106: Polyvagal Theory – Exploring our Nervous Systems (Sort Of)

What is Polyvagal Theory? Polyvagal Theory, or PVT, is a a theory in the therapy world that our nervous system, through evolutionary adaptations, has 3 branches that inform our current state of being, and that these different nervous system states affect all areas of our life, without us ever knowing. Working the the dorsal, sympathetic and ventral branches of the nervous system, understanding our nervous system reactions to different cues of danger or safety, and finding homeostasis can assist us in becoming more in control of our daily life and reactions. In this episode, we explain the basics of PVT, attempt to relate it to our current model of recovery from substance use, and talk about ways to become more comfortable in our own skin. We ask questions like: Does the 12 step model take into account our nervous systems? Is there something we could do better in our programs to help people who are attempting to find recovery to feel more safe? How can we use this information to better serve the recovery community? Join the conversation by leaving a message, emailing us at RecoverySortOf@gmail.com,  or find us on TwitterFacebook or Instagram, or find us on our website at www.recoverysortof.com.

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recovery sort of is a podcast where we discuss recovery topics from the perspective of people living in long-term recovery this podcast does not intend to represent the views of any particular group organization or fellowship the attitudes expressed are solely the opinion of its contributors be advised there may be strong language or topics of an adult nature

welcome back it’s recovery sort of i’m jason a guy who is trying out some different theories of psychology and i’m billy i’m a person in long-term recovery and today we’re going to talk about weirdly enough for for probably a lot of people polyvagal theory like and you might be asking yourself what the [ _ ] is polyvagal theory which i totally understand because i thought that a while back too and i think the idea here is i’m going to kind of describe the real general basics of the theory i mean there’s a lot more to it than just you know the little bit we’ll talk about here and then we’ll explore you know uh does that seem like it’s relevant to recovery or addiction or why we use or how we could help people who are using or is that our idea i think that was our idea yeah that’s where i thought we were going with it okay great so polyvagal theory what the [ _ ] is it it talks about the idea you know the theory is that through evolution our nervous system has undergone changes right and it’s like a layered nervous system now so in the beginning you had these ancient lizard relatives of ours and when their body sensed danger their nervous system went into a state of immobilization it just completely shut down we talk about that nowadays as like play playing dead or freeze the freeze response to the nervous system so you know a lizard’s there it sees something that’s going to attack it maybe doesn’t even see it it just senses it because it deals a lot with the idea that the body senses these dangers to us before our brain awarely consciously does and its body shuts down lizards don’t need as much oxygen as humans do or mammals do so it really really shut down like a whole lot of its bodily systems did now this happens in animals and mammals too we call it playing dead but that really doesn’t give credence to the idea that their body truly is shutting down its systems that’s what happens so then you fast forward like 100 million years you know different animals are evolving and everything and we get this second nervous system that’s layered on top of that this nervous system is where the body senses danger and the survival response is to give the body energy right and this is what we would look at as fight or flight you know you see a lion you either need to be able to fight against the lion or run away from the lion now a couple hundred million years after that mammals are around and we’re evolving we’re growing you might survive right as a caveman or a primitive human and i might survive as a primitive human but if me and you and maybe some other people could get together and just form some sort of tribe or coalition or collective we have a better chance at survival right so our nervous system had to adapt to ways to kind of mitigate that and make sure that we were safe in that connection and so if me and you meet up and we’re like man we should probably start a tribe uh we can do better as a tribe we can build a community we can farm together whatever we’re thinking right i need to know that you’re not gonna stab me while i’m sleeping tonight and kill me right so i need to sense in your facial expressions and your tone of voice whether you’re dangerous or not to me so the theory is there’s like this ladder this is how we depict it right on the bottom of the ladder is this freeze response the middle of the ladder is this fight or flight response and the top of the ladder is this kind of calm safe connection between you know people of the same variety which would be humans in our case now when your safety is challenged when your body uh you know has its little you know surveillance system out for all these different things going on and it senses danger we still have these survival responses that happen in our body so the first thing that’s going to happen you’re walking at your door you’re feeling safe connected everything’s great something happens you don’t even you’re not even aware of it you have no idea what’s going on but your body senses this danger and so it instantly pumps you energy heart beats faster breathing shallows you’re ready to do something right now in history that would have been fight or flight we don’t need to fight anything or run from it right now right so we have this energy now historically the idea being if you fought the bear and won or ran from the bear and got away you’re done right the energy goes away your body returns back to safety you go back up the ladder the problem in 2021 is there is no bear we don’t have to fight it we don’t have to run from it and so our body when it’s maladaptive which you know i’ll get into that in a second it doesn’t return to safety it doesn’t get to go back up the ladder it gets this energy and it doesn’t actually fix anything our body still feels like it’s in danger and eventually over time the bottom of the ladder nervous system will say yeah that’s not working and just shut us down right so we look at these through the lens of the idea that like there’s this safe calm place there’s kind of this middle energetic anxious irritable kind of place in the middle and at the bottom there’s like this real low energy disconnected withdrawn depressive kind of place now just to clarify none of these are static like you you don’t sit in any one of these all the time like you you flow throughout them and there’s various stages that’s why it’s a ladder there’s a lot of different rungs so you’re never always in one of these you’re always fluctuating every day right even when you breathe in and breathe out when you breathe in you go down towards the middle of the ladder your heart