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Thriving Even In the Face of Chronic Survival Stress: Is It Possible?
Unpacking the Polyvagal Theory to understand how biology holds the key ingredient to thriving
**NOTE: This post is not specific to parents, although it pertains to today’s parents. It is about individual and collective healing through a neurobiological and transpersonal point of view. I have been working on this essay for awhile now. It attempts to unpack some of the deeper questions my clients, and myself, grapple with as it relates to mental and emotional health, and healing, through an embodied lens.**
Let’s face it, we are living amidst exponentially chaotic times. My parents' generation, one generation back, didn’t experience as much change as my children or I’s generation are experiencing. Since the ‘80s we have seen rapid advancement in technology by the mid ‘90s the internet was born and now, social media and smartphones have changed the way we interact with the world around us and each other. On top of this, we have experienced ever changing environmental degradation, medical technological advancements, electric cars, digital music, biohacking technology, extreme wealth and poverty, epidemics and most recently the Covid pandemic that has been, hands down, one of the greatest collective traumas regardless of where you stood on the matter. As a result, massive inflation and rising interest rates is creating financial insecurity for many. A half-century may seem like a long time, but in the grand scheme of an evolutionary standpoint, it is a blip in time.
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It is no wonder, for the average human, that we are experiencing chronic stress. Those two words—chronic stress—barely scrape the surface of describing the impacts of these traumas on humans and the biosphere. Chronic stress is a buzzword these days: No big deal, just experiencing some chronic stress over here. We have normalized chronic stress as part of the human experience. What we actually mean when we say chronic stress is this–I am trapped in survival stress, most of which is traumatic survival stress, and I am expected to just adapt and keep on, keeping on.
Barely is there a moment to rest and restore, before another massive blow to your personal life and/or the collective comes into view. For many it might feel like one thing after another, with little repose in between, and this has been normalized as the way things are here on earth, motivated by the overarching narratives progress at all cost and expansion and growth for profit and gain. As the now shunned (thanks to cancel culture) Dr. Seuss once said in The Lorax: “I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got…Business is business! And business must grow regardless of crummies in tummies, you know…I went right on biggering, selling more Thneeds. And I biggered my money, which everyone needs…Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” So yes, let’s just call this one big shitstorm that you, me, and we are being asked to navigate. All the while we must keep our heads above water, keep a roof over our heads, food on our tables, clean clothing and comfy beds to sleep in, and send our wee ones off to school while we participate in being good citizens by going to our jobs everyday. We come home, prepare food (or buy fast food), tend to the house (if we have one), the family, veg out in front of Netflix, scroll our phones, buy something on Amazon, create some kind of routine and go to bed, and do it all over again. And the catch is, we are somehow supposed to do this with happiness in our hearts and smiles on our faces, and play the game of everything is wonderful… until it is not.
We are told that if we just eat better, reduce chemical consumption, drink less alcohol, go to bed earlier, track our REM cycles, go to the gym, do yoga, get our hormones checked, take bioavailable vitamins, read inspirational books, spend time in nature, schedule in meditation, have family meal times, go to an ayahuasca retreat, take a holiday etc., that somehow, we can manage all the stress and continue to be happy and content within the current shitstorm.
So when we are not handling the stress well, when things pile up and the shitstorm takes us under and shipwrecks the boat, we seem to think it is because we didn’t meditate enough or eat well enough or go to enough wellness or psychedelic retreats or spend enough time at the gym or work on my mental health and therefore maybe, there is something wrong with me that I can’t handle the shitshow better. And, next thing you know, you are comparing yourself on social media with the friend who seems to have it all together reminding you that you don’t have it together, causing you to spiral into the dark inner recesses of your mind.
Handling this shitshow with grace and meaning has been a serious quest of mine for most of my life (I won’t get into that here). I know this introduction might sound pessimistic and depressing, yet hopefully, realistic; however, the other side of this coin is enlivening and optimistic. In my quest to soulfully know that there is a way through, and up and out, of a personal and collective shitstorm, I have opened many books and peered deep into my consciousness, in search for Truth–if anything, an anchor that can hold steady during the storm. I can’t guarantee a Pollyanna ending with a magic drug that will wash it all away-even with the resurgence of psychedelics as the medicine of hope. If you are looking for the happy ending, you are in the wrong place. That is not my style. I will, however, provide you with some soul food and if you, me, and we can digest it, we might create something beautiful out of this shitstorm.
