My Old Friend, the Dorsal Vagal Response
I have plans to include a book review/suggestion each month, and I anticipated that being the focus for this week’s blog. Then, I had an experience this morning that changed the plans…
While I was doing a little professional development, I was reading up on the dorsal vagal response, and when I was done, I felt groggy. The room around me was blurry. I remembered little of what I had just read – all classic signs that my dorsal vagal system had kicked into gear!
The dorsal vagal response is the most primitive part of the our autonomic nervous system. It is responsible for regulating our digestion as well as conserving energy and supporting the body in survival through collapse or “playing dead”. It is a critical function of the autonomic nervous system, and for some individuals, it serves as a default rather than a response reserved to survive threat. When in a dorsal vagal state, our non-essential functions shut down, our blood settles in the center of the body to prevent blood loss, and endogenous opioids flood the system to prevent pain. We lose our abilities for social engagement as well as fight and flight. Dissociation is a common sign of dorsal vagal response.
For some folx, this pattern is so common that being fully present can feel foreign. This is a pattern I can relate to. There are even ways we can access dorsal vagal responses that appear to promote our wellbeing. For example, yoga, meditation, and prayer can shift us into a dorsal vagal response if we’re not intentional with our practices. I’ve worked with folx who believed the intent of the practice was to access the dorsal vagal response. Learning to experience charge and activation as positive and healthy are important for us to learn, and this must be done slowly so as not to further overwhelm the system, further entrenching the dorsal vagal response.
Signs of a dorsal vagal response include everything I experienced – grogginess, blurred vision, memory lapse – as well as feeling numb, digestive challenges, a lack of desire to engage with others, depression, lack of energy. So what can we do if we find ourselves in this state more often than not? First, be gentle. This state is important to our survival. Practice self-compassion. It’s easy to judge ourselves when this happens, and remember it’s part of our autonomic nervous system. It just kicks in sometimes (I was just reading about the concept!)! Notice we have a body and that it’s OK! It’s important to take a moment to recognize that our bodies are ok. Whatever the mind and nervous system perceived as threat didn’t actually harm us. Give yourself time to orient to your surroundings. Look around and notice where you are. Move slowly. Going for a run maybe isn’t the best option. It could be as simple as putting your feet on the ground wherever you’re sitting and noticing the ground beneath you. Let your toes dig into the carpet or your socks or whatever else is underneath them. Stretch if that’s accessible to you. Stand up. Go for a walk.
What did I do? After I oriented myself, I went for a little walk through this beautiful office building I get to work on. I went outside to rest my feet in the wooded area behind the building. I engaged with a colleague. All things to bring me back into connection with my body and surroundings.