rate speeds up you get a little more energy when you breathe out the other nervous system kicks back in you go back up the ladder so it happens all the time the idea behind this is that if we’re co-regulated people this top of the ladder nervous system regulates with others it starts pre-birth and then through the nursing process is where all these skills become where our body gets better at tuning in to what’s dangerous and what’s not so the theory is that if you have a less than perfect or ideal environment in your childhood and you’re upraising your body gets misattuned it starts interpreting signals that aren’t dangerous as danger it starts interpreting signals that are dangerous is not dangerous and you’re all out of whack and we have kind of long given the idea that you need to self-regulate and this theory kind of says that doesn’t work like we’re co-regulating humans and we need other nervous systems that are common regulated and if we ever want to get to a common regulated place so what do you think about that so far yeah so i did spend a half an hour so doing my own little bit of research this morning to understand this uh there’s a few what i’ll call little key points i guess for me that just to to clarify so that we’re on the same page um one was that this is all like subconscious stuff it’s nothing that you like intellectually recognize or notice or whatever it’s almost like just reflective or reactive yes it’s not something you have any control over and where it becomes i guess useful as far as therapy is as you mentioned our old way our old beliefs of stress was that oh you have stress in your life will you just stop having that stress and then you’re fine so if you have a lot of stress at work you know you find a way to manage that stress and you’ll just be good um and this theory kind of challenges that and says well that’s not really true you can’t just take the stress away and then things get better yeah absolutely so to speak to the first point you made um we feel a million different perceptions throughout every day like they’re all over the place like if you stop right now while you’re listening and just think about it for a second and tune in and put your awareness on your feet well you can actually sense the pressure your feet have against whatever’s underneath them and you can sense maybe the material of your sandals or your shoes or your socks or whatever it is and and if you sense like your shoulder and neck area you can kind of feel where your shirt hangs on it and the weight it has right or or the way it rubs or the material soft or its course or and we ignore all this [ _ ] all the time like we’re so tuned out and we kind of mentioned this in last episode right how we’re not in tune with our bodies and that’s kind of the theory so it’s it’s not that necessarily we can’t be aware of all these things happening underneath but we’re very much not and and part of the process of healing you know or getting better with understanding our nervous system and our reactions is to start to tune more into what is it my body senses as dangerous in these different situations right is it loud noises is it something else is it like people behind me too close like who knows what our body’s picking up on but our body actually has the ability to sense these things and we just ignore all of it all day long because it doesn’t seem relevant to what we’re doing which is you know i’m driving down the road or whatever i’m making dinner yeah so it and for me interestingly enough that’s part of a meditation process that i do and when i’m meditating i will like it’s sort of i’ll call it a quasi-guided meditation it’s not exactly guided but they have you kind of focus on your breath and then focus on like the weight of your body in the chair and the pressure and your feet on the floor and your hands in your lap and you know you’re you’re breathing in and out the rise and fall of your chest and those things like that you’re talking about like these are all these unconscious things that are going on every moment of the day and we just ignore them and so through this meditation the idea is that we start to just get a little fraction of a second more in tune with some of those things yeah yeah no and and we use the what we use in therapy a lot of times um it’s referred to as like body scanning yes scan your body what’s happening with it right and i’ve done some meditations like you’re talking about and they get progressively deeper right like recently my meditation teacher was like see if you can actually feel and picture your each lung like expanding and then like your diaphragm like coming down to expand and it was interesting i actually felt like i felt some of it do i know if any of it’s real who the [ _ ] doesn’t matter um but yeah so the the theory i think is beautiful in a way because it really helps people take away the shame of what they’re going through because we’ll have these responses to our environment and whether they’re misattuned or not we just don’t understand and we’re like why can’t i not be this way what is so wrong with me that i can’t not be anxious or i can’t not be angry with my partner i can’t not do this right and this theory when given to people seems to sort of remove some of that shame right like the impetus is no longer on my brain to fix this it’s like oh this is just what my body’s doing in reaction to what’s going on and let me be curious and kind of figure that out and and even if i don’t want to say even if i don’t figure it out but even in the beginning stages of just being aware and knowing what’s happening inside the body i think that’s relieving right when i start to feel anxious and i can say oh there’s that that middle of the ladder sympathetic energy coming in right it’s a sympathetic nervous system doing that that’s interesting what’s going on there that gives me the ability to not have to react right away you know and i i heard this in a buddhist self-help book one time but it said really it doesn’t really matter what we do differently now as long as we do something that creates a difference or a space for something different to happen that’s all that really matters if every time you get like uh reactive you say uh fluffy butternuts or something right like that creates something different and it creates space for something different to happen afterwards and i thought that was an interesting thing all in itself yeah so with i guess i’m going to try to figure some of this out in my head my understanding was that we don’t or our bodies won’t stay in that highly attuned top level uh like that’s not the ideal state either like we’ll sort of seek out like a kind of homeostasis like we can’t stay in all this openness and awareness and and that stuff all the time because that can put us in danger so that we’ll try to kind of self-regulate a little bit to to be safe to create safety well yeah and so that’s that’s a big part of the theory is that we’re trying to maintain homeostasis our body is always going to work towards that right and it’s not necessarily that we want to be you know at the top of the ladder all the time we want to be able to be in tune enough to i know this sounds cheesy but like honor and respect wherever our bodies at right if we are feeling