So today we’re going to learn about our autonomic nervous system; more specifically the 6 nervous system states.
Then I’ll offer some suggestions to some regulating resources that will support you in each state.
If you’re believing God for a healing breakthrough, then I believe it’s essential to understand the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and the onset of sickness. (I will discuss this in a future post).
But first, we need to know what the autonomic nervous system is.
God gave us a beautiful autonomic nervous system to help us navigate our way through daily life.
It is God’s design for each of us to have a regulated nervous system; that is a nervous system that operates in a healthy optimal way.
A nervous system that does what it’s supposed to do in the moment, and no more.
Unfortunately due to trauma, lack of attunement in childhood and accumulation of chronic stress, the autonomic nervous system becomes dysregulated.
This can cause sickness in our bodies because our ANS runs through every cell, organ and function of the body.
To understand what this means, we really need to understand the different states of the nervous system so we can recognise what our nervous system is doing each time we choose to check in with it.
So let’s dive in.
WHAT IS THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM?
According to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, our autonomic nervous system has a hierarchy of 3 states which respond to our daily experiences.
We never choose which state we’re in, our nervous system acts or responds automatically. It gives us what you need in the moment.
You’ve probably heard that 90% of behaviour is unconcsious. Another way of saying this, is that our autonomic nervous system is always running the show.
THE VENTRAL VAGAL STATE
God designed us to have a biological need for connection. Our first state is the Social Connection state aka Ventral Vagal state.
Properties: When you are in this state you’re calm, able to connect with oneself, others and the world. Present, rational, curious, content, at peace, willing to engage, able to learn and focus, embodied, attuned, hopeful, grateful…
Common thoughts “I am OK and well able” “Life is good” ” I have enough time”
Our physical bodies: Relaxed, calm.
Ideally we’re meant to be in this state the majority of the time. This is where we receive healing.
Jesus was usually in this state. We never see Him rushing around. He had time for people, feeling compassion and healing them.
We read of the importance of resting in God’s presence or peace in the storm; this isn’t just refering the Holy Spirit, but also to our Ventral state.
It’s by no mistake that many of Jesus’ healings were in the Sabbath, the day of rest. It’s a place of trust and surrender. You and I are seated with Christ in the Heavenly realms
THE SYMPATHETIC STATE
Aka Fight/Flight. God wants us to survive in danger so it’s not wrong to be in this state. It’s a state of mobilisation. If we’re being chased by a tiger we need this state to automatically give us the adrenaline to flee for our lives.
Or perhaps you get angry at your child for running into the middle of the road. The child now knows to never do this again. This is a healthy use of anger that serves Godly purpose.
Of course, you and I get frustrated over all sorts of things that aren’t so Godly.
King Saul was so jealous of David, he pursued David with intent of killing him. He seemed to live in his sympathetic state.
Mobilisation, feeling out of sync with others, fear, hypervigilance, anger, aggression, frustration, volatile, fast heart rate, driven, urgency, critical, anxious….
Common thoughts: ‘I must be better than everyone else” “I must prove my worth”
“It’s not fair” ” I don’t have enough time”
“How dare they!”
Impact of physical body: Increased heart rate, sweating, fidgeting, tightness, tunnel vision
In the story of Mary and Martha, we see Martha in her sympathetic state, racing around the kitchen to prepare food for her guest Jesus, then getting irritated at others. Mary was in her ventral state, sitting at the feet of Jesus. She was calm and connected.
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
The goal is survival. This is not the state of healing.
Take a read of HOW TO DEAL WITH ANGER BIBLICALLY (5 STEPS)
THE DORSAL STATE
This is the state of immobilisation, or shutdown where we conserve our energy. Have you seen those YouTube clips of the gazelle or deer being chased? The moment it’s captured, it collapses into shutdown and feigns death, thus easing the pain of being eaten.
Withdrawn, shy, wanting to be invisible or alone, shrinking back, numb, no motivation, depressed, disconnected. shame, hopelessness, zoning out…
Common thoughts: “ I’m not good enough’ “It’s no good, I’m giving up” “Everyone else is better than me” “I can’t be bothered”.
Impact of physical body: No energy, numbness, drifting off, cotton wool brain, feeling cold,
The goal is survival. This is not a state of healing.
I wonder whether Naomi fell into her dorsal state. She comes across very depressed and hopeless, with a giving up mentality.
“Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty. Why call me Naomi? The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.”
It is worth noting here, that Naomi had suffered tremendous loss and was desperately grieving. So please don’t think that it’s wrong to be in this place. It’s completely natural and the way God made us.
But unfortunately, because of trauma, too long here causes dysregulation in our systems.
THE THREE BLENDED STATES
THE STATE OF PLAY
A mix of Ventral with Sympathetic.
Let’s say you were playing a game or tennis, you would need energy and a sense of competitivity (Sympathetic) But you would also need connection and calmness. (Ventral)
Properties: Energy but not in overwhelm, anchored in Ventral.
