If you feel anxious and depressed, it will come as no surprise that no matter how you try, you can’t simply think your way into a better mood. But what can you do to help yourself when you feel stressed, down, worried, or hopeless?
Just a basic understanding of Polyvagal Theory, the work of Stephen Porges PhD, can help you understand and use your body to provide perspective and relief. If you’re not a theory person, don’t worry. I will translate these ideas into five easy-to-understand, practical concepts to help you use your body to rescue your mood.
1) Know the Parts of Your Autonomic Nervous System
Your autonomic (think: automatic) nervous system is made of three layered portions from the oldest (first to develop in human evolution) to the newest.
- The most primitive section, the Dorsal Vagal (DV), is the lowermost section of the Vagus Nerve which is the largest nerve in the human body. Biologically, it keeps us digesting. But there is no movement or energy for the rest of the body from the DV. It is a blob state, no offense to digesting! If you were mainly functioning from your DV state, you’d look and feel shut down. Emotionally this translates to feeling hopeless and disconnected – depressed!
- The next portion of the nervous system to arrive in human evolution was the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). This system is comprised of spinal cord nerves located in the middle of the back. Biologically, these nerves are responsible for regulating our heart and breathing, as well as giving us the option of movement. Always scanning for and responding to cues of danger, the SNS is an important part of our body’s survival instinct. When you feel anxiety or panic, you’re in your SNS.
- Finally, you have the most modern portion of your nervous system. It’s known as the Ventral Vagal state (VV). The VV is the upper portion of that same Vagus nerve as the DV. The Ventral Vagus nerve (aka Cranial Nerve X) runs from your diaphragm and heart up to your lower brain and connects to many nerves in the upper body and head. This part of the nervous system developed as humans needed to connect socially with other humans. Biologically, your VV moderates your heartbeat, like a little brake, so that your human heart doesn’t race all the time. From a VV state, you feel the calm of being connected and safely included in your world.
2) Understand Why Your Brain Can’t Fix Your Mood.
Your body generally senses and feels first. Only 20% of the vagus nerve’s fibers send information from the brain to the body. Your body is more often aware that something is going on before your mind is. Your hard-working brain is then busy trying to interpret – What was that feeling all about? But if you don’t check in with your body, see what is happening and get more physical information, your brain is having to do a lot of guesswork. This guessing often includes harsh, critical or panicky thoughts that lead to more anxiety or depression.
3) Remember That You Are Not Broken. Your Nervous System Is Amazing. It’s Trying to Help You.
A healthy nervous system moves between DV, SNS, and VV all the time. Usually you’re not even aware of it. Even as you read this, you have likely transitioned between these states. This is normal. I like to think of responding to sensations in the nervous system like this: If I fell and cut my leg, I wouldn’t sit around hating my leg or trying to figure out why it was hurting. I would get a bandage and some ice.
Consider your nervous system in a similar way. For example, if for some unknown reason, your body is feeling a fight, flight or freeze activation (anxiety, anger, panic), you can notice the SNS and offer it some gentle exhales and loving care to help it calm and move toward a safe and social state (VV). Sometimes we fall and get a cut, and sometimes we sense a cue of danger and get freaked out. In either example, take the time to address the body first. Then, later if you need to work on a cracked sidewalk that you tripped over or a trauma from the past that is easily triggered, you can get some help with that.
4) Use Gentle, Safe Interventions to Help You When You Feel Stuck in Your DV.
Imagine your mood is very low and someone approaches you with lots of energy to cheer you up. Or worse, imagine someone yelling at you to snap out of it. Neither really works. Why? Because when you are in your DV nervous system state, high energy interventions very naturally feel impossible. Since your nervous states are layered in a hierarchy like a ladder, in order to get back to VV from DV, you need to feel active in your SNS. If you feel uncomfortable and frightened in SNS, you are just as likely to drop back into the DV for relief. This creates an anxiety/depression cycle. Instead, when someone wants to help you, remind them ahead of time to meet you calmly and not force you to change your mood quickly. Use small movements of eyes, fingers, feet, breathing and smile to help you. Go slowly and work your way from shut down to more alert to calmly connected.
5) Practice Your VV State So You Can Guide Your Nervous System Into it When You Feel Depressed or Stressed.
Take frequent VV breaks during the week to tone your connection to your VV state. For some people this is fun and easy, for others it is more difficult. Take a minute to recall a time when you felt fine. Perhaps you were in a creative flow doing what you love. Maybe you had a sense of delight or anticipation of something good. You may have a VV connection when you are with someone or something you love. Use your senses as much as you can to enjoy this sensation in your body. Typically people notice their hearts, heads and face. Breathe and allow your body to hold and make a memory of this pure feeling. This is toning your nervous system. Just like toning your muscles enables you to be strong when you need to be, toning your VV state gives you a clearer pathway to a happy calm when stressed.
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Author Bio: Ingrid Helander is a Marriage & Family Therapist specializing in Internal Family Systems Therapy and Intimacy from the Inside Out© Couples Therapy. Trained in Polyvagal Theory and Yoga, she brings a holistic approach to client wellness. More information about Ingrid and her work is available at ingridyhelanderlmft.com as well as her weekly blog and newsletter subscription. She is also the author of Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self-Confidence.
Photo by Melody Jacob on Unsplash
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.
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