that sympathetic energy well that’s not wrong that’s our body telling us we we need this energy to try to return to a place of feeling connected and safe and like what does that mean i need to do right now if i’m feeling this uh this bottom of the ladder like disconnection and withdrawal from life and i always look at this as like when i’m sitting at home and i’m just feeling you know like i don’t really want to do anything and then like somebody calls on my phone that i love talking to and that always makes me laugh and i just look at it ringing and i’m like i just i just don’t have the ability to answer that right now that’s what i always think of when i think of my bottom of the ladder right like that’s a cue for me but it’s maybe that’s what i need for a while maybe i need to like kind of recharge from that place of like sort of being shut down a little bit or maybe i need some reflective time or maybe that’s maybe that’s a cue that my body’s trying to give me that i’m doing too much in my life and i need to set aside some time to be still right so it’s not necessarily that any of these are wrong or bad which i think is kind of our old theory about our nervous system like no sympathetic be in the parasympathetic and it’s it’s not that it’s just what is it i need right now and what can i do to assist that to feel okay here and in going with this i think that’s another key piece of to not feeling shame right it’s not about oh my god i’m irritated and anxious again i gotta you know i’m something’s wrong with me it’s just acknowledging okay well this is where i am like what is it that i feel really i need to do and how can i use this energy constructively because the energy’s here and if i do nothing i’m just gonna have chaos in my thoughts about what i should be doing so what can i actually put this energy into that might be useful for me right now okay so do we i guess get more energy as we go up the ladder is that the idea or does that energy only happen in that middle the energy is the is the sympathetic energy in the middle so the states are the bottom of the ladder is called dorsal bagel which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system it’s located a lot in the stomach that sends signals up and that’s really that disconnect and shut down and not touch off there but that state at least what i thought i understood was that when we say disconnect and shut down that might not just be like oh my god i play dead but it could be like more the emotional breakdowns that people have or uh like maybe depression where you don’t want to get out of bed is that yeah and and i think that’s where the explanation gets interesting for the way we viewed it like we all like the depression as a moral failing right like you just need to get up and go [ _ ] be happy and get outside right no it’s a bodily state that is literally your nervous system is holding you back don’t have that right um and again mammals bodies don’t shut down exactly the way the original lizards bodies did because we need oxygen and we need more things to happen but yeah to some extent there are severe changes in in the way our body is functioning in those states um and then the sympathetic nervous system you know in the middle of the ladder with all its energy that’s bringing forth and and then the top of the ladder is also another parasympathetic branch but this one is more involved in the heart and lungs area of the body and and that’s not highly energetic either it’s just you know a calm connected state it’s so if you want to visualize it it’s probably the state you would feel if you’re like holding a baby that means a lot to you or cuddled up with your favorite pet or maybe some partner that feels really warm and safe and you guys are hugging like that’s the kind of state of the top where you just really feel like you’re tied into that moment in that person so is there a i don’t know what you want to call it is there an average state that we have or they’re just constantly moving all the time no matter what they’re moving all the time but that we do end up with what we call like a home away from home so ideally like our home state is going to be this place where we can connect and we feel open to the world and things feel warm that’s what we hope for but if we’ve been kind of misattuned by our caregivers we end up more comfortable in one of these other states because that’s where we end up most of the time for some people that’s more sympathetic and they’re just kind of deal with the world from anxiety and aggravation for some people that’s more of a low disconnected isolated depressive kind of state and again there’s flavors of these states right they’re not just like oh it looks just like this like it might look like this one day it might be combined with some other states the next day to feel a little different and we just kind of go through them all day long every day even if and a lot of people who who struggle with mental health have trouble picturing this top of the ladder ventral vagal state that we talk about even if that’s like that three seconds when you’re walking out of work at the end of the day and you’re like ah work’s done for today right if work was really hard to get through just that like relief of getting into your car and knowing that work’s done like that’s that short top of the ladder experience right so we’re all having these experiences it’s just being able to notice them and know when they are and they might be very brief and hard to see some people report like their immediate response feels like it goes straight to the bottom of the ladder into this dorsal vagal experience but the truth is we know there is a sympathetic experience in the middle there it just might be so quick and fleeting for them that like they’ve just learned it feels like they bypass it all together okay so that gets back to your uh when you were talking about trying to create space or create pause for something new yeah we’re trying to sort of catch it before it drops all the way down to the well bottom level is that the idea a lot of times that’s what my idea is okay but i don’t think that’s really the idea of the theory the theory doesn’t really necessarily say that any state is bad right it’s just like let’s be able to recognize where we are and then learn a what cues in the environment get us there and b what is useful for us while we’re there right and so these states these nervous system states were always meant to be a survival response to get us back to safety that’s the whole goal of all of them and that safety is the top of the ladder right so it’s not necessarily that anything’s wrong with them happening it’s just well why one i want to know why because maybe there’s ways i can retrain my my body to not interpret things that are generally safe as unsafe but also too like when i’m here what kind of things help me to move back to a feeling of safety because we don’t want to feel in 2021 they’re not so much survival responses we like to call them adaptive survival responses right because they’re they’re things that we’ve adapted that we think is going to make us feel better maybe that’s biting our nails right maybe that’s uh you know working around the house like but they don’t necessarily work to actually