Polyvagal Theory II

Do you ever long for your heart to feel more grounded and safe in different relationships and circumstances? Wanting to find constructive ways to self protect rather than having your heart shut down or drive you to run away without consulting the rest of you? What we feel matters, and it certainly impacts how we think and what we do. I’ve found Polyvagal Theory to be so helpful in identifying where my heart is and what my heart needs, especially in places of pain and places where I can get stuck. If you can relate, or even if you can’t, keep on reading and see what you think of what’s written below…

I shared a lot of “head-knowledge” in my post, Polyvagal Theory I. In this post below, I’d like to try and share a bit more from a heart-perspective.

All you need to know from the get-go is that Polyvagal Theory describes different “states” that people experience in life. These “states” are determined by the state that our central nervous system is in. It’s helpful to learn about these “states” because of how they impact us holistically — physically, mentally, emotionally, relationally, spiritually… Questions I’ll be exploring in this post are: What’s it’s like on the inside when I’m in these different “Polyvagal states”? How do things feel like at a heart level? Answers to these questions help us understand what’s going on in our internal world and how this is impacting how we are interacting with the world around us.

When I first learned about Polyvagal Theory, and even still, something in me feels understood and known when sorting through these different “states”. It’s like the things I have felt and experienced throughout my life, in myself and others, are clearly categorized and put down on paper. Below is a simplified visual with words that describe what the three states Polyvagal Theory feel like:

In this post I’ll refer to the space on the sand as state (1), the middle of the water as state (2), and the deepest part of the water as state (3).

Simplifying these states into a couple of words, I experience them as (1) calm and cozy, (2) stressful and scary, and (3) panicked and helpless. In these places, my heart feels (1) full, so so happy, and hopeful. Here my heart is accessible, open to receiving from others, and giving toward others. (2) I’m not really connected to my heart here, it feels more like my body is just reacting and almost disconnected from my heart. It’s like my body is trying to protect my heart from the fear and lack of safety that my heart is sensing. (3) My heart is breaking here, feeling hopeless, numb, and alone. In this space, my heart is entirely overwhelmed. It feels like too much. In terms of my faith, state (1) is where it feels easy and natural for my heart to trust God and rest in Him. State (2) is one where I want to protect my heart, and it becomes more complicated to trust God and access my heart with Him. In state (3), it’s difficult to feel God’s nearness, to trust that He can heal and restore whatever has brought me to state (3). More on the spiritual aspects of this in future posts. For now, I’d like to focus on getting a good foundation of what the heart experiences in these states, so we can helpfully integrate these experiences with the state of our soul and our faith formation in future posts.

I get asked a lot of questions about these states by clients and friends. I think the main underlying theme in these questions is a sense of, OK, I can see the visual and grasp the concept of these states, but help me actually translate what these are like into real life? I think one of the most helpful ways to do this is being open and transparent about what the states feel like for me. This makes it personal and normalizes that all of us as people experience these states. I think this also makes it safer for others to name what they feel inside of them. So, below I’ll share what comes to mind when I think about these states, trying to focus on a heart-level experience of them.

When I think about the safety and rest of state (1), it makes me think about how some of my most treasured memories as a little kid are ones of snuggling up and resting closely to loved ones — my sister, my parents, our cats. I remember feeling a sense of calm, like everything in the world was alright. We moved a lot when I was a kid, and there were big stressors and issues that my parents were dealing with, all of which were above my comprehension. This caused a lot of stress and confusion for me when I was little. So, the moments of feeling grounded in connection were absolutely treasured and they became the very things I would seek out. As I got older and outgrew the snuggly little kid stage of life, I saw my older sisters growing close to boyfriends and finding connection and comfort in those relationships. Since I longed for that sense of closeness and the “everything-is-alright” feeling that came along with it, and I felt like I was losing my sisters to their new connections, I tried to find my own. This started a longstanding longing in my life, seeking out connection and comfort through others. I didn’t have examples in front of me of how to feel that calm and connected feeling of the (1) state on my own. This is one of the reasons Polyvagal Theory has been so meaningful for me — it’s given me a roadmap to find my way to experiencing grounding and safety in my own body, and this in turn has given me the freedom to experience even greater comfort and grounding when connected with others!

