About this episode
In this episode of The Gathering Pod: The Way Back to Happy, Martha’s talking about polyvagal theory and how to regulate your nervous system when it gets hijacked by fight, flight, freeze, flop, or fake. One of the things polyvagal theory says is that we can never go into a calm, alert state unless our nervous systems are interacting with one of four things: self, others, nature, and spirit. The good news is that Martha has a process to help you do exactly that!
The Way Back to Happy
Very, very scatterbrained today, because I’ve been writing and writing. And when you write and write, your brain slowly oozes out through your ears. And then, when you go to read what you’ve written, you can’t comprehend it. And then you try to do anything else, you have no abilities and you feel… Kurt Vonnegut used to say that when he wrote, he felt like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth. Yeah, that’s pretty much how I feel. Only I still feel basically female, even just lying there with a crayon in my mouth.
And I’m thinking probably some of out there are feeling equally sort of “uh” today. It all works out really well, but in the middle of things it can get difficult. But what I’m writing about right now, I’ve talked about it recently before, and that is the polyvagal system, it’s a theory about how our nervous systems adapt to stress and to environment. So I’m going to run it past you really fast and then tell you what I’ve been thinking today.
The first thing is that the polyvagal nerve is, its circuit is like a bundle of nerves. It comes down from both sides of the brain and wanders all around your body. And the part that connects with your gut is what evolved first. And it gives you, when you get bad news or you’re afraid, you get this punched in the gut feeling. And if that part of your nervous system is afraid, it actually shuts everything down. So you’ve heard of the fight or flight reflex. Well, this is not fight or flight, it’s flop or faint. You just lie there. You have no will and no ability to drum up motivation.
So then, if you go up ways in your nervous system, there’s the fight or flight reflex, and it motivates you to do things in a pleasant way when it’s just slightly stimulated. But if you get really overstimulated, you get scared. It sends you into either running for your life or arguing with people or fawning on them, which I’ve talked about before, because fawning on someone can help keep them calm if you’re in a social interaction. And that’s really important for a human to survive.
And one of the things polyvagal theory says is that we actually can never go into a calm alert state unless we feel like we’re regulating, co-regulating. In other words, our nervous systems are interacting with other sentient beings. And I love the little list that Deb Dana, who’s a social worker and a brilliant theorist, I love her little list of things we have to connect to. It’s self, others, nature, and spirit. I mentioned this a little while ago. So anyway, I have been going along and writing about what to do when you get hijacked by either the fight or flight system or by the flop system.
And that can happen because these things evolve much earlier than your cognitive thinking. You can sit down with the best of intentions, thinking I’m going to do six things. And your vagal system may hijack that intention and you may find yourself completely unable to think because you’re anxious, or very angry, or feeling unsafe in a relationship, or you just won’t have any motivation at all. Well then what do you do? Then you’re stuck. And most of us keep pushing against that, because we have concepts about what we want to do with our day, what we want to do with our lives. And we’re trying to force our nervous systems into that happy, relaxed, creative state where they can work best.
But they evolved first and they have all the power. They’re like, “Sit down, we’ve got control of this.” But there is a way back. There’s a way back when that you’re either flopping or fight/flight/fawning and it’s gradual. It has to go up this nervous system from your gut instincts to your fight or flight instincts, and finally to your conscious mind. You can’t just jump from one state to the other. So I have a little process that I learned long ago in conversation with Anita Moorjani, whose story I often refer to. And I thought I’d just remind us all of it today. And in the middle we’re going to do our customary Gathering Room meditation.
Those of you who are here for the first time, we’ll get used to this. And those of you who’ve been here before, it’s always great to have a reason to go back into that particular meditation. It’s so good for our brains and our bodies. So if you find yourself not in a perfectly happy, relaxed situation, think of something you are planning to do that makes you feel either slightly anxious or no motivation at all. And just consider the fact, okay, that’s what I’m going to be doing now. And feel the physical sensation of being either shut down or fight or flight activated.
So the shutdown may feel like just complete heaviness and limpness. And then the fight or flight thing is different. It’s manic. It pushes you. It won’t let you sleep. And it won’t really let you focus on anything when you’re awake. It’s just constantly on guard. And they’re both quite unpleasant, I have to say. And for this reason, as I just mentioned, we fight them. So the first thing to do to calm down a nervous system that’s going into the… I call this green light state, yellow light state, or red light state. So if you’re in a green light, everything’s happy and joyful and your vagus nerve is sending out signals to you to be happy and interact with people, and it connects with the muscles in your face and the way you move your head and it makes everything wonderful. That’s green light.
Then you go to yellow light, which is the caution part of the nervous system, the fight/flight/fawn. And then there’s red light. We are just stopping. Nothing’s moving here. Balk. So if you’re in red light or yellow light, feel your way into that experience without being afraid of it. So right now you’re just sitting or lying down or maybe walking around somewhere. But if you’re listening to this, you probably aren’t under imminent physical threat. Boy, I get up and look at The New York Times on my phone in the morning and immediately go into a yellow or red light state. Then I have to find a way to be in a safe moment. Take a moment of sanctuary. And the first thing you do in that moment of sanctuary is to take a few minutes. You’ve got a few minutes now you’re listening or two, or watching the Gathering Room.