Biology is an intelligent being, full stop. There is much to learn through Nature and biology. With a background as a trauma therapist, birth worker and prior to that, a university athlete studying sport psychology and kinesiology, I hold an affinity for the miracle of the human life form. It is no surprise that my quest to understand mental and emotional health, and healing from trauma, has been informed by neurobiology. One of the more recent pioneers in this area is Stephen Porges and his Polyvagal Theory. The more I delve into Porges’ and Deb Dana’s Polyvagal material, and practice embodying the teachings from the inside out, I can’t help but ask the question: Can we thrive even under chronic and/or traumatic stress? Without expecting the outside to change?
In a very simplified recap, the theory suggests that first we must acknowledge the Polyvagal pathway as a dynamic living personal surveillance system that is responsible for the survival of the organism (human) through three different pathways: dorsal vagal (immobilization and collapse), sympathetic (fight and flight), and ventral vagal (social engagement, calm connected). Secondly, we must practice noticing and naming these states, and learn how to shift in and out of them with conscious awareness, all with the overarching goal of befriending the nervous system (NS), as it is, with compassion. The theory, in essence, is an attempt to help a human system feel safe enough to live an embodied life. Too often, when the nervous system is acting up in a state of alarm or presenting with symptoms other than calm, peaceful, or anchored, many resist or reject the embodied experience i.e., what they are feeling or sensing. Therefore, the notion of befriending is the act of loving acceptance to embrace the nervous system in all of its dynamic states (the good, the bad, the ugly).
The therapeutic practice points towards shifting out of the survival stress state of either dorsal or sympathetic, with a call to work towards remaining anchored more often in the ventral vagal state, even during a shitstorm. In action this can look like becoming aware of the state, naming it, noticing the impact of the state, ascertaining if it is warranted, and scanning for safety in either another calm and anchored nervous system or through recalling ventral moments from the past that elicit a calming, connected, peaceful response.
One of the Polyvagal exercises invites you to savor moments of safety and they are noted as glimmers. True, we can all use more glimmer moments, that is for sure, and even though the practice sounds inviting it is not always easily accomplished. So in principle, as a human organism with a dynamic nervous system that is designed to keep us safe, alive, and connected you would think that mastering the art of shifting states would be easy and accessible.
In theory this sounds doable, attainable, and even inspirational. However, our nervous system that is housed in our biological meatsuit, is a dynamic energy and information system; it is a walking and moving personal surveillance system, according to Polyvagal experts. Thus, it is sifting through billions of bits of information and responding to the cues of safety and danger, every nanosecond, below conscious awareness. Although the Polyvagal approach sounds attainable, it is in fact incredibly challenging and thus, often frustrating for clients.
As human beings, we are experiencing a living embodied relationship with our nervous systems that communicate with each of us through an embodied felt experience. Simply stated, embodiment refers to our felt and psychological relationship with our body system and the energetic exchange and flow between the inner and outer environment.
Typically, I often hear my clients say that they wish that their nervous systems would calm down, or not hijack them so much. They are grateful for the fact that it keeps them alive but annoyed and frustrated that it is so dysregulating at times. When I talk about befriending the NS, I am talking about befriending all the states—dorsal, sympathetic, and ventral—at the given moment when they are either alarmed or settled. But what happens if the NS is stuck in an alarmed state? Or a collapsed state? Or flip flopping between the two states without much repose? What happens for those of us who are trapped in survival stress, and whose outside experiences are too horrendous or stressful to ever imagine shifting toward a more calm and connected state of being? What happens if our external world is one of unpredictable stressors and those stressors are constantly ramping up?
