‘We see things not as they are, but as we are’
I admit, I used to see this phrase and not really understand what it meant. However, I then went on to learn about the autonomic nervous system and polyvagal theory and the phrase came to make complete sense. I now understand that the way we see the world is very dependant both on the health of our autonomic nervous system, as well as it's moment to moment state.
The autonomic nervous system is a crucial part of the body's functioning, operating outside of our conscious awareness and control. It's job is to keep us safe, and our body systems in a state of balance. It is responsible for monitoring numerous systems including respiration, body temperature, sleep, digestion. It will induce sweating when we are too hot, and raise our blood pressure when it drops too low.
The autonomic nervous system is also responsible for our response to threat and stress. For example, when faced with a threat the autonomic nervous system will instigate the release of adrenaline to raise our heart rate and send blood to the muscles to prepare us to run or fight. It then calms the body systems down again when the threat has passed.
The autonomic nervous system has two main branches – sympathetic (activating) and parasympathetic (calming) - with these two branches working in tandem to keep the body balanced throughout the day. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches are moderated by various nerves, in particular 2 distinct branches of the vagus nerve: the ventral vagal branch (an evolutionarily more recent and evolved branch) and the dorsal vagal branch (an old and primitive branch). These branches are thought to be responsible for our various response to stress, and are described in greater depth in The Polyvagal Theory by Porges.
In an ideal world we would spend most of our time – around 80-90% - in a parasympathetic state (also often described ‘safe and social’, ‘tend and befriend’, or ‘rest and digest’), entering sympathetic states when necessary. When in a parasympathetic state the body systems are calm and balanced, and we feel peaceful and at ease. We feel safe, curious, and open to interaction with others. We are grounded and responsive. We can think clearly, makes plans, and explore our environment. According to polyvagal theory this calm state is moderated by the ventral vagal branch of the vagus nerve.
Even when feeling safe, the brain is always scanning for threat outside our conscious awareness in a process known as neuroception. Neuroception is crucial at ensuring we respond quickly to a threat and keep ourselves alive and well. The brain is not only scanning for obvious threats such as an imminent attack; it's also scanning for situations that look similar to threats or traumas we have experienced in the past. This explains why we may startle and react to situations that are not immediately threatening, and why we may end up reacting to an increasing number of triggers; the more reactive we are, the more the brain scans.
When neuroception flags an incoming threat, the brain will sound the alarm for danger and we will leave the parasympathetic/ventral vagal state. The body and brain will then respond in one of 5 ways: fight, flight, fawn, freeze, flop. Which response the brain chooses depends on both the severity of the current threat, and the brains memory of previous threats ie if a response worked once before the brain is likely to choose it again. It’s important to note that we have no conscious control over the response chosen by the brain, and our behaviour options become severely limited by the choice that it makes.
Possible responses are:
Sympathetic activation. All systems go. The brain sends a message for us to move towards the threat and fight. We experience a rush of adrenalin, increased heart rate, blood pressure increase, rapid breathing, muscular tension, dilated pupils, sweating. When in this state:
Our behaviour may present as: explosive and unpredictable, hostile, defiant, argumentative and reactive. Zero to 100. Yelling, screaming, slamming doors. Taunting/belittling/shaming others. Hypercritical.
We may feel: threatened, fearful, irritated, agitated. Thoughts may be stuck on loops. We may feel unable to think straight. A ‘my way or the high way’ attitude. Taking things personally. Shame and remorse after outbursts.
Sympathetic activation. All systems go. The brain sends a message for us to move away and run. The body responds as per the adrenaline rush of fight. When in this state:
Our behaviour may present as: rushing. A need to be on the go. Always busy. Hyperactive. Uncomfortable or anxious when still. Tendency to leave situations abruptly. Tendency to end relationships or cut people off. Distracted and erratic. Inability to listen, focus, or follow. Often use distraction or numbing techniques such as screens/substances.
We may feel: anxious, trapped, a need to escape or run away. Restless, jittery, racing thoughts. Confused over decisions. Inability to concentrate or plan
The brain sends a message for us to freeze and stay still. This is thought to be a combination of sympathetic activation, mixed with dorsal vagal shut down. The body mobilises all the resources to run or fight, at the same time as it immobilises us. This mobilised energy becomes locked inside the body leading to stiffness and a sense of being frozen on the spot. When in this state:
Our behaviour may present as: shutting down and checking out. Avoidance. Procrastination. Indecisiveness. Daydreaming or fantasising. Hiding ourselves away. Dissociation. Frustration or overwhelm.
We may feel: rigid and stiff. A sense or bracing. Paralysed by fear. Everything seems pointless. Numbness and emptiness. Feeling lost, blank, or foggy. Vacant and detached. A sense of dread or foreboding.
