Sep

25

2022

Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System

Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory* is Deb Dana’s latest book. Designed for the layperson, it could be a useful book to recommend to clients who are interested in learning to manage anxiety and deal with dysregulated states.

In advance of our one day online CPD event: Anxiety: Attachment, Neuroscience and The Body on 8th October 2022, we look at a summary of the book and also some thoughts on how the book might be useful to counsellors and therapists, and where additional material might need to be considered as well. The article also includes excerpts and links to the Sounds True podcast: Deb Dana: Befriending Your Nervous System, published in conjunction with the book’s release.

Deb opens the book with this quote:

“Polyvagal Theory is the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living.”

The book aims to provide an accessible language and metaphor that helps readers ‘befriend’ and develop a good relationship with their nervous system. She introduces the language of the nervous system, and also invites readers to find their own words for each state which personally resonate.

Deb also invites us to go beyond words and also include visualisations and body sensations, with the intention of helping people move back to a place of felt safety in their body. Each chapter includes “explorations” or practices to help embody the theory.

Through this befriending process, we can develop a more resilient nervous system, and with increased internal self-regulation and co-regulation with others. The aim is to befriend our nervous system and to become “active operators of this essential system” (p.2) creating more regulation, and a greater sense of ease and safety while navigating through life.

From a therapeutic perspective, Anchored aims to help readers to establish a secure anchor in their bodies, from which they can safely explore and feel into wounds from the past. Supporting a shift from a feeling of threat to humour, interest and curiosity.

She writes:

“When we learn to befriend the nervous system, track states, and anchor in autonomic safety, the inevitable challenges that we all face as we go through our days aren’t quite so formidable. If we put a problem aside and turn our attention toward learning how to shape our systems in the direction of safety and connection, we can return to the problem and see it in a new way. Anchored in a regulated system, options appear and possibilities emerge.” (p2).

Chapter 1 – Principles and Elements of Polyvagal Theory

The opening chapter introduces an overview of how the nervous system works including:

  1. The Autonomic Hierarchy
  2. Neuroception
  3. Co-Regulation

The following diagram provides a visual summary of the autonomic hierarchy as described by Deb Dana:

The world is…” and “I am…”

Deb writes: “A good way to get a flavour if each of the three building blocks is by exploring two statements: “The world is…” and “I am…”. Finding the words that describe how you view the world and your place in it brings awareness to the beliefs stored in each state.” (p.8)

Neuroception

Neuroception is introduced as our internal surveillance system. The nervous system is on constant alert always running in the background and looking for signs of safety and signals of danger. These signals can be internal to the body, in the external environment, or in the play in-between these.

We can’t manage neuroception directly but can work with the body’s responses to the signals. By bringing awareness to our body and nervous system, we then have an opportunity to potentially tell different stories and make different interpretations.

Co-regulation

Recognising our fundamental wiring and dependence on others for our survival, co-regulation focuses on finding safe connection with another. As counsellors and therapists this is a key part of the therapeutic process. Being able to sit with the other with our own regulated system, can help clients find a sense of safety in themselves.

3 Elements for Well-Being

Deb also identifies 3 Elements for Well-Being (p.10). These include context, choice and connection, and have an impact on our ability to be able to anchor in a felt sense of safety:

Context allows us to connect more objectively with what is true in the here and now, rather than defaulting to a past response which may be out of proportion to the present situation.

Choice is important in allowing a sense of agency and safety. There can also be a personal sweet spot, with too little choice being experienced as confining and restrictive, and too much choice resulting in paralysis.

Connection has different facets including:

  • Connection to self
  • Connection to other people and our pets
  • Connection to nature
  • Connection to the world around us
Chapter 2 – Travelling Autonomic Pathways

“While we may think our brains are in charge, the heart of our daily experience and the way we navigate the world begins in tour bodies with the autonomic nervous system. This is the place where stories emerge about who we are and how the world works, what we do and how we feel. It is our biology that shapes our experiences of safety and connection” (p.13)

Deb goes onto provide an evolutionary insight into the development of the different survival mechanisms and nervous system states added to the summary below:

Deb then provides a simplified model of the autonomic nervous system including the vagal pathways (p.14). “Vagal” refers to the vagus nerve, named from the latin for “wanderer” reflecting the long length of the nerve.