bring safety back into our bodily experience and that’s kind of the problem we talk about our bodies get hijacked by the nervous system because we’re unaware of it and so when we get hijacked we’re reactive right we don’t have the thought or choice i don’t want to yell at my kids i don’t want to yell at my partner i don’t want to go run to porn i don’t want to go get high it’s re it’s out of our control at that point when we’re unaware our body’s telling us you need to survive now go survive and i think from the therapy standpoint where that goes to is people don’t change and grow and adapt in survival environments when your whole life is like you know the whole maslow’s hierarchy of needs if your body is focused on survival you’re not going to grow and adapt and and become this you know true inner self that you want to be that’s gotta you’re worried about food clothing and shelter you can’t necessarily deal with emotional issues and higher right right that’s right and that’s all got to happen kind of when we’re in this ventral vagal top of the ladder place which makes a lot of sense but also if we don’t know that that’s what’s going on can be really confusing for us because we’re like well i have food shelter and clothes why is it why don’t i feel safe i should be fine in this environment and if we don’t and if we’re not then that feels like something’s wrong with us right so i i guess you know how do we feel like that could apply to our understanding of what happens in in substance abuse right like is that where or do you have more questions no not at the moment i’m trying to think of the substance abuse part like so it ties in a little bit recently with a lady i heard talking about addiction anna lemke i think is how you say her name she wrote a book recently on addiction in the i think it’s the enderkin system or whatever controls our dopamine and serotonin levels and same as like we’re we’re i guess in her this is my paraphrasing her book which could be completely wrong but that our body seeks out the homeostasis that you were talking about and and we’ll sort of go back and forth between the work reward thing like we do hard work we get a reward you know with that reward goes away you know and then it’s we need we need work to balance that out or hard things stress and so what i think is it in today’s world going to back to this nervous system understanding are we not challenged with enough hard things like so as cavemen you know you might have to go out and hunt for food and you know that’s challenging and difficult and hard and oh [ _ ] i might not get food but then you do hard work you get a real reward for it by killing a elk or whatever and then you take it back and you feed the family and you get this big endorphin rush and you’re hopefully at your highest level on the ladder and you know you get this community but then eventually the food goes away and the stresses come back and you gotta work again to balance that stuff out and through our natural living that might happen but in today’s time we don’t have those stresses we don’t have like you said for most people i mean definitely there are some people that struggle with food and shelter but in the modern world that’s not as common and so do we create these stresses from other things are they i guess a mat like now all of a sudden traffic becomes a major stressor in my life and i totally lose focus on the fact that i’m driving around a [ _ ] car that’s got air conditioner and a radio and i’m completely well no you’re not completely safe but i am relatively safe in the world but i’m 15 minutes late for work and i want to [ _ ] blow somebody’s head off right right so i guess uh from what i hear what you’re relating is like this idea that our body is programmed for survival and yet we live in a world where we don’t need survival a lot and so it’s just kind of the body takes over and and does what it does which is look for these survival opportunities and it needs those to kind of create that safe environment um i don’t i don’t i don’t know honestly i i don’t think that’s like the polyvagal theory understanding so and just to cut you off there for a minute so i and again i’m paraphrasing my understanding of her book so i could be slightly wrong but her version of all that plays out in that now in today’s world we also have way too many things that are way too easy to send us into like the uh high whatever you call it the high endorphin high you know with computers and phones and the internet and porn and movies you know we can immediately throw our dopamine system into high and that we think we’re supposed to be there all the time and that we don’t recognize that there’s true reward to hard work or stresses i guess my hesitancy to like like that idea is that it sounds like that the solution would be to create high stress things for ourselves and i don’t think that’s the answer well by high stress so she clarified that as that could be something not necessarily a negative but it could be like working out and exercise at the gym like we go when we do that like that’s a hard strenuous activity you know but by doing like we can find healthy stressors versus unhealthy anyway yeah i mean i i don’t think that’s a i’m not saying that’s not a component of something that’s going on i guess where i think it doesn’t quite line up is the idea so in in more of polyvagal theory understanding is that our co-regulation got misaligned from birth and so now instead of having a body that’s like you know a camera at your house that tells you when intruders come it’s more like this highly sensitive uh you know surveillance system you’ve set up all around your house on every door every window all cameras all over your property and you’ve tuned it up to like the finest thing so like the leaf blowing by is setting it off with like red alert danger signals right after you’re trying to start driving yeah and so our bodies are in this hijacked response state at all times and that doesn’t give us any room to have the higher level thinking turn on and say this isn’t working we need to redo some things we want to live different like all it has is we need to survive we we need to just do something to feel like we can get by okay so that higher level then being our what i’ll tie this back towards addiction is our connection to community our connection to others a connection you know this intimacy right that we seek and you know maybe if we’re spending all of our time in that you know middle level that sort of fight or flight we never get that connection then drugs seem like a or a great coping mechanism for two reasons one they help to relieve the stress of being at 11 all the time on our fight or flight response and two at least my experience when we’re high i don’t i’m not going to say we don’t need that connection but in the moment of being high you don’t necessarily miss that connection like you know yeah and i would think that that being high would probably restore some sense of it’s an unnatural column right right right right you’re right unnatural you know i kind of expressed that a lot of times in my share like i called it fun but my first experiences with using looking back now were the first experiences with serenity that i had yeah there was a relief in that use it was like all these things felt wrong inside of me and my brain couldn’t understand why right and then i used and then oh things feel alright for a minute well [ _ ] well yeah and see i was a heroin downer guy maybe that was why because when i was high i didn’t give a you know versus then i don’t understand like the crackheads because why would you want to be up at instead if you were at 11 why would you want to go to a [ _ ] 50 well maybe they’re people who are at the bottom of the ladder to start oh yeah they just want to get to

