We’ve spent the last 2 posts covering times when your autonomic nervous system (ANS) activates 2 parts at the same time to help you handle situations that are emotionally complex.
Our 1st example was Play and how our ventral vagus collaborates with our sympathetic nervous system to help you enjoy the high energies and emotional flexibility usually needed to play without becoming overstimulated or overwhelmed.
The next examples were Freeze and Fawn. Freezing happens when our dorsal vagus and sympathetic nervous system work together in situations where your ANS needs to buy some time to figure out what to do to get to safety, and/or when jumping right into fight or flight isn’t an option. Fawn is another time when our dorsal vagus and sympathetic nervous system work together, but this time to help us survive situations of complex abuse and neglect by pleasing/appeasing the people or systems abusing and neglecting us.
In this post, I’m going to give you 2 last examples of what it can look like when 2 parts of your ANS (your dorsal vagus and ventral vagus aka your entire vagus nerve) work together to basically vibe out – Stillness and Awe.
What is Stillness?
Feeling safe and chill in silence without having to constantly stay moving is more complicated than many people realize. So complicated, that in order for us to truly rest and settle down, we need the entire vagus nerve, the dorsal vagus and the ventral vagus, to step in. It might surprise you at this point to learn the dorsal vagus is not just for shutting down in the face of overwhelming danger. This is a great example of how the dorsal vagus works outside of crisis situations. Our dorsal vagus is also used to help us engage in behaviors that need us to be physically still. And the ventral vagus’s vagal brake engages so enough sympathetic nervous system energy is kept out for you to be still in peace without the urge to run away, etc. Plus, the ventral vagus’s social engagement center also helps you stay present enough to be still without going into the other direction and dissociating.
Examples of activities that require stillness:
- Sitting in peaceful silence alone or with someone else
- Physically intimate moments
- Sleeping next to someone.
Stillness and Trauma
For some people, all the above sounds nice and pretty easy to do.
For others, that can sound impossible or even scary. For these folks, their ANS’s neuroception (the nervous system’s ability to sense what’s going on in the outside world without your conscious awareness) may be interpreting stillness or quiet as a sign of danger. Someone’s ANS could activate a fight/flight or even a shutdown survival response just from being alone with their own thoughts, for example.
This could be a sign of damage to vagal brake from repeated complex trauma (example: child abuse/neglect or systemic oppressions). And this sense of danger can get more intense if there’s someone else there. This explains why people can become really anxious or emotionally/physically shut down from activities like holding hands, hugging, being in sexual situations, sleeping in the same bed as someone else, etc.
Learning to Be Still with Somatic Work
Like I said in the post about playing, your past trauma alone doesn’t doom you to a life of never knowing rest. You can start to incorporate (or steal, however you want to see it) intentional moments of stillness in your day, week, etc.
Some people with a history or a current reality of surviving complex trauma may need intentional, somatic support from another person’s nervous system to start to feel safe enough to experience stillness without going into fight/flight, emotionally shutting down, and/or fully dissociating. In those situations, their ANS needs the nervous system of a trusted person to intentionally send enough cues of safety, so it can truly know that it’s safe to rest. It’s one thing to know in your mind that you’re off the clock, but does your nervous system and your body truly know that?
Somatic work becomes a way to almost micro-dose stillness, similarly to intentional play. And a way to gently show your body that stillness doesn’t always mean danger. Learning to be still and to rest without anxiety or fear via somatic work changes the brain over time – you’re building new neural connections and changing the pattern of how your ANS responds to silence and not grinding all the time. If this is really, really hard, you could need the support of a therapist specialized in somatic trauma work or another somatic trauma specialist.
If you’re thinking, “This sounds like a lot. I don’t need to be still. I need money,” I hear you, however, you are not living your best life or making the best choices that you could be making without proper rest. An unrested mind is a mind that is missing out on opportunities and a mind that is not able to see all of the options out in front of it. Resting and being able to be still with a clear mind makes possible and even speeds up both mental and physical healing. I’ll get into this a bit more later, but the brain and body heals itself during rest, which allows us to be more creative and gives us more capacity and energy for critical thinking. Anyone or anything telling you sleep is not important wants you at a serious disadvantage.
What is Awe?
When was the last time you saw something that made you stop in your tracks for a moment and go, “Wow”?
Awe is another one of those complex emotions that needs your entire vagus nerve, both the ventral vagus and dorsal vagus. That feeling where it feels like time has stopped is your dorsal vagus at work, and the feeling of being so so present and totally *in* the moment is your ventral vagus.
Things like going out in nature, looking at art, watching a dance performance, listening to music, going to concerts, watching nature videos/documentaries, engaging in spiritual practices, sharing large communal experiences, etc. create moments of awe. Awe makes us pause everything we were doing while allowing us to be so present and engaged in the moment, either alone or with other people.
Why is Awe Important?
These moments of awe that remind us that the world is bigger than us is essential for our mental and physical health. Awe takes us out of our regular routines and introduces us to new information, ideas, and experiences. It makes us curious about the world around us and challenges old ways of thinking with the ability to completely change people’s perspectives on life and other people.
Awe also builds community, thanks to the ventral vagus. It makes us want to connect with others, even if it’s just to share the thing we just experienced. How many times have we seen a video that made us want to excitedly share that awesome experience with another person? Who hasn’t been/seen a child so fascinated by the stars or fireflies and excitedly shouting, “Wow! Look!” In that way, awe makes us feel less isolated and encourages people to connect with each other.
When was the last time that you, as an adult, fully enjoyed a full moon, looked at nature videos that captivated you, heard music that took your breath away, etc.? You can intentionally search for moments of awe in real time in big moments and smaller, everyday moments, and you can even go back to past moments of awe like leftovers [ventral vagus] to relive and re-feel past moments of awe in your body. I’ll talk more about this when I cover intentional savoring and other ways to actively regulate your own nervous system in the near future.
Slowing down and being open to the present moment is necessary to experiencing awe and unfortunately, the grind of capitalism prevents many of us from slowing down to experience the moments of awe our nervous systems and bodies need for our health. It is essential for us to help ourselves and each other get enough time savoring regular moments of awe (especially in COVID-conscious ways, so everyone can experience awe safely). We all need many options to receive these moments of awe that expand our consciousness and perspectives, so we all can benefit from the kind of society that would create.
Relatedly, Real Quick – (Moral) Elevation
I can’t help, but give you 1 more example of when 2 parts of your ANS collaborate because it just fits here near awe. Elevation (aka moral elevation) is when both the sympathetic nervous system and ventral vagus work together after someone sees an act of kindness/altruism in person/on video or when someone hears/reads stories about genuine acts of kindness, courage, or compassion. Seeing, hearing, or reading about someone genuinely doing something good for someone else is another great way to exercise that vagal brake.
Those warm feelings that make you feel inspired to connect with others in a similar way is connected to the ventral vagus’s social engagement center, and that motivation you feel to be a better person to yourself and others is that sympathetic nervous system energy.
Elevation gives you hope in humanity and is also very necessary for your mental and physical health. It’s scary to think of any society that would discourage altruism and elevation while it encourages individualism and a “No one owes anybody anything” attitude. That’s a society that leads to a people who are constantly in fight/flight and/or constantly shutting down, which we know isn’t healthy.
Thanks for reading! The next part is going to cover how the body naturally moves from 1 autonomic nervous system state to another, *and* how we can actively influence it and move through our nervous systems with intention.