Deb Dana: Befriending Your Nervous System

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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Deborah Dana. Deb is a clinician and consultant specializing in working with complex trauma and is the coordinator of the Kinsey Institute Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. Deb’s works at the Kinsey Institute is focused on using the lens of Polyvagal Theory to understand and resolve the impact of trauma and create ways of working that honor the role of the autonomic nervous system. With Sounds True, Deb has created a new audio program called Befriending Your Nervous System: Looking Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory. Deb is gifted at being a translator. She takes the complexity of Polyvagal Theory, and I myself have tried to read a couple of books on the topic and found it pretty dense and pretty difficult to understand, personally. Deb has a gift. She makes it accessible, not just the theory but how we can use it and apply it in our lives and our relationships. Here’s my conversation, very helpful and informative conversation, with Deb Dana:

Deb, I love the title of your new audio learning series with Sounds True, Befriending Your Nervous System. And I realized, I don’t think I know my nervous system well enough to even start a friendship. I haven’t been properly introduced. I wonder if we could start our conversation there. Can you introduce me, the way you understand through Polyvagal Theory, to the nervous system? I know it’s a big question. Let’s go ahead. A proper introduction.

Deb Dana: Let’s dive in and make an introduction. I, too, love the title because for me, when we make a friendship, we begin to get to know each other, which is what you and I will do with the nervous system. And then a friendship is not something you just do. You continue to nurture that friendship. And that’s really what we need to do with our nervous systems. We don’t just meet the nervous system, get introduced, and then all is good. It’s this creating an ongoing connection and friendship and honoring what’s happening. So yes, let’s dive into introducing you to the nervous system.

So the nervous system is—what I think of it is the foundation for all of your lived experience. It’s where everything begins in your body system. We think that the brain is running the show but in fact, it’s beneath the level of the brain, it’s inside your body. It’s in these pathways that help us connect, that help us mobilize into fight and flight, and that help us move into disconnection and a disappearance. So all of those things are built into our human body for very good reasons. So your nervous system is just like every nervous system, and I think that’s the other thing I love is that the nervous system really is a common denominator in all human beings. We all have one. It all has these parts that work in generally the same way.

So if we think about the nervous system in a way that it has evolved over hundreds of millions of years in our history, that first system that entered our human species ancestry was that thing that helped to move through our lethal world, to immobilize in the face of threat, to disappear. I like to think of that ancient tortoise, that when it moves really slowly through the world, you could feel the slowness, the steadiness; and then when it gets afraid of something, retreats into its shell, right? And becomes invisible. It’s going to stay in its shell until it really feels safe enough to poke its head out again, which can take a long time.

Then the thing I want to also add about the tortoise that I love is, somebody was telling me the other day that, how do you get a turtle to come back out of its shell, right? He said, “It’s gone into a shell. You don’t knock on the top of the shell and say, ‘Come on out now.'” Right? You don’t shake the turtle and say it’s safe to come out. And so that really—when we get to know this very first part of your nervous system, one of the things we want to honor there in this beginning process is that the nervous system, when it goes to that place of just fear, hide, become still, immobilized, it takes a long time to come back out and doesn’t need somebody to be poking and prodding. And you’ve probably had an experience of going to that place of feeling like, “I need to be immobile and disappear.”

TS: Sure. Sure.

DD: Yes.

TS: OK. I’m with you, I’m with you. So this evolutionarily, from that perspective, that’s the oldest part of the nervous system.

DD: Exactly. Yes.


DD: And then the next system landed in our human species was the system that mobilizes us. It’s called sympathetic because it helps us to fight and flight. That’s how we kind of all know it in that way. That I am now moving into some kind of an aggressive action, either coming at you or getting away from you with energy. And so instead of just having to move through the world slowly and disappear, I have this other option now, which is this mobilized for fight and flight. And I imagine you think of a time when that’s happened for you as well, right?

TS: Regularly.

DD: [Laughs] OK. So, your system may be more tuned to that, mobilize fight and flight, then the dorsal collapse and disappear. As we begin to get to know our nervous system, we begin to get to understand that one of those is what I call our home away from home, right? It’s where we go more often when we feel under some kind of threat and we end up either in that mobilize fight/flight or that shut down/disconnect. So your home away from home maybe in that mobilization. My home away from home is in the disappear/disconnect. So, there we are.