um which is i don’t know how i conceptualized myself because i did both right now i was shooting speed balls i did both but i didn’t definitely didn’t like the uppers i was always high strung maybe i was in the middle all the time because i always had that fight or flight energy well and and i think that’s a lot of the usefulness of this theory is just understanding that our body has responses and then our brain tries to understand it later right right make sense of it right it’ll create a story right yes and so we create these stories and most of those stories are sent around centered around something’s wrong with me it’s me that’s wrong that can’t control why i always do this why am i like this why you know and that’s like the wrong question right the question is not what is wrong with me it’s what happened to me that got me here right and then from there understanding that what can i do and where can we go from here and i don’t know that any of us can sit around and kind of figure this out on our own again we’re we’re co-regulating people right so we need other safe people that have good information that can help us kind of regulate so the nervous system regulates on three bases outside stimuli right inside stimuli which means if you’re sick or you took poison or something and your body organs feel wrong that’s going to be a danger signal and also between nervous systems so like when you and i talk our nervous systems are sensing each other and where we’re at so if i was to sense danger like if your eyebrows change and you know your tone changes i might say man we got rap to show up i think billy’s gonna stab me all right so these are the three places that our body gets accused from but yeah if you’re living in a state of survival at all times and your brain has just always said there’s something wrong with you you’re just gonna seek out solutions to not feel like you’re in danger and that’s where i think drugs comes in but we don’t i guess from the recovery side of that we don’t ever talk about that we just say you just need to [ _ ] stop and get on board with this 12-step program and work the steps and that’ll fix it and i don’t know that that i’m not saying that that can’t address this nervous system thing just by accident and by proxy kind of like oh well in that process i’m hanging out with other people who have a calmer nervous system in recovery hopefully and you know in intimate connection with my sponsor going over steps on learning something right but we don’t specifically ever address the fact that what about people who can’t even get to working a step because that feels like something so far from the way they feel on a daily basis like yeah okay i’m clean now i still feel [ _ ] out of my goddamn mind like my mind doesn’t understand why my body has this reaction now what what do we do for that

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do we know how or do they theorize it all how addiction affects any of that or not really like can addiction mess that whole nervous system up i i’m sure it you know yeah yeah but uh no what they what they mostly conceptualize is the idea of we have adaptive survival responses and really when we’re saying adaptive it’s what we do but they they really have been maladaptive for our lives they’re responses that have brought us some sense of relief right if you think about like yelling at a kid that changes your state right not always for the better and that’s another thing is i hate to use the words better and worse in here because there’s nothing wrong with any of the states but if i get that sympathetic energy right in the middle of my ladder and i lash out at my kid because that’s just what comes naturally right i’m going to fix them i’m going to correct them and this isn’t going to happen again because i don’t like the way i feel well generally at some points in my life that has made me feel safer again i’m like took care of that thank god we ain’t gonna deal with that situation again it’s all settled right and at other points in time in my life that has made me go further down the ladder to oh man you why do you always do this that’s not the dad you want to be you’re such a piece of [ _ ] and then it’s like isolating because now i don’t want to talk to anybody about it i don’t want to talk to anybody in general because i feel bad about me i just kind of want to sit alone and that just leads to being stuck in more of this danger zone right like things aren’t right or if they’re formed you know when we’re kids like our we’re so limited in our strategies on how to deal with trouble you know we don’t we haven’t developed like nuances of thinking it’s like right oh i just run from everything anything hard i run you know as a kid that’s you know that seems like a reasonable thing to do so can you can you picture any of these nervous system states and i don’t want you to like dive into one of them but just to get a little flavor of of what that experience is like for you so i’m thinking uh even recording the last episode right i had an energetic nervous system sympathetic reaction when you know jen was telling me how she felt about some of the things i’ve said on here and i i felt my face get hot i felt reactive i was like ready i know the thoughts that go with that are like i’m gonna defend myself and i’m gonna put you down as well so that you don’t think you know what’s like and and that was kind of happening as i was sitting here listening to some of that um my heart probably increased in rate i wasn’t paying a lot of attention at that moment i just i know my face got really hot yeah um but yeah can you picture any time recently where you felt anxious or agitated or irritable and what that was like well i was relating this to my personal struggles with large groups or large gatherings and how uncomfortable i feel we recently went to a a convention a recovery convention and as soon as i walk into a place full of people i don’t know and there’s like hundreds of people and everyone looks like they’re talking and laughing and and for me what that starts to feel like when i walk into that room is these people all know each other i’m the outsider i don’t fit in here this is uncomfortable i want to get the [ _ ] out of here i don’t want to deal with this at all you know that’s that’s the biggest one that came to mind just because we were just recently in that situation so that’s that’s the thoughts i think that go with it do you can you picture back to any body sensation um in those cases no um where i noticed some things and they were similar to what you’re talking about with body notice stuff and it’s funny i’ve actually learned to use this as an indicator is at work so i’m a person that deals with problems at work like i’m a manager so when there’s a problem and i always tell the people this look you know that’s what the managers are there for to deal with the problems people get upset start yelling just say hey look hold on a minute let me get somebody else that’s what we’re paid to deal with but i can notice at certain times i can handle those situations well and at other times obviously i get angry and defensive and all that and usually one of the indicators is i can sort of feel my heart rate go way up and i can feel my face get hot i guess i always say red but i can feel you know my face get red and my energy get way up and i’ve learned to notice that as an indicator of like okay maybe we want to think before we start talking because i generally will tend to say some things that are defensive and usually aren’t gonna make the situation any better

