What Does Normalcy Feel to You?
Stop reading for a moment and close your eyes and sense this in your body. For me, it feels energetic and relaxed at the same time. This weekend I got a taste of normalcy having one of my children, Daniel, and his significant other, Keri, gathered at my house making lots of noise while we cooked and ate healthy, yummy foods. My new normal is a bit different having had the last few years of learning what feels right and not right in my body. I still have high expectations of myself—I cleaned the house before they arrived, and I bought a lot of groceries. However, when they plopped down in the living room and dumped everything on the kitchen counter, I did not feel the need to put their cookies away. (LOL)
What is different these days is my nervous system is feeling safe and social allowing me to release expectations and judgment that in the past might have made these visits uncomfortable and tense. In fact, if I am completely honest, many of Mark’s and my visits back to my parent’s house as adults were strained. Looking back, I recall being ostracized for being too sensitive or trying to be perfect and observed my siblings and their children competing for attention or plotting how to hurt each other, like in the show we are watching, Downton Abbey. Human behavior, especially within families, is so complicated and fraught with pitfalls. So many of the reasons for our behaviors lie beneath the surface—unexplored and colored by perceptions created by invisible glasses welded to the eyes of each of us.
Your Nervous System State Determines Your Behaviors
Our past experiences that are unprocessed or processed in a vacuum can become shackles that prevent us from living and loving in full color in our present. Dr. Stephen Porges, Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at University of North Carolina, Professor Emeritus at the University of Maryland and University of Chicago, and the creator, author, and editor of many books on the Polyvagal Theory says, “our behaviors and emotions are in response to our physiological state and are very reflexive.” In other words, the state of our nervous system drives most of the things we do. And our nervous system gets tuned by our past experiences and traumas as a way to protect ourselves. What compounds the problem is that even if we do not like our current behaviors, we often feel powerless to change them. Instead, we feel shame or guilt. And then there is blame that usually follows. And if our nervous system stays dysregulated or tuned to an unhealthier state such as fight-or-flight or the dorsal vagal state known as shut down, we really have a difficult time feeling “safe and social”. What a web this leads to, which can be very difficult to navigate out of on our own.
A Safe Nervous System is More than a Lack of Threat!
In the course I am taking with Dr. Porges, we are exploring how to feel safer in our own nervous systems and help our clients as well! According to Dr. Porges, it is more than the removal of threat. It involves three key conditions.
- Your autonomic nervous system cannot be in a state that supports defense. In other words, it needs to be shifted from fight-or-flight (sympathetic) or shut down (dorsal path of parasympathetic) to the Ventral Vagal state he calls “safe and social”. Dr. Porges says a highly tuned ventral vagal state is where we should spend most of our time.
- The ventral vagal state which is also known as the social engagement system needs to be tuned up to have an optimal range for health, growth, and restoration.
- Cues of safety need to be both available and detected by your nervous system.
This is a tall order for most of us without assistance and/or a great deal of self-knowledge. If you find your nervous system is not tuned to the safe and social setting, it is going to involve some work to be shifted. It will take time, daily practice, and a curious and compassionate approach to your journey. But the rewards will be well worth it. You will find that you will be better able to enjoy time with family and friends during this holiday season, you will recognize when you are becoming dysregulated and start to explore why. Best of all, you will have the tools to shift your nervous system on the fly whenever it is getting dysregulated to the safe and social ventral vagal state. If you need help, please reach out!