So let’s turn the most recent system into the picture because this is what really makes us human. This is a strictly mammalian part of our nervous system. Cats, dogs, horses, we have this part of the nervous system that helps us do what we’re doing right now. We connect and we communicate. We feel safe enough to move through the world, and the story is to … “I’m ok. The world’s a safe enough place for me to move through. I can be organized.” It has all of those lovely flavors of being able to connect. And when we talk about connect, it’s connection both inside to myself and connect outside to you in this moment, connects to the environment, the world around me, and also connect to spirit. We only have the ability to do those four pathways of connection when our nervous system is safely resting in this, or its newest state, which we call ventral vagal.

TS: OK. So what is the contribution of Polyvagal Theory to understanding my nervous system? You referred to the disappear/disconnect as being in dorsal vagal. And here you’re introducing the term ventral vagal, help me understand the vagus nerve’s role in understanding my nervous system.

DD: Beautiful. Yes. This is where Polyvagal Theory really helps begin to understand the pathways that we travel all the time. Those three pathways that we just identified, the ventral vagal, where we feel safe, the sympathetic fight/flight, and the dorsal vagal, where we disconnect, disappear.

So the vagus nerve brings both this ability to connect through ventral and that ability to survive through disconnection, through dorsal. So this one long cranial nerve, it comes out of the base of your skull and it has lots of different circuits that go to all sorts of different places in your body. And one pathway, the ventral vagal pathway, goes from your brainstem pretty much to the side of your neck and it helps you with your speaking, your breathing, your swallowing, your lungs. And it goes to your heart. So this ventral pathway is heart connection. And then your dorsal pathway also leaves the brainstem, goes down below your heart, below your lungs, below your diaphragm, to work with your digestion.

And so if we’re in a state of feeling OK, moving through the world, then the ventral vagal pathway kind of oversees the system. I think about it as holding this mobilized energy and this disconnecting energy in a warm embrace, because when it can do that, when it can hold the other two pathways, when they are not feeling alone and needing to take over, then everything runs smoothly and that other dorsal pathway simply runs your digest and keeping you—feeding you nutrients and nourishing you in healthy ways.

The problem is that when we feel too challenged by a moment in time and our ventral vagal pathway, this beautiful pathway that helps us stay here and connected, feels overwhelmed by this moment, then that pathway goes into the background. It begins to go offline and we lose the ability to use any of its wonderful qualities. And so what happens—because Polyvagal Theory identifies that there is a predictable order in which our nervous system works. So when ventral moves to the background, the next pathway that comes up to work with is that sympathetic mobilization of fight and flight. And then if that taking action there doesn’t resolve whatever the issue of the moment is, we then drop into that dorsal vagal, disconnect/disappear place.

So we see that this predictable order of pathways really helps us understand why we may end up where we are. It may help you understand that, “Oh, this moment in time was too big for the resources of my ventral vagal pathway. And so I’ve now landed in this mobilized energy that makes me want to either reach out and fight with someone, argue with someone, or get out of here,” right? And when we begin to understand that, “Oh, this is our biology that’s doing this; this is not my brain, that I’m not making a conscious choice here. My biology has felt a threat and is taking an action to save me.”

TS: Well, Deb, there’s a lot to talk about here but just immediately, it sounds like having the ventral vagal part of my nervous system, this holding in a warm embrace of the other two systems, having it online is really important. And you gave us this image for the tortoise and you can’t bring a turtle back by knocking on its shell. You have to just leave it alone for awhile. But what can we do with our ventral vagal system when it’s overwhelmed and it goes offline, to bring it back? What do we do?

DD: So, yes, our ventral vagal system is what I call the central ingredient in being able to safely navigate for the world in a way that we can feel connected and communicate with others and co-regulate. All those wonderful things that bring us well-being, that nourish us. And the first thing that we want to before we bring it back online is to be able to notice when we’re beginning to leave that place. Remember I said that sympathetic or dorsal, those survival responses, we have a home away from home.

TS: Yes.

DD: And I consider ventral this place of connection and safety and regulation, our home. This is our home. This is the home that we all long to be in. And I believe our nervous system knows how to be here, knows how to return here when we get bumped out of here. So, this home that we inhabit, this ventral vagal place of safety and connection, it’s there for all of us, even for those of us who have not had a lot of access to this place because of life experience. I firmly believe that the nervous system still knows that place and knows how to get back to that place.

