8. Reshaping The Autonomic Nervous System (Anchored Book Club)


In Anchored, Deb Dana talks about “reshaping” the landscapes of our autonomic nervous system. Her explorations are full of hope and creativity as she encourages readers to explore, befriend, and rewire the autonomic patterns and pathways that the nervous system uses to find safety through protection and connection.

This is useful if you’ve ever felt yourself slip from a state of connection or creative flow into a state of stress and been unable to find your way back again. The autonomic nervous system uses patterns established by neural pathways it has created to follow in response to what it perceives as cues of safety and signals of danger.

Reshaping happens in two ways:

1. Reduce and Resolve

Recognise patterns driven by mobilisation and disconnection, notice the draining patterns, and work to reduce or resolve them.

2. Draw Close and Deepen

Recognise nourishing patterns and find ways to replicate, deepen, and experience more.

It’s not that we would pick one or the other as our personal preference. They are both necessary parts of reshaping our nervous system. But when we think about befriending and calming the nervous system, we are usually drawn to the draining patterns first. We feel the effects of physical symptoms and emotional distress more immediately and pressingly along the draining pathways. Dana says that to fully experience well-being, we need to attend to the paths that drain and the ones that fill.

Reshaping Through Patience and Creative Gentleness

Our nervous systems take time to shape, and it’s the same for reshaping them. It is a gentle process that unfolds over time. We all want change to happen instantly, especially in a defensive state. But Dana points out, “the autonomic nervous system most often finds its way both to creating new patterns and into deepening the pathways that are already present and nourishing by doing small things over and over.”

In other words, we benefit from developing practices that help the patterns our nervous system uses to rewire over time. It’s not a quick fix or mindset shift that instantly changes things. Instead, it’s a slow and steady transformation that occurs from the inside out. The beautiful thing about this is we get to do it in ways that integrate who WE are deep down (in our creative core) rather than chasing solutions in the world “out there”. It asks for patience, awareness (from a state of connected curiosity), and the willingness to play (and not take ourselves too seriously along the way).

Autonomic Patterns Are Feedback Loops

Our pathways often take us into what is known in biology as a positive feedback loop. In this context, positive means activating rather than “good”. In other words, forces within the loop act on each other, increasing their pace, intensity, and/or velocity. A negative biological feedback loop would mean the forces act to slow down a reactive cycle, eventually bringing it to a stop.

This distinction can be a little bit confusing. Similar to how “testing positive” might be a negative (undesirable) thing and “testing negative” can be a positive (desirable) thing (depending on the preferred outcome).

The positive feedback loop can stimulate an upward spiral into ventral vagal connection. For example, a glimmer brings safety to the system and prepares you to look for and engage with the next glimmer. When the nervous system engages with a glimmer, it tells a story about the world, informing the lens through which it sees and experiences life in this moment.

On the flip side, a pattern of protection can lead to a story that triggers a positive feedback loop. For example, if the story from our nervous system says, “This place/these people are unsafe”, a defensive state is mobilised, and we scan the world for confirmation to reinforce the message. This further deepens the defensive state, and the spiral continues.

In chapter 8, Dana shares explorations to help raise awareness of undesirable feedback loops so we can shape new patterns that help us move into states of ventral vagal connection.

Reshape The Nervous System With The Stretch-Stress Continuum

We explored the Stretch-Stress Continuum in our Haven conversation around this chapter. It was a great way to visualise the contours of these inner landscapes. It also allowed us to consider real-life situations where these ideas apply.

Dana says that our goal in shaping new patterns is to stretch but not stress our system. We want to stretch, feel the shape of a new pattern, and spend a moment savouring it.

Re-shaping takes time because, like building muscles through deliberate exercise, we should listen to our bodies and know when it’s telling us to stop. As Dana points out, “When we feel as if we need to power through an experience or that we need to suffer to see results, we stress the system and move into one of the survival states”. We know that once we fully step into a survival state, we are no longer in a state of learning and connection.