but i’ve learned those from making the wrong decision a lot of times you know like reacting to that stuff and being like okay now i’m angry so it’s on now we’re in a fight and so we’re gonna fight right right and i think i think you’re on to something here with the idea that like over time if we’re somewhat self-aware right if we’re trying to pay attention to ourselves like you practice meditation you do some of the body scanning techniques i think over time we do start to pick up on some of these ideas right we just maybe don’t have the whole picture of exactly what the nervous system is doing and why and and how that all operates but some of those can be really useful without understanding that and that’s why some of us kind of come to better terms with where we’re at and understanding that um but yeah i think understanding the concept as a whole just gives us more information for what to do we want to look at thoughts sensations in our body images that pop up like anything that comes to mind like some of us have a very specific message that goes along with these nervous system states right whether that be like something our parents always said to us of something along the lines that you’re not good enough but it it pops up every time we hear anything that you know seems similar to that as soon as we go in that state we’re like oh that’s this thing happening um other things to pay attention to is like how your your eating habits change in any of these states and how your sleeping habits change right and i mean i think some of those seem pretty natural to to be kind of across the board like when you have that racing thoughts at night and that sympathetic energy place like it’s hard to fall asleep right whereas when you’re more lethargic and in this dorsal vagal bottom of the ladder experience it’s you probably want to sleep more right because it’s kind of an escape from and that’s already where your body’s feeling is this immobilized kind of disconnect so sleeping more might make more sense eating varies i found a little more with people like when they eat more when they eat less depending on what kind of energy or state they’re in well that’s what i was going to ask i’ve noticed for myself and i don’t know if this is thinking or subconscious maybe it ties into this maybe not um i i seem to notice like when i have stressful days or harder days or times that i feel stressed i’m way more likely to just eat the [ _ ] whatever like whatever’s easy or whatever is really high sugar high calorie you know typically what i’ll say is foods that are bad for me that i try to avoid but on stressful days i’m like [ _ ] it i’m having a cheeseburger like i’m having some ice cream yeah well and there might be some sense of safety you get to from that right we all talk about comfort foods but there also might be the idea that your nervous system is high alert high energy so it’s using a lot more energy on those days yeah once that carb right for that energy huh so it feels like it’s getting ready to go into battle so it wants to yeah it needs to and and that’s so where do we help our recovery community and nobody has to buy into this theory right there’s definitely people online who argue that it doesn’t have enough scientific merit behind it yet a lot of the science they’re doing on it comes from looking at babies and their heart rates and how they kind of regulate but what can we do to help people when we like i don’t know we just had this idea and i think it’s been in my head for a long time this idea that you know i don’t think i made the decision to get clean necessarily right i’ve kind of given that idea to maybe a higher power or the universe it was just time whatever you want to call it but like i wanted to be clean long before that and couldn’t because every time i would detox i just went back and i didn’t have words to describe that then but if i was looking at it through the polyvagal theory lens well i still felt survival right i still felt like i was in danger constantly and so i kept going back and and when i got you know into recovery for real maybe something different had taken place there where it was like a little more ability to sit in the uncomfortable nervous system states and maybe it was a little more comfortable nervous system states around that and i don’t know exactly what happened at that point because that was a long time ago and i wasn’t really paying attention right um but but i’ve carried that belief into like not really trying to shame people who don’t quote unquote get it right people who come into our program who are like they just keep relapsing whatever you want to call it chronic relapses people who keep going back out and i feel like there’s a lot of judgment in that oh you just need to work the steps you just need to surrender you just need to do this and i look at this theory and i’m it fits in with my belief like i don’t think i could have done that before the moment it was gifted to me somehow so yeah like something happens where we for whatever reason make the connection to that community that creates some sort of safety safety or or yeah that just brings us up just enough yeah i don’t know if that’s like maybe there was a touching counselor in a particular detox that made me feel like a little warmer and safer in the world i don’t know if that was a certain person in the first meeting i went to or at least the first meeting that i decided to try something different like i don’t know what that variable was that shifted in me but why we have a lot of judgment towards people for you just need to accept that you can and you just need to call yourself an addict it’s like we all have this idea of if you just did this you would get it and what if people can’t right what if we’re in this hijacked nervous system where our brain is not calling the shots because i think that’s where a lot of us are on most days if we’re not aware of what state we’re in then we’re definitely being run by something outside of our brain right and just like you said understanding that these states exist and that i move through them like now i immediately think oh huh i’ll have to start paying a little more attention to my physiology and when i’m you know reacting to things you know take a minute to look at some of that but interest i said recently you know i’ve changed one of my old uh recovery ideas you know and we hear it in meetings and