As we know it, the holidays can bring about complex emotions and sensations for any and every human being out there. This season, one of the ways in which I’ve supported clients has been in aiding them to map out their autonomic nervous system through exploration of what activates each state. As well as taking notice to the underlying needs of these states. 

Beginning with the ventral vagal state, which reflects one feeling connected to themselves, others, and a felt sense of grounding, purpose, and mattering in life. The sympathetic state reflects tension felt between fight or flight, and the dorsal vagal state, which is known as the self-collapse, withdrawn, “I can’t do this” state. 

For many, the ventral vagal state is activated when there’s visible signs of unconditional acceptance, which then leads to joyful connections with self and others. You know, like the moments where you’re laughing so hard from your belly and being silly, that you forget anyone’s watching. Or the moment where you find yourself in nature, and your external surrounding feels as if it’s gently holding your internal experience. For others, it’s feeling relief  from duties, or experiencing calmness and warmth in their environment. It can also be brought on by structure, and felt appreciation.

The sympathetic state is often brought on by a sense of fear of losing connection when noticing that a loved one is upset,  when there’s fear of exclusion, when you’re interpreting criticism in a relationship that is important to you, or when experiencing impostor syndrome (questioning whether or not you are enough, whether or not your presence matters, and if you’re truly being seen and heard). The sympathetic state can also be brought on by concern of fairness and mutuality in a work or private setting. 

Then there’s the dorsal vagal state where individuals experience a sense of helplessness in vulnerable situations, and if continuing to close in on themselves, it can also create a sense of hopelessness that the situation will improve. This is where some individuals faced with having to make a big decision, withdraw themselves from actively making a decision to avoid disappointing self or others.

The power of distress tolerance comes from not only recognizing what generally activates each state and the autonomic response of your own nervous system,  but also what your underlying needs are when there.  

For instance, in the ventral vagal state, the underlying need is for safety and security and this is often gained through felt acceptance, meaning, and connection. In the sympathetic state, all are capable of healthily regulating, when there’s reassurance of presence mattering, being seen even when not agreed with, when there’s affirmation from a valued loved one or a valued experience that we are enough, and when there’s signs that a mistake hasn’t ruined “everything”, and  that’s there’s room for messiness. After all,  no one has ever been truly loved unconditionally for being “perfect”. No one is ever truly perfect.

 With the dorsal vagal state, individuals are usually looking for queues that they are going to be taken seriously, that emotional support is accessible, and that when there are rifts in relationships, there can be mutual accountability and repair from injuries. 

So as we near the end of the holiday season, I encourage you to reflect on what the season has been like for you, by taking time to draw your own body, and on the inside creating a ladder of your own nervous system. Give curiosity to memories or sensations that surface for  each state. Then consider what your needs were at the time of such experiences in memory.

Remember, that you are an expert in your own right about your nervous system. Only you can truly map it out, knowing what it needs in order to regulate and heal. Lastly, great resources for more information about regulating the autonomic nervous system are any books by Stephen Porges, PhD or Deb Dana, LCSW, whose work continue to insightfully contribute to my work my clients. 

Carmelle Ellison, LCSW

I help high-achieving adults, especially in the BIPOC community live authentically wholesome lives via telehealth therapy throughout California.

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