The idea of befriending our nervous system might sound appealing, but typically, it is rejected. The statement perhaps sounds too simplistic and doesn’t take into context the complexity of the human experience, especially as it relates to trauma. What if we are surrounded by experiences in our external environment that chronically alarm our system into survival stress—small and large? I call this being hooked by life’s stressors. Small stressors, for example, constitute things like being stuck in traffic, momentary hunger, an argument with a co-worker, running late for an appointment, the weather, a performance mistake, worrying about saying the wrong thing, forgetting to show up for something, etc.
Larger stressors are circumstances such as worries about money, job insecurity, relationship conflicts, school exams or projects, presentations or public appearance, health complications, a dying family member, chronic disorganization, a loud inner critic, low self-esteem, day-to-day parenthood, and sudden life changes or transitions, to name a few.
There are also traumatic stressors such as accidents, the pandemic, loss of employment, abusive relationships, developmental abuse or neglect, poverty, lack of housing or food, sexual harm, psychological harm, migration due to war, loss of culture due to oppression and colonization, environmental catastrophe and devastation, and the tragic or shocking death of a loved one, to name a few.
This is a small list in comparison to the daily stressors that are chronically assaulting our nervous systems, including things like social media and the internet. We have entered a new era of advanced technology and information. Our biological systems are adapting to this new era of technocracy.
If all of this is true, I can’t help but ask the next question: How do we protect our body, heart, and mind system from the chronic influx of stressors—large, small, and traumatic—without imploding, exploding, popping out, or shutting down? In other words, how do we navigate life, full of all the ups and downs, with confidence knowing that we are designed to move fluidly between survival and thriving states of being? I would argue that as psycho-spiritual-biological Beings not only are we designed to shift out of an alarm state, but we possess an inherent blueprint to shift into a heart-coherent and thriving state.
In Polyvagal Therapy, Deb Dana speaks about moving up and down the hierarchical autonomic ladder of the nervous system; the value of savoring glimmers and safety; the purpose of neuroception; and co-regulation as a key ingredient to wellbeing. In response to unpacking Polyvagal Theory, and in combination with the teachings of Joe Dispenza, Dan Siegel, Bruce Lipton, Byron Katie, Stan Grof, Gabor Mate, and Zach Bush to name a few, I have been contemplating what happens when our external environment remains somewhat stagnant or is slow to change and the external stressors are rarely alleviated. Although, there may be small shifts, generally, life is a chronic yo-yo of experiences jumping from alarm, to calm, back to alarm, to collapse, back to calm, and on and on you go, all of which impact the health and wellbeing of the nervous system.
I know from lived experience that placing energy and hope outside of myself onto external circumstances, so that I can feel better, is exhausting and disappointing. Too often, humans are quick to focus energy and attention on external matters as the source of their distress: relationships, politics, people, environment, and money, etc. The logical mind deduces that if the external factors change, the internal experience will also change. Therefore, you can understand the reason behind this externalized focal point.
To complicate matters, as stressors pile up, the brain continues to look externally for the threat (or cause) of the stress or trauma. This is by-design as a default mode, to ensure the survival of the species. The brain searches externally for cues of danger, hence the concept that the brain has a negativity bias. The challenge we face is that many external threats are psychological. By no means am I suggesting that poverty or being the victim of abuse or oppression are lesser threats or are figments of one’s imagination—God no. These are real experiences with very real consequences. However, once the threat is no longer in sight, the biological human system is designed to return towards a calm and connected, socially engaged state of Being that fosters coherence. However, as many know all too well, returning to an optimal thriving state can feel like a distant dream—an impossible task amidst chronic survival stressors. Some may have never even experienced the ventral vagal state altogether.
Herein lies the paradox or problem that I have been grappling with to try to decode. The more information we gather about the intelligence of the human system, along with the intelligence of Nature, the more challenging these concepts of thriving or healing become. As someone who is allergic to spiritual bypassing or toxic positivity (as some call it), I have gone into the deep dark end of the baffling impact trauma has on an individual, a family, a collective, a culture and the world (you can read more about this journey in my book Midwifery For the Soul). Upon learning more about shifting states along our autonomic ladder, like me, you might recoil in defense or think to yourself, It can’t be that easy.