stuff it’s like if you just do what i do you’ll get what i get and i’ve sort of changed that to be like well i don’t know that that’s true you could do exactly what i do and you might get something very different right you know and that that’s because i don’t know what your story is or what you know is going on behind the scenes with you that you might interpret things different or have a different experience yeah yeah and i think that is like we have similar experiences but we all do have our unique experience of what happened through our life the story of that and then what’s happening in our life now right and every situation is a little different but i guess you know what could we do from an understanding that people are operating i’m i mean really when you think about this if it’s your body and it’s nervous system that is taking over and hijacking your reactions and your brain is just like fumbling to keep up you’re really out of your mind i mean that’s kind of the definition of being out of your mind and i don’t say that to say that that’s necessarily a bad thing i almost feel like when people say to me in therapy they’re like oh my god i feel like i’m losing my mind i’m like we want to lose your mind long enough to find your body yeah and i thought when i was in addiction you know and the things i would do and people would ask like why do you do the things you do i would say i don’t really know and i didn’t know you know right intellectually looking at the situation you know two or three days later or when i was sitting in jail i’d be like man that was really stupid like why did i but i was just reacting or responding you know without thinking and then like say creating a story later of why right right and maybe that’s what i hope if nothing else we get out of this right do i expect people to go out in the world and be like poly bagel theory’s the one right there’s no right or wrong theory anything that works is good but maybe just the understanding that we aren’t a a brain down person right i think our society is very big on this like brain first and everything else comes next and i just don’t really necessarily believe that i i think we’re much more of a body brain spirit true self organism kind of thing and all of it plays a key role now when you talk about the nervous system it’s got bi-directional communication meaning that your brain does talk to your body organs and your organs do talk to your brain but 80 of that is from the body up so the brain has really has like a fifth of what’s going on and four fifths of it is your body communicating to your brain what’s happening inside it and so i i don’t know that that proves that the body has a bigger say and i don’t know that i’m necessarily trying to say that but i think without awareness that the body is is running some of the show we just run around operating under the what’s wrong with me theory yeah and that i mean that idea comes into play with nutrition and stuff a lot nowadays where they talk about like healthy gut bacteria and how your gut microbiome affects the way you think and how you feel and all that stuff i mean that’s all biological stuff going on at a level that you know i mean i’ll say we don’t understand lay people don’t understand it smart scientists kind of are starting to but you know all i know is i’m supposed to eat [ _ ] yogurt and kimchi and kombucha you know because i want you know my body to be in a good place in my brain to be in a good place so that my reactions you know are healthy and strong and not you know impaired right right um and i think you know there’s a whole nother branch of you know therapy theory that deals with somatic experiencing and and how the ways we feel and think uh influence our bodily experience and that’s can i say don’t mind that’s a dumb question and uneducated what is somatic experience it’s like physical experiences okay so basically like if you have an upset stomach could it have been just some nasty stuff you ate that was old and bad for you sure could it also be that you’re excessively worried absolutely right so it’s like the bodily physical experiences of the mental health state even though we talk about mental health and i feel like the mental part is kind of like a misnomer because it’s really like this feeling emotion end thought kind of process right this like physical sensation process is a part that doesn’t feel included when we talk mental health but again top-down society we think the brain is everything yeah and even in recovery i mean we talk about physical mental and spiritual aspects of the disease but for the most part you know at least it seems like we really only talk about the mental and spiritual you know we aren’t yeah other than stop using that’s the physical part we don’t really tell people like no you need to worry about your health and your physical being and your body like those things are important yeah every once in a while we’ll throw in there that you should see a doctor if you don’t have insurance and haven’t been seeing a doctor right but yeah you need to get checkups right right yeah and look and this isn’t like to shame anyone who struggles with with eating but we definitely kind of overlook that in our fellowship we don’t run around and be like oh you’re not working a program i can like we don’t say that and i don’t think it’s so much about working a program but okay i’m clean off of drugs i still don’t feel safe right my body is still reacting my nervous system still feels like it needs to be in a survival response so now what do i do well i sex i gamble i eat i do the next things that bring some sort of safety so is the theory though that i guess i’ll i’ll use the word some people although it feels like not many if you look at like aces scores and things but it’s the theory that some people grow up healthy and that don’t i guess get into these lower level states uh no no everybody’s going to experience these states no matter what it’s how we don’t want to be how we cope with them the problem well we don’t learn about people be hijacked by the state we don’t want it to feel like we don’t have any decision making or understanding right so once we understand oh this is sympathetic energy happening well now i start right just in the beginning i start to have the idea that well maybe if i understand that i can do something different right when i just react and yell at people in my family or or break something or there’s no chance there for anything different to happen but if i’m like oh i’m having i had one last night at dinner right somebody in my family said something at dinner the conversation was going a certain way i was like this ain’t good like i can feel this sympathetic energy coming and look it still wasn’t ideal for me the best thing i got was hey i i think we’re done eating dinner like most of us were done anyway we’re just kind of talking i was like i think we’re done here we can all go back to what we were doing and then i like walked over to the door and just kind of stared out of it for a little while but that’s better than other things i’ve done right and it’s just that understanding okay i feel this state coming on i’m aware of my bodily experience right now in the sensations now i can try to do something different and i