So our first job is to recognize, “Oh, I think I’m leaving this place of feeling safe and organized and able to move through the world.” So the first thing we do is identify, what are those beginning cues that let you know that your nervous system is beginning to lose that place? And as we begin to get to know that, then we bring in a companion piece around, “Oh, so when this begins to happen and you notice you’re beginning to leave, what now can you do that helps bring more of that energy back?” You know, the nervous system responds to all sorts of experiences. But the interesting thing—because I can outline general categories, but within those general categories and this is the befriending process is to get to know out of this category, which way does your nervous system respond that helps you come back to ventral?

So if we took breath as an example, because breath is an experience that is managed by your autonomic nervous system, right? We don’t have to think about anything. Our body just does it. That’s one of the hallmarks of an activity that is regulated by the autonomic nervous system. It works in the background. It just does. So we don’t have to think about taking a breath every time we need some oxygen or exhaling, right? It just does it. However, breath is one of the few processes that the autonomic nervous system automatically does that are also under our conscious control.

So breath is one of the ways that we can begin to bring ourselves back to ventral. The basic breath experiences. If you increase your exhale, so you have a longer exhale, you’re going to begin to bring more of that ventral embrace back online. If you use some form of resistance breathing—so if you breathe out like you’re breathing through a straw, that begins to bring more ventral energy back into the system. The one that I totally love is sighing because we sigh spontaneously many times an hour. Now that I’ve said that, we’re all going to start noticing when we sign, which is not a bad thing. But we can also intentionally sigh. As you feel yourself beginning to leave this autonomic home of ventral, you can have the sigh, right? You can have a sigh of relief that you noticed, and that will help you come back. If you’re in some of that more mobilizing, frustrated, even angry, overwhelmed energy, a sigh of frustration can help you come back. And then when you arrive back home to deepen and stay in that experience, there’s this lovely sigh of contentment that we give.

So, sighing is I think one of the ways that I teach everybody that I work with, because it’s so simple, it’s not usually a cue of danger to the nervous system because we do it anyway, and it’s something easily accessible. So if we think about that, these are the regulating resources we want to be looking for that they are easy to get to, easy to use, and are not going to send a cue of danger to nervous system.

So movement, different ways of moving, activate your ventral vagal system. And if we think about movement for a moment and I can use my system as an example—movement, as with breathing, can be both a resource and a cue of danger. And so for my system, I—because we’re in an interview and you can’t see me, right now, I can move and I can have beautiful movement because I’m all alone. No one can see me. If we had the potential to see each other, I couldn’t do that because it feels too much, like I’m too visible and vulnerable. And so movement for me when I am around other people is imagined movement rather than enacted movement. And that really is one of the cues to befriending your own nervous system, is to turn towards an experience with curiosity and find out, “Ooh, for me, as I think about using movement as a resource to help me return to ventral, what would be the right way to use that, to engage with that?”

TS: Now, Deb, you mentioned actions that are regulating and I’d love to understand, what does it mean for our nervous system to be regulated, and what does it mean for our nervous system to be in dysregulation?

DD: Beautiful. Yes. So if we think about this through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, a regulated nervous system is a nervous system that is not always in ventral because that’s not the—the goal is not to always be in this state of ventral vagal safety and connection. The goal, really—and the goal for regulation, and regulation brings flexibility, which brings resilience—is about noticing that I need ventral and knowing how I can find my way back. That’s a regulated system, a system that can dysregulate and come back to regulation.

A dysregulated system is a system that has these rigid response patterns, where if I get pulled out of my home in ventral and end up in my home away from home, in dorsal, that I can’t find my way back, I’m stuck there. And for many of us, that’s not an uncommon experience, to get called out because of something that’s happened and to feel, “Oh, I’m stuck.” Either in that angry or fearful or anxious place, that’s a survival response, or in that disconnected, collapsed, disappeared place.

So for me, when I think about a regulated nervous system, I think about a nervous system that can have some flexibility in moving through survival states and coming back to that safety of connection in ventral.

TS: So just to reiterate what you said, the goal is something more like flexibility or fluidity, not always being in a ventral vagal feeling of safety and connection. That wouldn’t be possible.

DD: Exactly.

TS: We have to be able to move through the different parts of our nervous system. OK. So one of the questions I have is what is the contribution that Stephen Porges—I know he’s someone that’s a friend of yours and a colleague and someone you worked very closely with. What contribution did he make to our understanding of the nervous system that we’re now able to get to know our nervous system in a different way than we were before he made his contribution of Polyvagal Theory?