4. Fawn (please and appease)
A mixed state of fight, flight, and freeze. This is thought to occur due to an overreliance on the ventral vagus in order to read other peoples emotions and behaviours, in combination with a dorsal vagal shutdown.
The fight/flight response allows us to move in order to meet the needs of others, whilst the freeze response allows us to dissociate and disconnect to protect our own psych. A fawn response is often adopted by those who experience difficult or traumatic childhoods where the ability to ‘read’ a parent or caregiver was critical to remaining safe. When in this state:
Our behaviour may present as: fixated on others. Hyperaware of the emotions of others. Empathetic. People pleasing, flattery, going with the crowd. Fear of saying no. Overly polite and agreeable. Betraying own needs and desires (or having no sense of what we truly need). Dissociation.
We may feel: fearful. On edge waiting for the next issue to arise. Walking on eggshells around people. Lack of trust in oneself. Questioning oneself. Anxious, detached, foggy.
The brain sends a message for us to collapse and play dead. This state is similar to freeze but while freeze is a sympathetic state characterised by muscle tension, flop is a state of collapse characterised by laxity. Flop is thought to be mediated by the primitive dorsal vagal branch of the vagus nerve, and is a last ditch attempt at survival. In this state:
Our behaviour may present as: disengaged, shut down. Submissive. Physically collapsed. Apathetic. Unable to speak. Breath holding. Excessive sleeping. People may physically faint or collapse
We may feel: shut down, zombie like, numb. Unable to ask for help. Detached and foggy. Dissociated. Depersonalised.
As mentioned earlier, our behaviours are generally restricted by the physiological state that we are in – for example it is impossible for us to run when in a state of freeze, and impossible for us to fight when in a state of collapse. Our perception of the world is also heavily skewed by the state that we are in – for example when in a state of fight our brain is primed to see facial expressions as more aggressive, movements as attacking, and voices as low rumbling threats.
'We do not see the world how it is, we see it how we are'. Put another way, we perceive the world through the lens of this nervous system. People that live in heightened states of stress are more likely to perceive threat where there is none.
Whilst it's common for us to spend our days moving between various states as our environment changes, it's also possible for us to live for long periods in a state of freeze, or in near permanent states of sympathetic activation. If we developed a pattern of freeze as a child, it may follow us all the way through to adulthood. Such persistent states will have a significant impact on the way we interpret our world and therefore the way we think, believe, and behave. Since our responses are limited by our nervous system state we may find ourselves stuck on loops; perpetually repeating the same narrow range of behaviours even though they make us feel terrible.
Where does yoga come in?
Yoga is proven to be able to shift us out of reactive states by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. One of the reasons we often feel much calmer after a yoga class is because we have shifted from fight/flight to ventral vagal. Yoga also strengthens our nervous system over time so that we spend more time in a parasympathetic state.
Yoga teaches us techniques that we can use to shift our state ourselves in real time, for example slow breathing encourages parasympathetic activation, whilst strong movement can shift us out of freeze.
Yoga is incredibly grounding and teaches us to stay more present with what is, so that we are less likely to drift, daydream, or dissociate.
Yoga improves activity and coordination of various brain regions so that the brain becomes less reactive, and the mind less overactive. Yoga also improves neurochemistry which provides a more fertile ground for changing our thoughts and behaviour.
Yoga teaches us to notice, pay attention, and become increasingly aware of our body sensations. When we become better at this, we are more able to notice a shift in states and apply yoga techniques to restore balance. For example we will more readily notice our body bracing, or a heart that has started to speed up.
With increased body awareness comes a greater ability to track what states tend to dominate for us. Each of us can experience all states, however most of us have one or two states that our brain ‘favours’. The favourite is often learnt during our early years because nervous system development begins in the womb (with baby exposed to mums stress responses), and develops rapidly in line with childhood experiences. If we come to realise that we have a tendency towards freeze, we can work specifically with that response.
Yoga encourages gentle mindful awareness throughout our day, which helps us develop a greater understanding of our triggers. Through mindful awareness I was able to notice that I am easily triggered into a fight response by someone frowning at me, and easily triggered into freeze by raised voices. Yoga has allowed me to notice these triggers and intervene as necessary, for example grounding techniques often successfully shift me out of freeze.
Yoga psychology allows us to explore our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours so that we can begin to understand the source of our triggers and why we react the way we do.
Mindfulness and mediation shine a light on our repetitive patterns of thought, which are often triggers for, or responses to, a shift in state.
Yoga teaches us self compassion so that we are able to look at our patterns, and address them without shame or blame.
Blog post drawing on the work of Stephen Porges, Arielle Schwartz, and Nicole LePera