Vesalius on the Anatomy and Function of the Recurrent Laryngeal Nerves: Medical Illustration and Reintroduction of a Physiological Demonstration from Galen – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Schematic-representation-of-the-cranial-nerves-in-the-Fabrica-1543-by-Vesalius-The_fig4_262693095 [accessed 21 Sep, 2022]

 

Exercises to Map the Vagus Nerve

In her Sounds True podcast: Deb Dana: Befriending Your Nervous System, Deb helps listeners to map the vagus nerve using their hands and body (28:30 into interview) explaining in the episode transcript:

DD: So if you want to put your hand at the base of your skull, that would be where your both ventral and dorsal vagus begin. That’s the origination point for them. And then if you put one hand, bring one hand down the side of your neck and then come down the front of your body, through your throat, down your chest, your lungs, your heart, reach your abdomen and then wander through your abdomen, that is full length of the vagus.

The other thing that the vagus does is if you put your hands on the side of your face, if you’re holding your cheek, the ventral vagus, from its beginning point in your brainstem connects with a nerve that also connects to your face, to your eyes, to your facial expression.

And so again, if you put one hand on the side of your face and the other hand over your heart, that would be your biology of what we call a heart connection, your vagus going into your heart and then connecting with the nerves in your face. And it’s a beautiful experience of being in that place of connecting with others through our eyes and our voice and that open-hearted feeling.

So then just to visit the dorsal vagus one more time, if you put one hand on the back of your neck and the other hand over your stomach and your abdomen and feel the connection there, that’s your dorsal vagus connection from your medulla in your brain stem down to your digestive organs, and it’s feeding nutrients to you.

Exercises to Connect with Different Parts of the Vagus Nerve

In the book itself, Deb Dana introduces two embodied exercises to get in touch with the different parts of the vagus nerve (p.18) inviting readers to:

“Place one hand on the base of your skull and the other hand over your heart. Imagine the ventral vagal pathway and feel the energy moving between your two hands. Take a moment to acknowledge the abilities for regulation and connection this system brings”.

Then…”move your hand from your heart to your abdomen. With one hand on your brainstem and one hand on your abdomen you’re connected to the dorsal vagal pathway. Imagine this pathway and feel the energy that moves here. Take a moment and acknowledge the ways this system works on your behalf, both nourishing you through your digestive processes and protecting you when necessary by taking you out of awareness”.

Vagal Brake

The book goes on to explain how the vagal brake works to regulate our heart beat with each breath, including an embodiment exercises to imagine the different qualities of energy in the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system.

Deb reassures us that leaving a regulated state is not the problem. It is not possible to always remain in a state of regulation. The key then is to develop enough self awareness to recognise when we are leaving ventral vagal and moving into a survival response. From this awareness we can then take conscious action to return to a regulated state. It is this flexibility and agility to move between states that creates well-being and resilience. In contrast, it is getting tangled and caught up in a dysregulated state that results in distress. (p.22).

Finding Our Own Language and Words

To support developing this awareness, Deb invites readers to find their own words for the experience of each of the three states in the autonomic hierarchy. Examples reflecting ventral, sympathetic and dorsal include (p.24):

  • Sunny, stormy, foggy
  • Flow, chaos, collapse
  • Connected, activated, gone

These can then be drawn, photographed or collaged as a reminder. Here is an example that I created:

 

Subsequent Chapters

In subsequent chapters in the book Deb Dana explores different aspects of befriending our nervous system including:

  • Chapter 3: Learning to Listen (to our nervous system) including the role of self-compassion and curiosity which are qualities of the ventral vagal state, to help to move away from the self-criticism that arises the other survival states.
  • Chapter 4: The Longing for Connection and the importance of relationship, including an exploration of the Social Engagement System and Four Connections (with self, others, the world, and with spirit). She also explores the difference between loneliness and solitude, with the latter providing a regulating and nourishing experience and choice.
  • Chapter 5: Neuroception: Your Nervous System’s Intuition, looking at learning to tune in to our intuition and learning to notice and evaluate cues for safety.
  • Chapter 6: Patterns of Connection and Protection
  • Chapter 7: Anchoring in Safety
  • Chapter 8: Gentle Shaping
  • Chapter 9: Re-Storying
  • Chapter 10: Self-Transcendent Experiences
  • Chapter 11: Caring for the Nervous System
  • Chapter 12: Creating Community
Exercises for Befriending the Nervous System