DD: Yes Steve is an amazing human being. He was first, someone I wanted to learn from and then collaborate with. And now also he’s a dear friend. And his development of Polyvagal Theory has really given us this new understanding of how we’re wired and how we move through the world, because it was his work that identified these two pathways of the vagus nerve before his development of the theory. I love that it’s Polyvagal with two vagal pathways; before he brought that to us and to the world and shared it with all of us, our understanding of the nervous system was that it had these two parts that worked in opposition to each other. We were either in fight and flight or rest and digest. And because it was that balanced system, we had no way of understanding or coming into a connection with that dorsal vagal survival pathway that so many of us know. And so many people who have suffered with traumatic experiences have been in that place of collapse, that place of not being able to take action, we had no way of understanding it.

The world makes meaning out of everything. We humans make meaning, right? We’re storytelling creatures. And without a way to tell a story of survival through collapse and understanding the underlying pathway there, we didn’t have a way to have a story of survival when someone didn’t fight back or didn’t take action. And so we would create a story about the moral meaning of motivation.

So one of the things that I’ve found in my work as a therapist that’s so powerful, is helping people understand this other pathway that we all go to in small ways all the time, it can be as simple as feeling like, “Oh, I’ve just taken a step back and I’m going through the motions but I’m not really, fully present.” That’s a flavor that pathway. And then in an extreme experience, I can fully go to a disconnect where my body might be here but my mind is somewhere else, right? And these are adaptive, creative ways that our biology helps us survive.

And so Steve’s work to really map out those two pathways has given us this amazing knowledge base that we can now help trauma survivors, especially. But in my work, I think everybody, to understand that when you go either to that, “I’m going to fight back because the world feels dangerous” or “I’m disappeared because the world feels overwhelming,” that this is your biology, helping you survive. It’s taking an action because it feels you are in that level of danger. I think when we can do that for ourselves and then with others, the conversation becomes one, about your biology and about how can I help you come back home to ventral rather than the arguments we get in with someone—”Why do you always leave when I need to talk? Why can’t you be quiet when I’m talking?”—any of those arguments that are so common with people. And the answer that Steve has given us through Polyvagal Theory is because your biology has taken you out of that ability to do that right now.

TS: OK. Let’s take one more, a further befriending step. You mentioned that these two sides of the vagus nerve, the ventral vagal goes to the heart and the dorsal vagal goes down into the gut. And in your new series, Befriending Your Nervous System: Looking Through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, you talk about how these pathways are bi-directional. Can you, for one, help us map them on our body, and then also explain this bi-directional nature and why that matters?

DD: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, yes, we could map them first. 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.

So we’ve mapped the pathways, and then what we want to understand is the information from the ventral vagal pathway—so the information that’s coming through those pathways, 80 percent of that information is coming from your body and then being fed up to your brain, Eighty percent. The other 20 percent, then, is the brain returning some information back to the body to take an action of some sort. But if we think about that, just think that 80 percent of the information is embodied information, not in your brain. And when we befriend our nervous system, we are also creating this pathway to listening to this 80 percent of information, otherwise travels those pathways anyway, but without our being able to tune in and listen and understand.

TS: Now Deb, I’m curious for that person, who’s listening to our conversation and says, “I think I have a pretty good sense of when my home away from home is dorsal. I know when I’m collapsed, when I’m immobilized, when—just leave me alone, please. I’m under the bed,” whatever that might be. I think people have a pretty good sense as well. I think it’s easy to follow this notion of “I’m in a mobilized kind of fight/flight way of being, I get that too.” Is everything else ventral vagal? How do I actually know, “Oh, I’m in a ventral vagal state right now.” How do I identify that? Are there other possible nervous system states I might be in?

DD: Lovely. So yes, we have some blended states that we can talk about as well. And then I want to talk about the flavors of mobilization and disconnection because everything is on a continuum, right? If we think about moving into this sympathetic mobilization, the flavors of it, I can be totally enraged and out of control, or I can have a panic attack, or I can feel that beginning of this frustrating “can’t sit still, get me out of here” energy. So again, we have a range of responses in each state, There’s the same with dorsal—I can take that metaphorical step back and move out of the energy that’s going on around me because I can’t take it any longer, or I can be, as you said, under the bed immobilized, disappeared.

Play—if we think about play, playfulness, it’s this lovely combination of ventral safety and regulation and that sympathetic mobilizing energy. And there’s this back and forth that happens there. I think I talk about play as sympathetic and ventral are holding hands, right? And as long as they’re holding hands, everything’s great. It’s when they let go, when they break the hand-holding, that sympathetic then takes over. And we see this with—if you think about little kids who are in this rough-and-tumble play and everybody’s having a good time, then the next minute somebody screaming and somebody’s angry. That’s that moment when the sympathetic and ventral stopped holding hands and when play became aggression, right? But play is a lovely blend.