This is my critique of the nervous system and somatic theories and approaches to trauma recovery: That healing from trauma (individual and collective) requires something more than just learning how to shift out of survival stress. Granted, the behaviour of noticing and naming one’s state is indeed foundational to the kind of healing or transformation I am writing about. So, of course, we must never throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. Indeed, we also need these foundational skills and tools of awareness to evolve beyond our trauma responses. Yet, for many people, these tools—shifting states, mindfulness, breathing exercises, imagery, etc.—are not helping in a profound way. People remain trapped, hijacked by their systems' response to the wave after wave of external stressors of life. Maybe, some of us experience a momentary shift in states, but soon thereafter, we are met with another flood of adrenaline because the inner alarm bells go off again. Soon we are met with the familiar thinking and behaving that have been there all along. It can feel futile at times. Exhausting. Never-ending and maddening. And, the worst part is that many of us blame ourselves for not being better, regulating better, or for not having mastery over our biological systems. In other words, we chastise ourselves (silently, of course) for not being or behaving like a ‘monk outside of a monastery’, as Caroline Myss would often refer to.
We continue searching in our quest for a way out of this chronic state of fear and survival. Another gadget, another pill (now it’s the psychedelic pill), another method, another shaman, another retreat, another trip, another course, another book, another glass of wine, another piece of cake, another new thing—another, another, another. Welcome to hell, or as the Buddhists call it, the realm of the hungry ghosts. It is a never-ending trap. If you are anything like me, and have a pastime of meditating on the complexity of our situation, you might come to a similar conclusion: that for millennia humans have been suffering in an attempt to survive, though our current conditions seem extreme and perhaps more grave, akin to being inside of a pressure cooker for centuries and we are about to collectively blow the valve.
So, what are we to do to release some of this internalized pressure? Is there a way out of this wasteland, so to speak? Is it as simple as co-regulating, savoring glimmers and shifting states along the autonomic ladder? Again, I argue yes and no. To understand what I mean by this, you need to understand your nervous system pathways and all the terms. To begin that phase of preparation and enter into the era of what I am calling transformation and expansion, you can sign up to download a workbook HERE.
Why yes, you might ask?
Yes, shifting states is within your control and it requires a concentrated effort to remain connected and attuned to your embodied experience. Shifting states however, does not shift external circumstances; rather, it can ease the impact. It can offer you some relief or remind you that another state exists. The challenge is that survival states prevent our system from tuning in (shifting attention inwards and downwards) because when in survival stress the brain is designed to focus attention on external bits of information. Again, yes, it is important to learn the skill of anchoring into the ventral vagal state and shifting states is foundational to supporting the health and wellbeing of your system. However, it is not enough to radically transform suffering when we feel trapped.
This is a far bigger quest. As such, we must go beyond the biological system and engage the spiritual or soulful expanded states of consciousness, otherwise known as non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC).
One cannot change what is happening outside of oneself by focusing on matter itself—events, things, people, and external situations. As Joe Dispenza often says: ‘You cannot change matter by focusing on matter itself.’ This is why, generally speaking, social justice advocacy doesn't generate the change we seek. Our biological embodied experience is very much informed by the material world—what is happening around us and thus, how one responds to and makes sense of it all. In other words, if we only focus on the biological house and our external reality, specifically what is not working, we remain trapped in the survival state and therefore, continue to suffer. The cycle loops again in what I call life’s holding pattern. That said, I am not suggesting we ignore the biological messages the body signals our way. The key is to experience it all. However, we need to shift who or what is driving the metaphorical bus through life itself.
Generally speaking, we are driven by our biological instincts and programs, without much awareness. We can consider this akin to sleepwalking through life. Bringing attention to the state one is in, is a foundational step to fostering awareness of the body system and how it is experiencing life. However, if we are to activate the thriving state and tap into the heart energy of love and joy, we need to unhook from the survival system and actively plug into the heart system. And the catcher is: Regardless of the mess that surrounds us.
I hear it already: But Jennifer, we can’t do that when there is war, famine, crisis, catastrophe, fires, drought, abuse of all kinds, poverty, etc. This is an impossible privileged position and point to make. Trust me, I know this pushback place and I have indeed grappled with this very notion–not until all the traumas are halted can we enter the expanded heart space and experience joy. A part of me even believed that only those who are not tormented by life’s traumas, can access flourishing states of beings. The rest remain trapped in survival stress, and suffer.
