1. Befriending Your Highly Sensitive Nervous System (Anchored Book Club)


This season we are reading Anchored: How To Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory by Deb Dana. I’d love you to join us as we discuss it in the book club and play with the exercises in our sound anchors and Kota happenings.

The fast-paced demands of modern life are often out of step with our internal and natural social rhythms. With so much noise competing for our attention, there is rarely time to pause and process before the next thing appears. As finite beings with limited energy, keeping up with everything that flows through our awareness is impossible.

This can significantly affect the quality of our health, relationships, and well-being. Not to mention our access to the deep, untouched wells of creative imagination waiting to be explored.

The Highly Sensitive Nervous System

If this is true for all humans, its impact on highly sensitive people can be even more significant. Since HSPs perceive greater quantities of information from the environment around them and process it more deeply, the volume of data flowing through the sensitive nervous system can quickly become a recipe for overwhelm and shutdown. It might not have a chance to distinguish between signs of safety and signals of danger in the environment. Leading it to treat everything as a potential threat.

I am particularly aware of the disconnection many people are feeling right now. Lots of us seem to be “going through the motions” and more emotionally reactive to things that feel bigger than they used to. This is why I want to spend our next Haven season reading and using Anchored to help us find our way back to a state of connected safety in ourselves and alongside one another.

Deb Dana sets out to provide the tools necessary for people to feel “safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living”. In other words, befriending our autonomic nervous systems isn’t just necessary to cope with the barrage of noise the world throws our way; it helps us connect with life’s vibrancy, our creative spirit, and what it means to be us in a state of energetic flow.

The Three Elements of Polyvagal Theory

Dana begins Anchored with a simple overview of the core elements of Polyvagal Theory, which provides a rich tapestry of metaphors to understand, embody, and reshape the pathways of protection and connection our nervous system uses to keep us safe from what it perceives as threats.

Autonomic Hierarchy (the three states our nervous system uses in response to the message it perceives about the world), Neuroception (awareness of what is going on within, around, and between us to signal safety or signs of danger), and Co-regulation (our need to regulate alongside others and feel safe in our community).

“The role of the autonomic nervous system is to store, conserve, and release energy to help us safely move through our daily lives.”

– Deb Dana

Safety isn’t about living a life without risk. It’s about knowing how to navigate our inner landscapes to work WITH our nervous system to support what matters most. It allows us to truly engage with life and take risks we know are worth taking. When we are safely anchored, we have the awareness and map to come home to a state of connection when we choose to.

Autonomic Hierarchy

The first element of Polyvagal Theory is Autonomic Hierarchy. This is made of three states the autonomic nervous system uses to react to perceived threats or signs of safety.

Connection (Ventral Vagal), Where We Are Able To:

  • Meet the demands of the day
  • Connect and communicate
  • Go with the flow
  • Engage with life

Action (Sympathetic), Where We Are:

  • Filled with chaotic energy
  • Mobilised to attack
  • Driven to escape
  • Anxious
  • Angry

Shutdown (Dorsal Vagal), Where We:

  • Go through the motions
  • Drained of energy
  • Disconnect
  • Lose hope
  • Give up

Neuroception

The second element of Polyvagal Theory is Neuroception (a term coined by Stephen Porges, who developed this theory). It combines neuro (nerve and nervous system) and ception (grasp). This describes how the nervous system reacts to its perception of safety or danger.

It shows us how the nervous system communicates signs of safety and signals of danger inside us (what it does within us to heartbeat, breath, muscles and organ/digestive functioning). Outside us (our thoughts, feelings, and actions concerning our immediate environment, neighbourhoods, nations, and global community). And between us (how the nervous system communicates with other systems one-on-one or in a group).

Neuroception informs the story we carry about life. It informs how we think, feel, and act. And while it’s impossible to access neuroception directly, we can grow awareness of it. We can become familiar with its patterns and begin working with this awareness to reshape our story.

Co-Regulation

The third element of Polyvagal Theory is that humans are wired for connection. Our survival depends on our ability to co-regulate alongside others. It suggests that while we hopefully learn to self-regulate in childhood development, this supports and builds on our natural ongoing need for co-regulation. Which is something that continues throughout life as we survive and thrive together.

When we have environments and routines that allow us to feel safe with one another (where we don’t perceive a threat from the other person), we can come into connection and regulate together.

Three Elements For Wellbeing

According to the theory, our understanding of and ability to befriend the nervous system arises from these three principles. From here, Dana adds three elements of well-being that allow the nervous system to anchor in safety and regulation.

Context, choice, and connection help us find our way to regulation.

Context

When we observe how, what, and why our nervous system responds, we can understand the nature of our perceived threat.

Feelings of safety come through explicit communication about context. In other words, we feel safe when we see, hear, and experience evidence to support the signs that we are safe.

On the other hand, feelings of unsafety and patterns of protection are more likely to get triggered through implicit pathways. Where we respond to the present based on an experience or story we are telling ourselves. We might jump to conclusions and make assumptions about other people’s motives, thoughts, and feelings even though we don’t have that context. In other words, we feel unsafe unless we have all the information that tells us we’re safe.

Choice

When we sense we are stuck, trapped, or without the freedom to choose, our sympathetic nervous system becomes mobilised to search for a way to escape. Access to alternative options (and the flexibility/possibility to select them) is crucial for anchoring in safety and regulation.

Connection

As creative, relational beings, connection is integral to our well-being. When we don’t feel a sense of connection or experience a rupture in existing relations, our ability to anchor in safety and regulation is inhibited. Our nervous system might prompt us to reach out in desperation (sympathetic action) or retreat into despair (dorsal shutdown).

According to the theory, the connection experience covers four domains: connection to self, other people (and pets), nature and the world, and spirit.

Reshaping Our Inner Landscapes

We can return to these core elements of Polyvagal Theory and human well-being as we explore our inner landscapes and become aware of the pathways of protection our autonomic nervous system has forged throughout our lives. As we go, we will start to reshape and experiment with new stories that can support well-being and give us a platform to let our deep values, hopes, and dreams take root and flourish in our lives.

Check out the latest Book Club Discussions in the Forum.