As you probably know I’m always up for learning. Curiosity is, after all, my number one character strength. If you don’t know your character strengths go to https://www.viacharacter.org/
It’s free. And, to be honest, who doesn’t love knowing more about themself. They also have lots of suggestions on how to use your character strengths to improve the quality of your life.
Anyway, I digress.
My latest learning has been about Polyvagal Theory and Safety. It has made so many things make sense to me.
I won’t get too technical about it – just share the things I think might be useful to you.
First, it suggests that the reactions of our nervous system are involuntary. That means we don’t necessarily have control over them.
Let me give you an example. You’re excited to be joining a new sporting group. After all, they’re people who share a similar interest. But when you get there you feel anxious and tongue tied. You can’t understand why but you’re definitely nervous about being there.
Which brings me to my next point from Polyvagal Theory. We have what is termed a ‘social engagement system’. We look for ways to engage with others that promote safety and connection. By reading the facial expressions and body language of others we can tell if they’re friend or foe. This is using the social engagement system.
So imagine you’ve turned up to your new sporting group. There’s someone (that you may not have consciously noticed) that is giving you all the bad looks.
You might have been smiling at all the friendly faces and thinking “this is going to be great – so many potential new friends” but your nervous system has responded to the ‘dangerous’ person who has decided you’re not welcome. Then all of a sudden you’re feeling like a fish out of water.
How many times have you lost confidence in a situation you know you can generally handle? Maybe it was because there was someone who looked cranky or intimidating.
Or if you’ve had a critical or abusive person in your early life, how often do you go into a social situation feeling like bad things are going to happen, even if there’s no conscious reason for it?
Here’s where Polyvagal Theory is lovely. You get to be reminded at these times that your reaction is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s your body doing exactly what it’s supposed to do – protect you from danger by being on alert.
The even better news is that you can use your conscious mind to help you find pathways to safety – even when you’re under the influence of these involuntary reactions.
- reassure yourself,
- seek out someone who you feel comfortable with,
- retreat to somewhere safe like a bathroom and take some long, slow breaths
- remind yourself that your body is giving you good information (which is often enough to feel a sense of safety again).
So next time you’re feeling anxious or nervous somewhere, say “Thank you nervous system. You’re doing a great job”.