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How nervous system state effects self-care

Most of us have heard of fight/flight and rest/digest. Turns out that it is more complex than that. The new science of Polyvagal Theory tells us that our autonomic nervous system actually has three parts: Ventral vagal or "safe and social", sympathetic or "fight/flight", and dorsal vagal "freeze/shutdown".

All of these states work together automatically to keep us safe. We are in ventral vagal when we are feeling safe and connected. Humans are wired to be connected and work together. This is how we survive as a species.

If we feel threatened in some way, and social engagement doesn't work to ease the threat, we move into fight/flight. This is automatic, not a conscious decision.

If we are not able to fight or flee, we move into dorsal/shutdown. We see this in animals when they "play dead". They actually aren't playing. Their nervous system has made the decision for them in order to try to survive.

Ideally, we are able to move from one state to the next and back again with ease in appropriate response to what is happening. However, trauma, chronic stress, and learned responses can cause us to become stuck in either a fight/flight or functional freeze/shutdown state.

This affects many aspects of health, mental/emotional state and behavior, including our ability to practice self-care.

If we are stuck in some level of fight/flight, it can be very difficult to be still, to relax, to receive. We feel like we need to be moving and doing all the time. We are constantly on alert.

If we are stuck in a functional freeze state, we can find it almost impossible to get moving, to do what we know needs to be done. It can be hard to make ourselves exercise, or even do the things we enjoy.

Understanding that many of our responses and behaviors come from our nervous system state can take a lot of the judgment off of ourselves. We can find more self-compassion.

And when we are frustrated with ourselves for procrastinating, or for pushing ourselves too hard, understanding what is driving these things can create room for choice.

We can say to ourselves, Ah, this is that funcional freeze energy talking. It is my biology making me not want to do this. But, I know this will make me feel better so I am going to take one step.

Or, this fight/flight energy is making me feel like I have to constantly be moving, but it would nourish my nervous system to sit and really connect with a friend.

Self-care is really about attending to ourselves moment to moment. There is no set agenda or way of practicing self-care. It is paying attention to what is happening within us and responding to that. What state we are in will influence what we need in any given moment.

Understanding how our nervous system states affect us enables us to respond to our needs more effectively. When we do that, we are able to experience life with more balance, joy and ease!


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