2. Describing Autonomic Landscapes In Our Own Words (Anchored Book Club)


This season, we are exploring Deb Dana’s Anchored here in The Haven. The book is a practical guide to help us become familiar with recognising and navigating the inner landscapes of our autonomic nervous system. In these weekly posts, I am looking at some central concepts from each chapter and exploring ways to creatively engage with them.

We began last time with the introductory overview of Polyvagal Theory. This post will explore the three states of connection and survival that make up the landscapes of our autonomic nervous system.

Our autonomic nervous system is composed of the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems. According to Polyvagal Theory, the vagus nerve serves as the primary pathway for the parasympathetic system through its dorsal and ventral branches. This gives access to three pathways, each producing a different survival response.

The Three States on The Autonomic Landscape

Ventral Vagal (In Connection)

When in a ventral vagal state, we can recognise our distress, look for possible solutions, and offer or seek support. We possess the necessary resources and skills to deal with the situation. Our attention is concentrated on building connections with ourselves, others, and the world.

Sympathetic (In Fight or Flight)

In survival mode, the sympathetic system activates fight and flight, releasing cortisol and adrenaline. In this state, the heart beats faster, and breathing becomes more rapid. The body directs energy away from digestive functions and towards mobilisation for a quick, active response.

Dorsal Vagal (In Shutdown)

In survival mode, the dorsal vagus takes us out of awareness and connection, plunging us into a state of collapse and immobilization. We experience numbness, disconnection and a sense that we are going through the motions. Our instinctive hope is that if we become invisible, disappear and stop feeling, we increase our chance of survival.

The Vagal Brake

“When you’re riding downhill and want to go faster, you gently release the brakes, and the wheels spin more quickly. Then, when you want to slow down, you gently squeeze the brakes.”

– Deb Dana

This image of the hand brake on a bike is a helpful way to think about the “Vagal Brake”, a core part of nervous system regulation. Electrical signals and neurotransmitters are sent between the brain and heart to slow down and speed up heart rate to respond to each moment’s need.

The function of the vagal brake is to allow us to feel and use some of the mobilising energy of the sympathetic nervous system without being pulled into the survival state of fight and flight. This is how we find ourselves actively connected in pursuits and projects (what we might describe as a flow state).

Naming Our States

Deb Dana describes the power of words in providing a vocabulary to imagine the impact of the autonomic nervous system. She suggests playing with language to bring each part of the inner landscape to life.

What words would you use to describe how the three states feel?

Flowing – Interrupted – Stagnant
Simplicity – Chaos – Emptiness
Open – Grasping – Closed
Firm – Brittle – Limp
Drinking – Drowning – Dry

I love finding the language to encapsulate the states in this way. We can play with it, expand on the words, and use other creative means to imagine each part of the landscape. There are no right or wrong words here.

Autonomic Landscapes and Rabbit Holes

I have been using this to observe what’s happening within me throughout the day. Seeing how I move between states during the same or similar activity is fascinating. For example, I was watching a video on YouTube teaching something I was curious about. Over about 30 minutes, I moved through a landscape from a state of ventral connection through to dorsal shutdown.

  1. Ooh that’s fascinating, I’d love to learn (simplicity, curiosity, flow)
  2. This matters, I need to watch and learn EVERYTHING (jumping, grasping, drowning)
  3. Dagh, there’s too much, I give up (empty, overwhelmed, quit)

This can happen quickly in a world full of endless information.

What tells us that we are going from one state to the next, and how can we find our way back to connection when we disappear down the rabbit hole of information overload?

In this month’s book club discussion, we will identify signs of being pulled away from stretch and into stress and survival states and consider how we might stay anchored in a safe connection.

Regulated and Survival Landscapes

I will share a short soundscape exploration of our landscapes, using Deb Dana’s words from this part of the book. This will help us become familiar with the different roles these states have when we are in modes of regulation or survival.

Check out the latest Book Club Discussions in the Forum.