Peppered throughout the book are suggestions and exercises for befriending our nervous systems; developing resilience and bringing ourselves back to Ventral Vagal states. These include:

  • Working with the breath (p.114)
    • Our breathing is controlled by our autonomic nervous system, but can also be consciously changed helping us to consciously regulate our nervous system. This includes the power of sighing (p.118)
  • Working with touch (p.119) and exploring the touch continuum from touch hungry to touch filled.
    • Self-touch can be useful here including putting our hand on our heart; holding our neck; crossing our arms in a self-hug; or placing our hands in a prayer/namaste position; all of which can offer the potential of a regulating experience.
  • Imagining a new story (p.129)
    • to get unstuck and create a feeling of connection.
  • Cultivating a sense of:
    • Awe (p.137) which can stimulate wonder and curiosity;
    • Gratitude (p.139) through journaling, prayer and expressing thanks to others;
    • Elevation (p.140) with an intention to notice and pay forward good deeds;
    • Compassion (p.141) using a ‘Just Like Me’ practice;
    • Forgiveness (p.144);
    • Finding Stillness (p.146); and
    • Benevolence (p.147) through the practice of loving kindness.
Reflections and Thoughts

There is some great content in Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory, and the invitation to explore and develop a personal language and set of imaginary for each state helps to ground the theory in day to day life. Many of the explorations include embodied physical exercises which many could find useful.

However, polyvagal theory is still complex and it may not appeal to all, or even many clients, especially those who are more visual learners, who would benefit from more imagery and diagrams to support the text. The Window of Tolerance model is likely to be more accessible and understandable, and more explicitly focuses on strategies for managing hyper and hypo aroused states. Our article Working with Anxiety: A Resource List for Therapists provides recommendations for a wide range of tools and books that may be useful to support this approach.

It is also worth bearing in mind that polyvagal theory may need further nuance and development. For example also including the fawn response which can be a common survival strategy for women, people of colour and minority communities. For example, Dr. Arielle Schwartz writes about the Fawn response in her article:  The Fawn Response in Complex PTSD:

“Physiologically, a fawn response involves reading the social and emotional cues of others to attend to and care for their needs. Fawning also involves disconnecting from body sensations, going “numb” and becoming “cut off” from your own needs. This can lead to derealization and depersonalization symptoms in which they feel as if the world around them isn’t real, as if their body and actions are not part of them, or as if they are living in a fog.

From a polyvagal perspective, these symptoms suggest two different patterns of engagement of the vagus nerve. One is an over-reliance upon the ventral vagal circuit or social nervous system for the purpose of appeasing and pleasing others. Secondly, this patterns suggests reliance upon the evolutionary older circuit of the vagus nerve called the dorsal vagal complex.”

Ultimately, the power of Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory maybe in counsellors and therapists working with this material to help self regulate themselves so that they can help co-regulate clients in session. They may also have greater confidence in recommending practises such as breathing exercises, knowing that their effectiveness is supported by biological research, evidence and understanding.

Upcoming Workshop

Interested in exploring further how to work with clients experiencing anxiety? Join us for our one day online CPD event: Anxiety: Attachment, Neuroscience and The Body on 8th October 2022.

In this one-day seminar our three speakers: Victoria SettleSmita Rajput Kamble and Suzanne Worrica, will explore the experience of anxiety, and how we can effectively work with clients experiencing these symptoms in therapy.

We will explore the neuroscience of anxiety, the function of anxiety in everyday life and the experience of collective anxiety experienced in response to world events. The day will offer ideas about why some people become overwhelmed with anxiety and panic, including early causes around attachment rupture, and also offer some ways to work with anxiety and panic, including somatic/body-based approaches.

Join our Therapy Community on Facebook

We have recently created a private Facebook Group for therapists which might be of interest to you if you are on social media? You will need to answer all 3 Joining Questions and agree to the Group Rules to join the Group!

Click Here to Join *The Therapy Partnership* Facebook Group – Be Part of the Therapy Community!

 

 

*There are affiliate links in this post, if you buy a book using one of these affiliate links we will get a very small fee. It all helps! Thank you!

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