The other blend that I think is important to understand is when ventral and [dorsal], when these two parts of the vagus nerve work together to become what I call “sacred still.” This is this place where we are immobilized because of the dorsal energy, but we’re safely in that stillness because the ventral has brought its regulating energy. So we can do things like sit in stillness in nature or in quiet with another person without the need to talk, or simply be in this intense inner receptive place and feel fully present. That’s the beautiful experience of ventral and dorsal working together. For me in my work and what I see with others and even for myself, I think that’s the most complicated blended state to get to, because I think that when we begin to slow down that pull to disappear can be strong. So coming into safe stillness is complicated and brings beautiful experiences when we can find our way to that place.

So the last blended state that I wanted to mention, because people will talk about freeze, that freeze state—when we feel like we are flooded with energy, but we can’t move. And that one I think is when sympathetic and dorsal are stuck on together because dorsal is keeping us immobilized but sympathetic is flooding us with energy, and it’s that sort of deer in the headlights experience that happens. And we just want to make sure that we mention that one too but yes.

And for ventral again, if we think about the continuum, all the flavors of ventral, because people will say, “Well, it’s not always calm and relaxed. I feel that’s not the only ventral experience.” The essential ingredient about ventral is that you have a sense of safety, right? That your neuroception, which we haven’t talked about, but the way your nervous system experiences cues is bringing you a sense of safety. And so you could be calm and relaxed, or passionate, or playful, or alert, or any of these things. There are lots of different energies that come into play there, but they all come out of a place of feeling safe as you’re experiencing them.

TS: Which brings me to something that I very much want to talk with you about, which is befriending our nervous system here in the midst of the pandemic. I think for a lot of people, feeling a sense of safety feels kind of off the table right now. Like, “How could I feel safe? How can I feel safe? It’s not safe to go out to a store, it’s not safe to breathe other people’s respiration. It’s just not safe right now.” So, I’m curious what you have to say about bringing this work forward, befriending your nervous system during this particular time.

DD: Yes. And I think that this is an even more important time for us to get to know, be introduced to, get to know, befriend our nervous systems. Because again, if we think, the nervous system is the foundation for everything that’s happening for us right now. It is what is moving us through life. And when we are bombarded by cues of danger, and we are certainly bombarded by cues of danger now, it’s very difficult to feel anchored in our home in ventral. And it’s not safe to—we can list all the things it’s not safe to do. We want to begin to think again about finding cues of safety that we can recognize for ourselves in our daily lives, because we’re naturally attuned to the cues of danger and they are everywhere, but what are the cues of safety that we might also find in these moments, and how can we make it safe enough so that we can make some informed choices about where we’re going to go next?

If you look around your world, look around your neighborhood or your family, or even look inside your own system, you will probably see one of the moments when my mobilizing energy, when that sympathetic mobilization has taken me over, right? And what are the things that we see people doing? The decisions that we make from that place are not rational, planned, thought-out decisions—which as we’re talking about this, we should recognize that once we leave the ventral, once we begin to move into sympathetic and dorsal, our prefrontal cortex does not come along for that journey with us. So when we move to that mobilized place, our prefrontal cortex is not there to help us make a decision. And we can see that happening in our world. And then in dorsal, which is the place that many people go to now as well is that place of hiding where “It’s not safe, I’m just hiding, and I’ve given up hope that the world is ever going to be safe enough for me to venture out into it again.”

And what I find in the work I’m doing now is that people fluctuate between those two places—between this, “I have to get out. I don’t care. I’m going to go out anyway,” and this, “The world’s never going to be safe, so I’m going to give up.” And both of those are understandable, adaptive survival responses. They also will not get us to a place of global safety, a place where the world can become safe enough for all of us to move out into again.

The only way that we can find our way forward there is if we have an anchor in our home in ventral, because then we have access to all of the capacities of our wonderful human brains, and we have a way to feel curious about options. We see possibilities from that place and we have compassion for others and can have compassion for ourselves. So really the work at this, in this moment is to help people come into connection with what’s happening inside their nervous system, so that they can begin to shape their system so that it’s more easily anchored in their home in ventral. And then from that place, to offer some of that curiosity, compassion, caring, connecting energy to the people around us.

TS: I want to make sure I understood something. So what you said was that when we go to our home away from home—when we leave our home in ventral vagal, when we go into this fight/flight or when we move into the dorsal disconnect—our prefrontal cortex isn’t available to us. That’s a really big deal. I need my prefrontal cortex to make good decisions and navigate. Right?