Thus what I am about to propose may sound bold or impossible, hence why it requires a leap of faith. Let’s consider the true meaning of the word–a complete trust in something or someone without the need of proof (Dictionary.com). I say this because if we wait for the outer conditions to change so we feel safe enough to play and engage the thriving heart space, it will likely never happen. This, I believe, is what is meant by the notion of ‘stepping into the river of change’, expressed by Joe Dispenza. It is a necessary choice point if we want to evolve as a collective species, intertwined with all living beings and be born into A More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible as author Charles Eisenstein would call it.
What are you/we trusting in if not someone or something like a God, outside of ourselves? I am suggesting that we are anchoring trust, as a form of faith, in the teachings of biology and nature. For those who find solace in maintaining faith in a God, I invite you to hold both-Creator and biology. What Polyvagal Theory and neurobiological sciences have discovered is that as a living organism we hold an innate blueprint to thrive and flourish.
Hold that statement and let it settle for a moment: We hold an innate blueprint to thrive and flourish.
We also understand that the pressure of stress sends the biological system into deep adaptation in response to its environment, in an attempt to rediscover homeostasis and grow, strengthen and emerge anew. The collective biological organism–earth, humans, and all life forms–are interconnected dynamic energy exchangers. We are not separate and never have been.
As such, although Life itself is designed to survive and thrive, it also doesn’t resist death as an outcome. Biology is part of the cycle of life and death. The ticket to inner freedom is non-resistance to the truth of life and death cycle. Stepping into the river of change requires a trust in this knowing that Life wants to thrive and thus, so does your biological home you call human. In all of the chaos, it is in search of coherence.
Coherence is defined by Dan Siegel as the harmonious flow of energy and information between all differentiated parts. When one human system experiences a state of coherence, they experience a state of wellbeing. That state is contagious and sends a ripple out into the collective field. As interconnected beings, the more ripples of coherence sent into the larger environment, the more hearts expand open. The more hearts opening, the more tears held, the more love felt, the more hope experienced, the more we tend to each other and life surrounding us. When this happens, the outside world must change to reflect the inner state of coherence both individually and collectively. And when this happens, we might experience the shift we desire. Thus, we cannot wait for the outer chaos to change before we step into that ‘river of change’, as an act of will and faith. We must first, change the state from within and send that ripple outwards.
How do you change the state from within, you might be asking?
Briefly, I have some considerations to share. I respect that there are many different teachings on this matter. The concept is indeed old. Most spiritual teachings are grounded in practices that focus on the inner state of being–thinking and feeling–and the softening of the heart. Love is often the central theme, which invites another article specific to unpacking the energy of love, and beauty as the doorway. You will often hear me say that we need to clear the debris from the inside out and digest the emotions of fear, anger, and sadness, to create room for love to shine through. I am told that joy is the other side of grief–same coin, different side.
Digesting our emotional material is one aspect of changing the state from within, and so is redirecting our energy and attention. Where we place our focus, we create more of. This is akin to the saying from the Cherokee Indigenous story: What wolf do you want to feed? The skill of mindful attunement and awareness is necessary for redirecting thoughts and attention. Moving the emotional material, feeling the feelings, identifying core beliefs and patterns, restoring connection with your inner and outer community, and actively, with intention, redirecting your energy to focus on the life you want to experience more of is the name of the game.
Hence why, from my vantage point, to change states and move towards open heart coherence, we work with distinct aspects of the being: the biology/body, the heart/emotions, the mind/cognitions, and the transpersonal/soul. All of this to say, in a roundabout journey, that I have come to believe through experience and have faith that individually and collectively, we can thrive even amid chronic survival stress–albeit not easy, indeed worth every effort. As storied Beings, we are influenced by the story and we hold the power to create a new story. There is a story of love that resides within, waiting to burst open like the flower ready to unfurl its petals into full bloom. We know the collective story of pain and trauma; let’s write a new story. Even if nothing changes collectively, at least you, me, and we, can know we made the effort to know love.
Curious to learn more? > www.flowingfears.com
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