think over time that can get even better looking it can be like oh well i have energy what what test did i need energy for recently like did i want to vacuum my floor and i didn’t feel like i had the energy for it well i can probably do that now i have energy right why not do something useful with it um but also listening like what is it now now if i can remove myself from that danger environment i have the ability to like have the awareness to okay well what helps me when i feel like this what helps me return to a feeling of safety well let me do that and now that i’m at a feeling of safety what was it about that conversation that that made me feel like i was in danger like what was it that rubbed me the wrong way and maybe where does that come from for my history and how can i reevaluate my belief systems about that but none of that happens if i just yell like the reaction keeps all the higher level stuff from happening which is stuff that happens later from a healthy safe place right um and i guess like the things we can do just you know if you’re out there and you’re wondering like well okay what can i do now now that you’ve given me this polyvagal theory information like sounds great now what um so the first thing we want to do is exactly what you said like let’s pay attention how does this affect me where am i at throughout my day right let me start tuning in to when my body is having these different um ladder reactions in in its nervous system the next thing is if we want to do this we can create a you know a map like what does this look like like physically sit down and write down okay well top of the ladder ventral experience feels like this and this is what happens to my eating and my sleeping and you know i am blank and the world is blank in this state and so from a ventral place maybe that’s like i am love and the world is safe or open or connecting right and then we do that again for the middle of the ladder sympathetic experience well what’s going on here sleep eat thoughts sensations and then i am and for me it’s usually angry right and the world is dangerous unsafe threatening right and just and then again do that for the the dorsal experience at the bottom of the ladder once we’ve created that map we really start to key into when we’re in these spaces right and then from there there’s some other exercises you can do there’s one called a vagal break exercise which i found to be kind of interesting and so if you picture a bicycle break right how it kind of clamps around the tire to slow it down so your sympathetic system the middle of the ladder system is attached to your heart and it makes your heart beat but if it didn’t have anything restricting it your heart would beat like dangerously fast all the [ _ ] time like it would be verge a heart attack cocaine popping you know so what it has the vagal system at the top they believe has a clamp on it very much like the bicycle brake sort of concept it’s always on to some extent it’s it’s unlike a bicycle brake it never releases full right so it’s always on at some extent but we can kind of key in with a visualization and thinking about it and we can squeeze that break break tighter and and i like that analogy some people use some other ones like opening a faucet or whatever a little more well and they always say take slow deep breaths does breathing exercises help yeah breathing exercises can help if that’s something that works for us but i think incorporating this practice of visualizing going down a hill if you’ve ever gone down a hill on a bike and you just got that really uh that scary experience of holy [ _ ] i’m gonna lose control and die right that’s the exact experience that happens in sympathetic which that reactive danger survival response and so what we picture is like putting the brake on a little tighter right just like when you’re going down the hill and you put the brake on a little tighter and then you slow down and you feel safer and then as you want to if you’re so inclined you can let it off just a little bit again it never completely comes off but you let it off a little bit okay well i’m comfortable now but i do want to go a little faster right and from there we get a little bit of control over regulating how much energy we want to have is it total control no i think the awareness is a big piece but then these are just little things we can practice to kind of help stabilize and regulate our systems and another important thing would be to have people in your life that have that top of the ladder regulating experience do they talk with a modulated voice that kind of goes up and down because that’s soothing to us kind of like you would talk to a baby right um jen jen has a very top of the ladder soothing voice which i said was going to make me look terrible and it does um but yeah we you know how we talk how we interact with people we need these safe co-regulators in our life to help us feel more regulated if you’re having a sympathetic experience and you got other sympathetic or dorsal people around you that’s not gonna [ _ ] help at all right you’re gonna feel like out there yeah and you start to think that that’s normal yeah yeah absolutely so i i mean you know hopefully we’re healing and growing and becoming these resources for other people in our lives to the best of our ability at any point in time but really just raising our awareness and and this isn’t just for people trying to get off drugs i mean anybody who feels like they have that reactive pattern in their life in recovery like oh i always do this when this happens and i i always say afterwards that’s not the person i want to be but i i can’t seem to change it well there’s a reason your nervous system is taking over man yeah you’re being hijacked by your own body yeah yeah so i don’t know pay attention to your nervous systems and uh maybe you know when we start our recovery sort of program meetings like we’ll be more in tune with that and i have some polyvagal exercises and you know again like if they proved the whole theory to be unscientifically provable right now i don’t even know that it matters because it just it feels like it makes a lot of sense for my body and i i feel like if nothing else it guides us to more body awareness and more like just being slow and kind and compassionate with people and i don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing like i think that helps us feel more safe no matter where we are so maybe when we’re dealing with people we just need to think of that am i helping them feel safer or am i you know also guiding their body into feeling more dangerous yeah we’re finding empathy in that maybe these people are just and i don’t want to criticize people but maybe they’re not overly healthy and not overly well and they’re just reacting you know in a way that you know that way i don’t have to place a judgment on like they wanted to cut me off they wanted to you know whatever right be mean to me or right right yeah how much of our lives isn’t really a choice before we know it’s not a choice but all right you got anything else about that no interesting all right uh take your polyvagal nervous systems out there and and do some good in the world see you next week

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