3. Learning To Listen To The Autonomic Nervous System (Anchored Book Club)


This post reflects on chapter three (Learning To Listen) from Anchored by Deb Dana.

This season, we are exploring 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.

Finding Connection by Learning To Listen

Connection is made possible through our openness and ability to listen. We might recognise whether or not we are engaged in listening by noticing our state – are we reflecting or reacting? Listening allows us to observe and explore the feelings, needs and sounds beneath the surface.

It’s a skill that is developed through practice and awareness. And so the ability to listen is born AND made.

Deb Dana says that by understanding how the system works, we can use that information to create a life of well-being. It gives us a map to process the messages, signals, and patterns our nervous system uses to communicate.

The best listeners I know can anchor their awareness, filter out unnecessary information, and connect with the sound of a need beneath the noise. If we don’t know what we’re listening for, it can become impossible to hear anything except a blur of noise. We can’t force or rush towards listening. It takes time, practice, and patience to let go of what we might expect to hear and orient ourselves to what is pricking our ears from moment to moment.

“While the autonomic nervous system works without the need for us to listen in and watch over it, learning to tune in to autonomic states is an important skill. We often have a thought or a feeling and take action without knowing what led us to those responses.”

– Deb Dana

Dana writes, “When we’re flooded by our emotions, we lose connection to regulation and lose the ability for reflection.”

Learning to Listen With Self-Compassion

Imagine practicing autonomic listening in a moment of distress. In that case, our awareness can help us avoid deeper dysregulation that might get stimulated by the autonomic move from self-compassion to self-criticism. So self-compassion keeps us anchored to a more objective view of our encounters with discomfort, distress, and pain.

Self-compassion is built around three points of connection:

  1. Connection with what is alive in us at this moment (“my nervous system is in a survival response”)
  2. Connection with universal human experience (“moments of protection happen for everyone”)
  3. Connection with an intention (“May I bring some ventral vagal energy to this moment”)

Deb Dana uses these phrases to bring self-compassion into our partnership with the nervous system. She encourages us to rewrite them in words that resonate so we can return to regulation and connect with self-compassion.

She says that when we learn to listen to the nervous system in this way (anchored in ventral regulation), “we experience what is unfamiliar as interesting rather than as a cue of danger”. So this can help us lean into change with a spirit of increased openness and connection to possibility.

Pause to Listen

“Listening is an act of autonomic awareness and an essential ingredient in learning to regulate our systems. With awareness comes understanding, and with understanding comes choice.”

Have you ever had a moment when you’re caught in a feeling but don’t know why? Maybe you’ve noticed yourself thinking, “I suck” or “I don’t belong”, without any apparent reason.

These thoughts might have led you to act in an unusual or surprising way. This is because our behaviours, feelings, and beliefs expand from our autonomic state. And when the biological imperative of the autonomic nervous system’s is to find safety and avoid harm, it will prompt action in service of that underlying instinct.

Pause to Notice

The way the world appears is informed by the soundtrack playing in our nervous system. So things will seem more threatening and unwelcoming if we are running a survival soundtrack. And the world will appear more accepting and welcoming if our internal radio station is a playing a song of safety.

The survival soundtracks don’t carry any moral meaning because like most song lyrics, they are not written about us personally. Yet we might experience judgement and self-criticism in response to them (because sometimes, the uncanny experience of music can leave us feeling like a song was written for us).

We can, however, learn to bring “thoughtful attention” to how the soundtrack influences our thoughts, actions, and beliefs. And then we are better able to release the temptation toward reactive meaning-making.

Tune In and Learn to Listen

Dana shares the phrases she uses to tune in and turn toward her nervous system and bring curiosity and compassion to the experience.

  • “It’s my biology wanting to send me a message.”
  • “My job is just to listen.”
  • “I can tune in, turn toward, and listen without needing to make meaning.”

To return to the soundtrack analogy, what if:

  • My biology is using Andy FM radio to convey a message.
  • The song was not written about me – my job is to listen to it.
  • I can tune in, turn toward, and listen without needing to make meaning.

What phrases could you say to yourself to bring curiosity and self-compassion to the process of listening? Notice when a word feels right in your body.

Check out the latest Book Club Discussions in the Forum.