DD: Yes. Exactly. Exactly. Yes.

TS: Yes. That’s a really big deal.

DD: Yes. That is a really big deal.

TS: You also mentioned that it’s important to look for cues of safety in our environment. I think we see all these cues that things aren’t safe—just seeing other people wearing masks and putting on a mask, and “It’s not safe. I’m wearing a mask.” What are cues of safety? What do you find for you are cues of safety that work?

DD: Yes. It’s interesting. Let’s think about mask for a minute, and let’s think about what the story around a mask is for each nervous system. So, for my nervous system, my husband and I both have some underlying health conditions. And so for me, putting on a mask is actually a cue of safety. For my nervous system, it feels, “Oh, this is making it safer for me to go out in the world.” And then recently I’ve been working with people because here in Maine, everybody’s wearing a mask. And so I’ve been working with people to say, “So look at the eyes,” right? Because that really is, in fact, where our nervous system looks first for cues of safety in the face. It doesn’t look for the mouth first, it looks around the eyes, which you still can see when someone’s wearing a mask. And look at the eyes and see what are those eyes broadcasting, right? There’s lovely online images that the people are posting about the smile behind the mask. You see that smile in the eyes. So I’m forever inviting people to look at the eyes and see, what are you getting? What are the signals that you’re getting from the eyes?

So in some ways, a mask can be a cue of safety. And for other people, it’s going to be a cue of danger. I think what we’re attempting to do now because we’re socially distancing but trying to stay safely connected—and that’s an interesting proposition for the nervous system to say nothing for the rest of our human experience—but for me, cues of safety are the fact that I have a two little granddaughters who live in another place where I can’t see them but they are forever popping up on my computer, just FaceTiming me. They’ll just say, “Just wanted to say hi, Grandma.” For me, it’s a cue of safety to see that little face up here and just have that connection.

For people who have nature around them or even have the ability to see images of nature, which most of us can find out through books or on screens, nature is predictably activating of that energy of ventral. And so cues of safety in nature can be easily accessible if you live in a place where you can look outside and see nature or if you find the images that really speak to your nervous system and pull them up on a screen or have an image from a book. So nature, it’s another way.

Music is also shown to bring us to this place of feeling safe and regulated. So music, which again is all around, we can either sing it ourselves or listen to it, can be a cue of safety and it meets the criteria. It’s easy to access, I don’t have to do a lot, I can push a button. I can listen and it’s available.

So nature, music, seeing the faces of people behind the mask, looking for smiles, connecting. And again, if we think about connecting with friends or family, this is where we really want to listen to our own nervous systems and think—the question really is, “In this moment, what feels nourishing to my nervous system?” If we could move through the world from that question, we would be better able to stay anchored in our home in ventral and bring that energy to others. Because in this moment it may be that a FaceTime feels overwhelming to my system but sending a message feels just right. And another time it may be that I just long to hear a voice. So again, as we befriend, as we do in friendships with humans, the thing we’re doing with our own nervous system—we befriend and we become curious about what’s the experience that feels right in this moment?

TS: You’ve used this phrase a couple of times being “anchored” in ventral. And I’m curious about that word, “anchored,” what that means to you.

DD: Yes. I loved—for me that just feels very regulating for me. Of course, I live in Maine and I grew up in the ocean and anchors are these wonderful things that you sink down into the mud underneath you or the rocks underneath you, but they give you a lot of room to move at the top. You’re not just held in one particular spot, that anchor really allows you to travel around while you’re still safely held in that spot. So for me, that’s what this anchoring in ventral or anchoring in your home does: it allows you to stay connected to the energy and the qualities that are there but allows you to then experience what’s happening in your other states and not get pulled into them and stuck there.

So for me, that’s really anchor. And anchors are—we can create lots of anchors. We create anchors around small things. It can be a small thing that anchors me. It might be thinking about a person, or remembering a moment, or going to a certain place. There are these lovely micro-moments that can become anchors. Because again, in this time that we’re in now, expecting a long-lasting sense of safety is often too much. A micro-moment of feeling that regulation and that ability to think, “The world is OK, I’m going to be OK in it,” Those micro-moments then begin to string together, and those micro-moments can become anchors for us to remind us that we do have hope. We do have curiosity. We can be compassionate.

