Years ago I saw a movie that left a subtle yet lasting impact on me. You know the films I’m talking about? Where you can’t really remember the name of it, but one, maybe two key scenes easily come to mind during some discussion. Well after the image of Will Smith sitting on the floor of a public restroom cradling his son’s sleeping head in his lap appeared in my mind for the umpteenth time, I found myself searching for that movie’s name on my phone.
The Pursuit of Happyness is a movie based on the life of Chris Gardner, a man who struggled with homelessness while raising his son as a single parent. It is a powerful and at times painful journey to watch, but the message is clear. Your focus can determine your reality. We’ve all heard aphorisms like these and about the power of positive thinking which can seem trite thanks to the complexities in our daily lives. But one adage which seems to hold relevance is that things are not always as they appear to be, including catchy little sayings!
More now than ever, we need to reset our expectations about what we can and cannot control during these unprecedented times. Lakshmi Rao Sankar in Deconstructing Regulation in the times of COVID lays out how those in the Spellerverse have been affected by COVID-19 and rallies us all into continuing to find thoughtful ways to cope and grow. Thankfully each and every one of us comes already equipped with an autonomic nervous system ready to help us answer the call!
The Autonomic Ladder
Deb Dana, an LCSW working with trauma, collaborated with Dr. Porges and helped translate his Polyvagal Theory into a more practical everyday understanding. Dr. Porges identified a hierarchy of autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses that developed as a result of human evolutionary development.1 The autonomic ladder is a representation of these neural defensive processes that automatically come online in an attempt to protect us.
- Starting at the top of the ladder is the ventral vagal pathway otherwise known as our social engagement system considered to be the newest neural system in terms of evolutionary development. According to Dana, in the ventral vagal state we are calm, breathing evenly, and able to tune into conversations and tune out distracting noises as we connect to the world and those around us. When no threats are detected, our social engagement system is fully available.It is a place of hopefulness and resource, although it is not without problems. But in this state, we have the ability to acknowledge distress and explore options, to reach out for support, and develop reasonable responses.2 Think about how much we rely on our ability to communicate here!
- It’s our autonomic nervous system’s job to help keep us safe which it does through a process called neuroception. When something triggers a neuroception of danger, the sympathetic branch of the ANS activates and down the ladder, we move into action or escape. Fight or flight lives here. Our heart rate speeds up, and our breathing becomes short and shallow. (Ever notice holding your breath when you’re feeling tense?) But yet we’re still feeling hopeful that our efforts will give us enough space to take a breath and climb back up the ladder to the place of safety and connection. This step down on the autonomic ladder can also be considered a step backward on the evolutionary timeline of neural development. And as fear continues to creep in, the message our nervous system receives is that: “No one can be trusted. The world is dangerous, and I need to protect myself.”3
- When we’re hopeless and safety feels unreachable, we fall all the way down to the very bottom rungs of the ladder into our oldest, most primitive neural pathway- the dorsal vagal pathway. When taking action doesn’t work, this is the path of last resort. The “primitive vagus takes us into neural shutdown, collapse, and dissociation.”According to Deb Dana, the messages that come to mind are “I am lost, no one will ever find me. I am small, making no sound, and barely breathing.” From the perspective of the evolutionary timeline, our mind and body has moved us into a type of conservation mode.4
- But even here, in the deepest parts of our neural defenses, our autonomic nervous system has developed an adaptive flexibility to not only move us downward into our defensive mode, but back upwards as well! This shift between defensive systems and social engagement depends on the processing of sensory information that the nervous system receives from both the environment and even our “viscera” or internal organs- There’s a reason for the saying, I have a “gut feeling.”5
And so even at the bottom rung of the ladder, if we can begin to experience safety, our defense systems will automatically start to shut down so to speak. Our heart rate will begin to decrease, and we will start to experience a calming.6
Triggers and Glimmers
How can having a better understanding of our autonomic nervous system help us, especially during times when expectations cannot possibly be met or when something is completely out of our control? We are meant to fluctuate in our regulatory and emotional states. Deb Dana developed a concept to help us bring attention to the key moments of “regulation and defensive neural activation.”