In terms of state (2), the first thing that comes to mind when I think back to earlier years of my life… those lovely middle school years! I remember feeling sick to my stomach in the mornings before school. I would be slightly tired and grumpy, while also feeling a bit of a panicky drive to get going. It was a lovely cocktail of undiagnosed ADHD and social anxiety that was complicated by having gone to four elementary schools in three countries in the earlier years of my life. I didn’t receive emotional or relational support to navigate so many scary transitions and it left me feeling somewhat scared and unsettled each morning going to school. I also remember the stress of juggling schoolwork, going to dance practices, sports practices, church activities, and making sure I was getting time in for other things like practicing piano and wanting to spend time with friends. Just thinking about the go-go-go pace of life back then is enough to stir up some angst inside of my chest and gut. I feel the stress and drive of state (2) in my chest and gut when remembering these years. My heart seems to be buried beneath the body sensations that feel loudest with that stress and anxiety. Some people say in this state our sympathetic nervous system acts as a the gas pedal. Sometimes it feels electric and exciting. Sometimes it feels scary and uncertain. I used to feel completely subject to waves that tossed me around in this state. Sometimes stress and the drive here can even feel like a rip tide driving me — Polyvagal Theory has helped me understand what’s going on in this place and how to even identify where my heart is and what it’s feeling beneath all the stress and drive that can override my heart space. Once I can find and feel my heart, I can respond to the fear that has often filled my heart if I’m in state (2). My heart can take a breath and have some hope that things will be ok when I see what’s going on and that I have the option to get back to safety on the sand in state (1).

Well, lastly, there’s state (3). This is a dark place. A sad place. A place void of hope. Void of comfort. Writing this, I notice that my heart doesn’t want to go there — doesn’t want to have to think about or feel any nuance of state (3). I imagine that’s because my heart has known this place, and it’s definitely been the least enjoyable times of life. In state (3), my heart feels broken, wounded, and done. In this place, I feel a mixture of overwhelming fear and pain, along with noticing my body and heart shutting down. It’s here that my heart has decided for me that the world around me is too much. It’s not safe. There isn’t hope here, and my heart goes inward, burrowing down inside me to hide from the world outside of me. Here my heart isn’t beating fast, driven to go do or react. Here my heart slows down, feeling like it’s going to wither away, like there’s nothing left to live or hope for. State (3) can feel like slowly sinking or being frozen while drowning. Polyvagal Theory has helped me make sense of the overwhelming pain of this place and how to move toward healing after my heart has been in this place. This isn’t easy work, but just because it isn’t easy that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It brings a powerful hope to my heart to know that there can be hope on the other side of state (3). It’s hard to connect to a hope like this if we are in state (3). Sometimes all we can do is remember this after we have moved out of state (3).

I share all of these experiences in hopes of something feeling relatable. I hope these stories paint a clearer picture of these three states and what they might look like if you’re wanting to learn about Polyvagal Theory. If we want to know more about the state of our central nervous system and have this help us grow as people, we need to be able to connect with the feelings and the experience of all three of these states at a heart level — and that’s scary! It can feel vulnerable and risky, even if we’re just reflecting on our own. I encourage you to be kind and curious if you’re learning about these things, and be mindful if exploring states (2) or (3) feels like too much. The overarching goal is not to avoid states (2) or (3) or never go there in our life — that would be impossible! Instead, the goal is to be able to identify when we are headed to those states, if we realize we are already there, and how to bring ourselves down, closer and close to the safety of the sand in state (1). If we can find our way back here, we can give our heart a respite and time to heal and recover before another wave of life might bring us back out into the water.

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