She says, “An essential step in the shaping process is to know when you’ve moved beyond stretching into stressing, beyond a place where you’re engaged with your patterns to a place where you’ve been hijacked by a pattern and pulled into survival.”

How does it feel to cross from stretch to stress?

We considered the midpoint as “the edge” during our conversation. Rather than being a line on the flat ground, it is similar to a cliff edge that one may fall off.

This is a helpful way to visualise the transition from stretch to stress because it implies that it is not always easy to get back to the safety of stretch. It’s not as simple as turning around and walking back. We must locate the steps or winding path leading us back up to the cliff top.

We might imagine stress like standing at the base of the cliff. It is overwhelming to look at close-up. We cannot see other pathways, so we try scaling the vertical rockface. Despite our efforts to climb it, we may be unable to do so due to a lack of proper equipment or skills. If we lose hope and give up, we may turn around and walk away, feeling small and insignificant on a vast, deserted beach stretching for miles.

There are ways back up the cliff, but finding them takes time and patience. There is no direct route, and locating or excavating a path might take some work, but it is possible. Remember the Polyvagal Ladder; we cannot return to ventral vagal safety from the dorsal shutdown (the beach). We need to go through sympathetic mobilisation (the cliff).

What is on this path for you? What do those steps look like? How do you gently get yourself back to the top of the cliff and to a point of safety and stillness?

Practice Reshaping With The Continuum

This is a brief overview of the exercise Deb Dana shares in Anchored. I highly recommend reading the book, where she goes into more detail and shares many powerful explorations like this. I also recorded this exploration as a sound anchor, available for Haven members to access below.

Instructions

  1. Draw the continuum (stretch – savour – stress – survive) on a piece of paper
  2. Place your fingers on the midpoint and recall a time you felt balanced at a point of change. Name this midpoint. Dana gives the example of “The Edge”.
  3. Move your fingers to the end of the continuum (Stretch) – feel what it’s like to be here, ready to shape your nervous system in a small new way. How is your nervous system supporting you in making this change?
  4. Move your fingers to Savour – what does it feel like to stop and take in a change? Breathe it in. Feel the gentle energy move through you. Where does it go?
  5. Move between those two points and allow the possibility of change to come alive in small ways
  6. When you are ready, move your fingers to the midpoint again and prepare for a fact-finding information-gathering trip – you are just taking a little trip, not fully embodying the territory of stress and survive
  7. Move to the label Stress and get to know the flavours here – how does your nervous system indicate that you’ve moved away from a shaping practice?
  8. Continue to the Survival point – stay just long enough to see what the dorsal vagal adaptive survival response does and notice how a pattern of protection (positive feedback loop) might get reinforced between stress and survive. Move between the two points and notice the differences between them.
  9. Return to the midpoint, tracking the nervous system shifts and emerging thoughts.
  10. Take time to document what you’ve discovered and anything that feels important for you to remember.

Dana concludes the exploration by saying there are various ways the continuum can be used in practice.

A Moment of Stress

When you feel you’ve crossed over the midpoint into a moment of stress, use your continuum to find your way back to the stretch side.

A Moment of Collapse

If you find yourself at the end of the line in a survival response, use your continuum to reduce the response, return to stress, and then take a step back to the midpoint.

A Moment of Reflection

Once you’re back at the midpoint, you can reflect on what made this experience too challenging for you at that moment.

A New Experience

Use the continuum to help navigate a new situation or a change you are ready to make. Stay on the stretch and savour side to get familiar with how this enhances your life in desirable ways. When you are prepared to explore “the edges” of this new experience, stand at the midpoint and feel the moment when you move into stress.

New pathways are deepened as you deepen the groove between stretch and savour.

I’d love to hear how you get on with this exercise. If you are a member, you can share your reflections in the forum. If you’re not a member you can join us here or drop me a message.