Triggers and glimmers are the actual events that move us up and down the autonomic ladder. With practice, we can learn to bring our attention to what is happening inside our bodies, in the environment, and in our relationships that set autonomic state shifts in motion.
- Triggers can be brought about in any number of ways: through an interaction or because of disappointments. And don’t forget about fear and anxiety, such as worrying about the future. These are huge triggers! When we experience a trigger a negative thought or “story” tends to go along with it!
- GLIMMERS -The ventral vagal system (top of the ladder) guides our experience of glimmers. The neuroception of safety creates the possibility of relaxing into moments of connection. When we can connect to ourselves, others, and the environment, we are available and open to experiences, interactions, or resources that calm us and help us feel secure.7
So what do we do with our triggers and glimmers?
Personal Profile Map
Deb Dana called neuroception and the related autonomic nervous system states a “wordless experience” and invites us to “enter into autonomic awareness” by bringing our perception to what is happening inside of us. She created the “Personal Profile Map” to help us identify the events that coincide with each ANS state.
- Triggers are typically the most accessible & easiest for people to identify. That is because they tend to produce in us very noticeable thoughts and physiological reactions.8 By identifying triggers, we can begin to “reframe or rewrite” the internal dialogue that typically goes along with a trigger. It may not seem like we are doing much when we identify our triggers, but it is a very clear way to begin to move ourselves out of what Deb Dana calls, the “self-critical story” of “what has happened to me” and into a curiosity about “how I respond.” When a trigger is identified, we want to bring our attention to how our body responds, the physical reactions and behaviors.
- Glimmers are oftentimes the most challenging part of this exercise for people to recognize because the autonomic responses felt during a glimmering moment are nuanced and subtle. This is because the cues of safety that then allow us to perceive glimmers are often sensed in “micro-moments” of ventral vagal activation.9 Conscious attention is needed in these moments to catch them and may be experienced as feeling peaceful, having a general feeling of regulation, and a sense of “I’m handling things.” Again, we want to bring our attention to how our body responds and note the physical reactions and behaviors that accompany it.
- Glimmers can help calm a nervous system that is in survival mode and bring a return of autonomic regulation. By regularly bringing attention to these small moments, we can begin to create a build up or “critical mass” that moves our system towards a tipping point. Multiple micro-moments may become significant enough to create an autonomic shift.10
- And it must be said here, that bringing attention to glimmers is not negating the suffering we experience with triggers. A strengths-based perspective reminds us that well-being is NOT simply the absence of problems, it is also about the presence of strengths.
In a way, we are all in a pursuit of happiness and like Chris Gardner, we recognize that well-being goes beyond the lack of challenges. We must arm ourselves with a strength’s based perspective as our guide because we know that strength and resilience goes well beyond witty aphorisms.When we gain awareness of our glimmers and triggers, we empower andregulate ourselves. We give off cues of safety to those around us so thattheir autonomic nervous system can begin to reap the benefits. This is co-regulation and it starts within us so that we can then be ready to support those who need us the most.
So get to know your own nervous system, befriend it! Bring your attention to its innate wisdom and encourage others to begin to trust that their own nervous system, regardless of the challenges, is working for them as well! When we create a sense of predictability within ourselves, we may no longer feel that we are simply at the mercy of the Fates or COVID for that matter! And just remember, that when life throws %$@#! at you, cover it in glimmer!
Debbie Spengler finds many of her Glimmers when she’s supporting spellers during an S2C session, when beating her family at the board game Clue, & during early morning walks with her dog Luna!
- Porges, S. W. (2007, February). The polyvagal perspective. Retrieved January 3, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1868418/
- Dana, Deb A.. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (p. 9). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
- Dana,The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, 10.
- Porges, S. (2017, October). The Neuropsychotherapist, 5(10), 13–23. Retrieved from https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/NPTV5I10.pdf
- Dana,The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, 67.
- Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, 69.
- Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, 67.
- Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, p. 67.