into the sympathetic branch, which signals activation (the “gas pedal” or fight/flight) and the parasympathetic branch, which signals calming (the “brake pedal” or freeze/faint). Both branches function to help us manage life-threatening situations. Dr. Steven Porges developed the Polyvagal Theory when he discovered a third type of nervous system response which he calls the “social engagement system” as it helps us navigate relationships.
Polyvagal Theory helps us understand that both branches of the vagus nerve help to calm the body, but in different ways. The dorsal vagal nerve shuts down the body in response to trauma or stress, while the ventral vagal nerve calms down the body in a more nuanced, balanced way, creating enough sense of safety for us to move towards relationships for comfort and connection.
The three states possible for us then are the dorsal state: where we might feel a sense of collapse, a shrinking inward, even some light-headedness and extreme fatigue; the sympathetic state: where we might feel activated, mobilized, and agitated; and the ventral state: where we feel enough calm and safety to regulate our emotions and engage in relational interactions that promote a sense of well-being.
(Assuming you are still reading this, you might be asking, why is this important?) Understanding these nervous system states is crucial because this awareness gives us more choices about how we deal with the stressors in our environment. When we understand what is happening in our bodies and brains from a neurobiological standpoint, we can learn how to regulate these systems and begin to respond rather than react when triggered.
Very specific belief systems accompany each nervous system state. Biology creates a platform which the brain then creates a story to match. When I am in a sympathetic, or aroused state, my brain perceives danger, a threat to my physical, mental or emotional survival, and the ensuing story is one of needing to protect myself, which puts me in a defensive posture. When I am in a dorsal, or collapsed state, I feel invisible, unworthy, hopeless, lost and alone and create a story to match. When I am in a ventral, or socially open and engaged state, I feel capable and grounded in the present, and I can more accurately perceive whether a threat is real or imagined, and be curious about exploring the dynamics of each interaction and situation and how to best approach it.
In each interaction and situation, there are always three stories available to us, and which one we choose to tell in the moment largely depends on which state our nervous system is in. Next week I will write about what kinds of resources we can access to move from a sympathetic (activated) or dorsal (shut down) to a more ventral (open and curious) state.
In the meantime, I encourage each of you pay attention to the stories you are telling yourself, and if they are not kind and self-compassionate, please reach out to someone who can help you find some healthy perspective and remind you that you matter and have worth, not because of what you do, but because of who you are. It is never too late to change your story!