TS: Deb, there are two other things I want to make sure we touch on. In the very beginning of the audio series Befriending Your Nervous System, you introduced three organizing principles in Polyvagal Theory. The first one, hierarchy, this evolutionary development of these aspects of our nervous system, which I think you’ve done a terrific job in our conversation explaining. But you also introduced these two other organizing principles: neuroception and co-regulation. And I wonder if you could briefly touch on each of those and how these are important organizing principles that help us befriend our nervous system.

DD: Absolutely. So neuroception is this lovely way that our nervous system is listening to what’s going on. It listens through three streams of awareness. It listens inside our body to what’s happening in there in our viscera, in our muscles, in our organs. It listens outside into the world around us, and that world can be the world immediately around us and then out into the larger world around us. And then also between us and other people, on a nervous system level rather than a brain level. So your nervous system is picking up cues from another person’s nervous system. So neuroception—and I do love that word, I think “neuro” for nervous system and “ception” for a way of perceiving—neuroception is listening inside, outside, between, and is judging whether something feels like a cue of safety or a cue of danger.

And if we think about it in that way, it’s a fairly simple equation. When there are more cues of safety than danger, I can move forward in the world and I can be anchored in my home at ventral. When there were more cues of danger than safety in a moment, then I move my anchor in ventral and I’m going to move into sympathetic and/or dorsal. And so if I understand that safety/danger equation, then I can begin to work with shifting that equation. So if my neuroception intuits too many cues of danger, and I begin to feel my system shift into one of those survival states, I can recognize that. And I can say first, “Huh, I wonder what the cue of danger was that came in and it’s prompting this.” And secondly, “Can I reduce that cue of danger once I’ve identified it, and/or can I bring in another cue safety to help rebalance the equation?”

So, there are lots of ways to rebalance the equation for the nervous system, both in reducing cues of danger or/and bringing in more cues of safety. And in fact, we really need to attend to both of those in order to experience well-being. So that’s that experience of neuroception, and you can see how neuroception is intimately tied to the hierarchy that we talked about because neuroception starts the process. When the neuroception is one of danger, it begins the move out of ventral into one of those survival states. So those two weave together beautifully.

And then the third organizing principle, co-regulation, is what we call in the world of science a biological imperative, which simply means that without co-regulation we can’t survive. We come into the world this way, we have to co-regulate with another human in order for us to survive and experience health, growth, and restoration. And in fact, that need for co-regulation lasts over the entirety of our lifetime. And the nervous system is again, looking for others who feel safe enough to enter into this co-regulating relationship with. And when we find that—and again, we don’t need this all the time, I need a certain amount of it and your system and my system may need different amounts of it, right? There’s not a prescription here for co-regulation. It’s again, when you befriend your nervous system, you’re in that conversation with your nervous system and you can say, “What’s the requirement to co-regulate with another person today or in this moment? Am I feeling anchored enough in my own self-regulation that I can move to this day and not need that?”

And co-regulation creates the foundation on which we then learn to self-regulate. And I think that’s important to remember because in our world nowadays, I think we’re often doing that backwards. We’re looking to self-regulate and be independent, and we have to remember that before we can do that efficiently, effectively, with well-being, we have to also have enough experiences being safely co-regulating with another person.

TS: You’re right, that I think often the way it’s described to people is “Love yourself first, before you think you’re going to have love with somebody else,” something like that. Like, regulate yourself first and then go for the relationship bond.

DD: Right.

TS: But you’re saying something different that I think is really interesting and important.

DD: Yes. If we miss enough experiences of safely co-regulating as we’re growing up, we learn to self-regulate out of a survival place rather than from a place of feeling good about co-regulating and knowing how to do that, and then developmentally, we should learn to self-regulate. So when that order gets mixed up and we self-regulate because there wasn’t someone to regulate with or there was unpredictably someone there, then our self-regulation is just a survival response and it often does not nourish our nervous system. Instead, it drains us. And it can look very successful, and yet people who tell me they self-regulate and they are moving to the world very successfully creating these things, when they really sit down to talk and to think about it, that they’re able to say, “That doesn’t fill me.” There’s not that sense of feeling and being nourished. There’s a seeking that happens, but we never feel satisfied.

So, I don’t know about creating a relationship; I certainly have to be able to have a relationship with myself as well as an other. I do think that we need to think carefully about putting the—being able to be in relationship with myself before understanding what safety in being with another is. One of the beautiful quotes that I so love is that we need to feel safe but not only safe, we need to feel safe in the arms of another. That is our nervous system’s longing. And to be able to have that experience of feeling safely co-regulated with another human and have enough of those experiences, that allows us to begin to understand how to self-regulate from a place of well-being.

