Polyvagal Theory: You Can’t Use the Things You Don’t Have

by Susie Amundson

I flew in last week after the holidays when it was 3°F out. A week-plus winter deep freeze had hit town, pretty unusual for Homer. Most of us residents are a bit soft in the winter since this is the banana belt of Alaska. Minus the bananas.

Learning of my evening arrival time, my friend Donna kindly offered to plug in my car. My CRV was parked at our office in town. Ten miles from home. But plug in? I smiled.

When Donna texted, my mind immediately flipped back to my North Dakota childhood. Every car sported a three-pronged plug peeking out by the radiator. By the time I was 4, I knew it was a block heater to toast up the engine. I also knew when you went out to play you didn’t beg to come back in the house even if it was 3° outside. My mom with four kids was quick with the door lock.

But up here I don’t have a block heater on my car. Or a heated garage. Or a pet moose to lie on the hood until I get back. I was pretty sure my car wasn’t going to start.

But It Got Me Thinking 

It got me thinking about how you can’t use the things you don’t have.

No block heater? You decrease your car’s chance for a quick start-up in deep freeze weather. No long johns? Hard to get those muscles warm enough to move when it’s below zero. No jumper cables? No electrical boost.

Which naturally leads me to another electrical boost — your mammalian neurobiology. If you don’t know about yours, you can’t leverage it to make your life better. Simply put, you can’t use the wonders of your neurobiology for your own wellbeing — if you don’t have the knowledge.

Short Shrift: The Polyvagal Theory

If one scientific embodiment has changed my life, this is it. Founded by Stephen Porges, the Polyvagal Theory is a clear path toward anyone’s well-being. It focuses on your mammalian neurobiology primarily your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) coupled with your brain.

Amazingly, the ANS drives your reactions, behaviors, and choices on a moment-to moment basis – mostly without your conscious awareness. Its power determines what things you turn toward (that cute, cooing baby). What you turn away from (the whingeing colleague). What you run from (the bicycle swerving toward you on the sidewalk). And what you close down from (a shame-filled scolding from your boss. been there).

Its three neural networks help us automatically adapt to any life circumstance. Each of them useful.

Again. Each neural network is useful — until we get mightily stuck in one. Think of your ruminating when you can’t calm yourself down. Or your hypervigilance at work or listening to world news – waiting for the next shoe to drop. Or the tentacles of despondency that crept up on you during the winter months.

The Autonomic House

I like to think of the ANS as three floors of your inner home with distinct roles and characteristics. Each neural network represents an embodied floor – your internal experience.

The top floor or Ventral Vagal Network connects your face, eyes, ears, voice box, heart, and lungs. Typically we reside on this floor when we are with people and pets we trust and love. This is your network of safety and social bonding and here we feel calm, alert, kindred, and engaged (an acronym for CAKE!).

When this network is activated and we are standing on the top floor, we think more clearly, build relationships more skillfully, make better decisions, engage more fully at work, and know better physical health.

On the ground floor is the Sympathetic Nervous System. It fires us up when we are threatened. A threat can be relational – when someone makes a snarky comment to you at a meeting. Or physical – when a strange dog aggressively charges you. Most of the neurophysiological reactions are in our chest area (rapid heart rate, quick breathing, heat, jittery) where cortisol and adrenaline are pumping. This network serves to protect us when we are fearful, anxious, hypervigilant, and we need to take action.

In the Basement is our Dorsal Vagal Network that connects our heart and lungs with all of the organs in our gut. You might feel a plunge in your gut when this neural network is activated. This sensation usually crops up around old core beliefs (e.g., lack of worthiness) or dreaded news (you’re laid off or demoted). When we are overwhelmed and don’t have the vim to take action, we go to the Basement to conserve our energy.

Your Neural Floors’ Narrative

We’ve pretty much covered your Inner Autonomic Home. So what does this mean for you and your well being in life and work?

By now you’ve guessed when you move fluidly between the floors, life seems pretty easy, all things relative. And when you’re stuck or spending way too much time on the ground floor or in the basement — life, work, most relationships, and everything suck.

And that’s the way it rolls out. Whichever neural state you are in, you have a story that follows it. Your inner narrative. And this internal dialogue ranges from “OK, I’ve got this” (top floor) to “Crikeys, I’ll never get this done” (ground floor) to “Nobody gets me” (basement).

Simply put: When we change our neural states, we change our mind’s story.

So How Do You Move Between Floors?

Well, that’s a discussion for next month. Here’s your homework this month.

For now, just figure out what neural floor you are on at different times of the day. Keep it simple and explore your inner home, floor by floor. Kindly get curious of each floor’s embodied characteristics. It feels a bit different for everyone.

  • What are your body’s physical signals on the various floors?
  • What emotions come up on each floor?
  • What do you do and say on each floor?

If you get lost in the feelings and story of one of your neural floors, try stepping out of it. With a few deep long exhalations. A walk outdoors. Connecting with a true friend – in person or phone.

When you are ready again, you can explore each floor a bit more. Knowing where we are at gives us so many options for well being.

Speaking of Well Being

My car started just fine. Not from missing the block heater but having two other friends who kindly started my car and warmed it up while I was away. They had the key and used it. Thank you my friends.

And to all of you — may you hold and use the key of the Polyvagal Theory in your lives.

We’ll learn more about the path to well being next month. Until then, warm wishes.

Susie