This is a healthy state to be in, it’s not a survival state. There isn’t much written in the Bible about play as such, but there are various references to children playing such as in Zechariah 8:5, describing the restored Jerusalem. Play is regarded as a good thing here.
You and I have an ‘inner free child’. The ability to have fun, laugh and be spontaneous. The part of us that is adventurous and excitable.
We also read of ‘dancing’ in Scripture. “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…” Ecc 3:4 and in the Psalms, David often worships with music and dance.
Let them praise his name with dancing and make music to him with timbrel and harp.
This too is a state of play where the Ventral part of the nervous system meets Sympathetic is a healthy God given way.
THE STATE OF STILLNESS
A mix of Ventral with Dorsal.
Let’s say you go to a spa for a massage. You need to feel and be present with the therapist’s touch (Ventral) and also be immobilzed without shutting down (Dorsal)
Properties: Serene and inactive but still present and connected.
This also is a healing state, not a survival one. We are more likely to hear God’s voice in this place. “Be still, and know that I am God” Ps 46:10.
We are encouraged to “search our hearts and be silent” in Ps 4:4 and to “be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” in Ps 37:37
It is in the state of stillness we develop intimacy with the Lord and the ability to attune to Him.
After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.
1 Kings 19:12
Exodus 14:14 tells us that “the Lord will fight for us, we need only be still”
THE STATE OF FREEZE
A mix of sympathetic and dorsal energy.
Think of a rabbit caught in headlights. The goal is survival. There is no healing here.
Properties: Stuckness. There’s lots of energy on the inside (Sympathetic), yet an inability to move (Dorsal). Wanting to run away (S) but you can’t (D). Feeling the need to speak up (S), but you’re unable to (D). Having racing thoughts (S), but a still body. (D)
I wonder if the lame man at the pool of Bethesda in John 5 was in Freeze. He had thoughts of blame and unfairness towards others, yet hopeless and depressed.
All of these 6 states are God given. It isn’t wrong to be in any of them.
Unfortunately, the problem arises when we spend too much time in any of the survival states. When this happens, we say the nervous system is dysregulated.
I will write about how this happens soon!
Oftentimes we don’t recognise when we’re dysregulated. It’s so easy to live life in what we call ‘functional freeze’. This is where we are living life, going to work, raising children, and so on, and just not recognising that the system is in survival.
Just think of a swan, seemingly gliding on the serene water, but underneath it’s legs going at 100mph!
So if we find ourselves in a survival state, it’s good to have a box of regulating tools to help us return back to Ventral.
HOW TO RETURN TO VENTRAL
- I check in with my NS throughout the day and ask myself which of the NS states am I in?
You will always be in one of the above states. Getting into the habbit of checking in with myrself on a regular basis, helps me to understand and recognise what my nervous system is doing.
- I ask myself ‘How did I get here?’ (Now in my experience, this isn’t as easy as it appears. So I’m going to dedicate a future post to recognising our triggers. )
- If I’m in survival mode. “Thank you amazing nervous system for looking out for me”.
- Then I consider, what I can do to move closer to ventral? Or If I’m already in ventral, what can I do to stay here?
Let me give you some examples but please remember, I am not your personal counsellor. You may need to work with your own therapist as some of the below ideas may be unsuitable for your nervous system.
RESOURCES TO HELP ME IN FIGHT/FLIGHT
The idea here is to transmute the energy in your system.
Things I do: Star-jumps, gentle skipping on the spot. Gentle exercise or dancing if possible, housework.
To follow all this movement, I soothe my system with a self-care activity:
Sitting in nature, orienting, humming, listening to sounds of waves, or forest sounds, a self-compassion exercise, reading and meditating on Scriptures, basking in God’s presence….
RESOURCES TO HELP WHEN I’M IN DORSAL OR FREEZE
The idea here is to introduce slow movement into my system.
Things to try: watching waves, rain, the wind. Smelling potent smells like peppermint, Feeling textured objects, listening to slow calm music or listening to my breath. Watching a lava lamp, slowly stretching or butterfly tapping are some subtle ways that mobilise me back to ventral
Now, a few things to remember. If someone has been living in survival their whole life, then it’s not realistic, and perhaps a bit glib to suggest that all they need to do is a few stretches and they’re back in Ventral.
Or during a massive trigger, again, a few star-jumps won’t bring me back to the present moment completely, but they usually help me be more present, even if it’s by 1%.
I try to do this regularly and often notice shifts.
Can you imagine how your life would change if you regularly check in with your Nervous system? If you were to recognise when you were in a survival state and put regulating resources in place to help you back home to Ventral?
I wonder if you’d be more understanding towards yourself (and others?)
Have you heard of any of these Nervous system states before? How has reading this post changed your view of the importance of our God given physiology as regards healing?