Befriending Our Autonomic Nervous System

The Three Pathways Regulating Your Emotions


Learning to recognize how these autonomic patterns show up in our emotional lives helps us increase our self-awareness. We may begin to be moved to offer connection rather than responding from our own protective patterns.

Consider Your Relationship With Your Nervous System


Take a moment to consider your personal profile. Do you tend to lean more towards protection or connection? Do you usually meet the world with openness and curiosity and a willingness to engage (a ventral vagal response)? Or do you feel you are more often on guard – and have an adaptive, protective safety response? Think of a low-key time when you didn't feel psychologically safe, or you were in a self-protective state. Do you have a default response? Maybe it is a bristling, irritable response (driven by the sympathetic nervous system), or maybe it is a movement to disconnection (a dorsal vagal system response)?


Bring curiosity and self-compassion to this exercise. You are building an awareness and attunement to the signals your body sends and your safety needs. Recognize none of these states are wrong, they just are. Approach your examination with curiosity, and then compassion, and then wonder for your body's amazing adaptive capability.


Consider The Other Person's Relationship With Their Nervous System


Once you have determined your own default response, try to extend this thinking to another person.


To warm up, think about a time when there was someone you desperately wanted to connect with, who you could tell just stopped listening to you. Can you imagine that maybe they had been overwhelmed; swept away by their dorsal vagal system into a state of numbing, disconnection, or withdrawal? Recall, this is a state that they are unaware of and unable to control, and may have nothing to do with you or your interactions. Or you might want to consider a time when your child does not listen to you. Try not to think of them as being defiant, but as not yet being able to regulate their automatic nervous system response.


Can you find a soft space of compassion for them when seeing their behaviors through this lens? Practice with characters in a book, on TV, or in a movie. Try to name whether their actions are from a state of ventral vagal (social connection), sympathetic (fight or flight / protective), or dorsal vagal (withdrawal / protective) arousal.


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