Back to the Basics

There's a lot of things going on in the world right now to remind us of how we may be different from others. There's a lot happening that could cause stress, anxiety and difficult emotions. I'm not big on sharing my personal thoughts on what is in the news; I simply don't identify as an activist in that way. The way that I choose to be an activist is by focusing on the ways that we are similar, and teaching resources to work with stress, anxiety and difficult emotions.

As for our similarities, we all are humans. Which means we all have bodies and a brain and a nervous system. Which means we're all wired the same way. And that wiring, at least in part, influences our behavior. To the extent we can understand how that wiring influences our thoughts, feelings and actions, the more likely we are to bring our best selves to this difficult/beautiful world.

With that, I want to share with you something called the Basic Exercise. It was created by a craniosacral therapist named Stanley Rosenberg, and based off the work of Steven Porges' Polyvagal Theory. It sounds heady, I know, but bear with me for a simplified explanation because it's cool--and potentially applicable to you if you experience anxiety or a sense of being numbed out when you get stressed.

The gist behind Polyvagal Theory is that our binary understanding of the autonomic nervous system is limited--that there is more going on in our human experience than either just stress (fight/flight/freeze) or relaxation (rest and digest). And that whole other state is called social engagement. It's what's called for in your every day activities in which you need to be capable of communicating, managing your emotions, meeting deadlines, being a compassionate parent, etc. Simply put, social engagement is about how we engage effectively with other humans at work, at home and in the world.

Polyvagal Theory, then, is about how the vagus nerve is part of stimulating this social engagement system within us. Your vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve. It starts at the base of your skull and travels throughout your body (vagus comes from the same Latin root as vagabond). Though it’s one big nerve, it has two distinct parts: dorsal and ventral. If the dorsal vagus is activated, it elicits a shut down/depressed/numbed out response. If the spinal nerves (called the sympathetic chain and not part of the vagus nerve) are activated, you get a fight/flight response in your system. But if the ventral vagus is activated, you get increased social engagement. That means that you are alert, but not needing to fight or flee. And you are at ease, but not in the zoned out kind of way. 

This happens because when the ventral vagus is activated your brain essentially is getting the message you are safe. And when you feel safe--one of the essential things all humans need to thrive--you get to behave as a better human. 

One way to activate the ventral vagus is through what Rosenberg calls The Basic Exercise. It's a practice that involves simple movements of your eyes. Here's a video of me taking you through the basic exercise.

I've been using this myself and sharing with clients over the last few months, and I can report that it truly helps with nervous system regulation. That is to say, it helps with slowing you down when you're in high rev, or bringing yourself back online when you're feeling cut off from yourself. That is to say, it helps with what every one of us needs on a fairly regular basis because of how demanding it is to be a human.

Jay Fields