TS: Listening to you, Deb, describe these organizing principles in Polyvagal Theory, what comes up for me is wanting to be a source of safety, a feeling of safety for other people. What do you think best communicates safety to others?

DD: The way we best communicate safety for others is not with words, right? It’s through our being anchored in our own state of ventral vagal safety connection, and then that energy is sent out through these neuroceptive pathways into the world; and people around us, their nervous systems sense that, and we’re sending this autonomic welcome out into the world. And then I think that begins to build, and another system meets me in that and feels that regulating energy, and begins to regulate. And then that goes to another system and another system. I love to say that I think this is how the world is going to become a safe place for all humans, one nervous system at a time.

So I really feel like my responsibility is to befriend my system, to know how to anchor in my home in ventral, and how to get back there when I’m out of it. And then to offer this regulating energy, this kindness that is born out of your home in ventral, offer that kindness to others in the world. I think about benevolence and benevolence is the active, ongoing, intentional use of this ventral vagal energy in service of healing. And so we have the ability to connect to this beautiful energy and then to actively, intentionally use it to serve others—to serve ourselves, serve others, and to heal the world. So for me, that is the real beauty of understanding this biology of our nervous system.

TS: And just a final question, because really this brings us full circle. For many people, I think their nervous system, perhaps at the beginning of this conversation, was somewhat something that just did its own thing, not something that we could befriend and have a more active role in collaborating with. Once you have a good understanding of how your nervous system works, how does that change things? Like how has that changed things for you? How do you live differently once you really know this language and have this relationship in your life?

DD: So for me the one of the most powerful benefits of befriending the nervous system and beginning to speak the language of the nervous system is that you really don’t see the world in the way you did before you learned this. There’s a before and after moment that happens. Because now I can look inside my own system with some compassion, curiosity, awareness, which is lovely. And I can also look at somebody else and rather than making a moral meaning out of what’s happening for them, I can simply look at them and say, “Wow, that is a dysregulated nervous system that is driving that person right now.” And then I can think, “What might I be able to offer to help them return to regulation?”

So it’s a powerful paradigm shift for me that I’m no longer in these cognitive stories that we’re in before we understand what’s working underneath those stories. And I really think that it just changes everything about your life. It’s certainly changed my work, which is one of the reasons I started translating Polyvagal Theory for therapists, but more than that, it’s changed my life. And that’s what I find with people that I work with, that yes, it helps resolve clinical issues and people use it in therapy, but even more than that, it’s a way of moving through life. It is a way of being human, of understanding what it is to be human and using that understanding to connect with others from a place of kindness. I think kindness is the word that I keep coming up with. And this allows us to find the road to kindness and to be able to offer that and see that change in the world.

TS: I have to pick up on one thread. You said once you understood Polyvagal Theory that it changed the way you work as a therapist, which is why you started training other therapists. How did it change the way you work as a therapist?

DD: So I’m like many therapists, trained in many models of therapy. And when I learned Polyvagal Theory, what happened for me was I suddenly understood what was underneath all of those models of therapy. So again, since the nervous system is really what’s running the show, unless I can be in an ongoing conversation with my client’s nervous system and help them be in an ongoing conversation with mine, the therapy we’re doing is either less powerful because we’re not using that or it’s going to come to a stop. Because again, there’ll be too many cues of danger, not enough cues of safety. So for me, translating Polyvagal Theory into clinical application just makes what is implicitly going on all the time in a therapy relationship in a therapy process, it brings it out of the implicit experience into explicit awareness where we can talk about it and engage with it and use it to benefit the work that’s happening.

TS: Deb Dana, who has translated Polyvagal Theory for therapists is now in the process, thank goodness, of educating the rest of us on what it means to look through the lens of Polyvagal Theory. She’s created with Sounds True, a new eight-and-a-half-hour audio learning series. It’s called Befriending Your Nervous System. And I’m just so grateful. I’m so grateful that you’re doing this work and that in your very deliberate and kind and benevolent way, you’re bringing these teachings forward in a way—I’m just going to say it, Deb—that I could really understand and follow. And I’m very grateful for that. Polyvagal Theory is not an easy thing, I think, for the average layperson to appreciate, and I think you have a real gift at translation, communication, and connecting. So thank you so much.

DD: Thank you. If you could see me right now, you could see the big smile I’m having because I have, I think, managed to introduce you to your nervous system and you have begun to befriend it.

TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at, and if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app. And also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together. I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. waking up the world.

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