And instead of resisting the red light, yellow light sensations just really, really intensely watch them. I can go through, there’s a line of pain that goes from my jaw through to the back of my neck and down. And when I really pay attention, I can actually, it seems I can actually feel the tension and individual nerve fibers or in muscle fibers running through my neck and my upper back and my shoulders. That’s where I hold a lot of my yellow light energy. I can feel sick to my stomach, that’s the red light energy. And that’s just what it is. It’s happening.
And these two levels of alert are occurring at a part of your nervous system that out votes your thinking mind. So as you observe it, what you do next is drop all resistance to the sensations you’re feeling. So it’s surrender. People always used to tell me, “Surrender, you’ll feel much better.” And I didn’t know how. Well this is how. Feel what you’re feeling and say, “That is what I’m feeling. I will stop fighting that feeling.” All right. Here I sit. Now what just happened to me right there was involuntary. I took a breath. That was actually my polyvagal system re-regulating itself, it uses breath quite significantly.
And that deep breath, we’ve talked about it before, but it happened to me without my intending to, just because I said I’m not going to fight the feelings. So don’t fight the feelings. You may feel a slight shift toward less misery. Once you stop fighting, let’s use our meditation, our Gathering Room meditation, to go into a state of really, really non resisting what we’re feeling, by instead of focusing on the matter in our bodies, we’re going to focus on the space. Instead of focusing on the movement and the noise, we’re going to look at the stillness and the silence.
So let’s start. Get yourself loosened up. See if you can find a place to be alone and ask the trigger question, which is, “Can I imagine the distance between my eyes?” And just repeat that. Can I imagine the distance between my eyes? Now since most of the matter between your eyes is made up of atoms with empty space as their main component, can I imagine the space, the empty space in the atoms between my eyes? Can I imagine that? Can I imagine the empty space inside the atoms of my whole body? Can I imagine the stillness that holds all emotion and matter that is my body? Can I imagine the stillness that holds my thoughts? Can I imagine the silence beneath all sounds? Can I imagine that my consciousness is the silence, is the stillness, and is the space, and that all of space includes and blends with my consciousness?
It’s so interesting to do this alone and not feel it and then to do it with you and feel it even though you’re not in the room. I say it every time. All right, now, back to the red light, yellow light, green light. Wow, I am significantly calmer. Thank you, everybody. So that’s a big deep breath that my body just took. And from the place of surrender now and into real stillness, that takes us into acceptance and straight to peace. That’s the next one. So you go from surrender to acceptance to peace. And you can use that meditation to go in.
From peace, you can get to appreciation. So you can get to, “Oh, what is it?” I feel enormous gratitude and appreciation for all of your souls that I truly believe I’m feeling right now. I feel incredible gratitude and appreciation for the room I’m sitting in, for the sky outside, for the atmosphere that lets us breathe, for the plant behind me there. It’s such a good friend. And it feels really good to be in gratitude and appreciation. So from there, you can go to real enjoyment. So if there’s anything you can enjoy, I’m going to have a sip of water and enjoy it. Take a breath and enjoy it. Stretch and enjoy it. Yawn and enjoy it. Just be conscious of enjoyment.
And once you’re in enjoyment, you are in joy. And if you stay in that place and keep looking for what Deb Dana calls those glimmers of beauty, joy, truth, love, then the green light state starts to happen and things get really wonderful. Okay, here are some questions. All right, Stevie says, “Do you have any insight on how autism affects the polyvagal system? I feel constantly hijacked by my nervous system.” I am no expert, but I know and love many autistic people and come in at the low end of the autism scale myself on some tests. So I’ve given this a lot of thought and I’ve read a lot about it. And what I believe is that there are different levels of sensitivity.
And what used to be seen by the world as a lack of emotion in people with autism is in fact a very, very sensitive system that frequently gets hijacked by these polyvagal yellow and red states. So I think it’s you are more sensitive if you have autism to… You have spider senses, consider it a superpower, that comes as a mixed blessing. It can also really get you stuck in red and yellow states of emotional and physical alertness or alarm. And that’s all the more reason to go by yourself, take off all your masks, let yourself shake or in other ways move to get the adrenaline out of your system. That can help.
And then go through these same steps and you just may have to spend a little more time going down into the quiet state. But I can tell you that when you’re there, you’ll feel the universe moving through your electrical system more, I believe, than people who have less sensitive nervous systems. So be proud and grateful for our differences. There’s something wonderful in every neurodivergent state. I really believe that.
Tricky Magma says, “Oh, have you named your plant?” Yes, that plant is named Monster. Just because I really love her, and one day I was watering her and she said, “Hi, I’m Monster.” And I said, “Hello, Monster.” And it regulated my nervous system, so I kept it. Thank you for asking. Dr. Donna says, “Can more than emotions affect the vagus nerve like medication?” Yeah, for sure, for sure. Some of the connections between the brain and the vagal nerve also can be affected by chemistry, and in the brain, things you can take for it for anxiety.
But the interesting thing for me is, and again, I’m no expert here, but from what I’ve read and what I’ve experienced, I can dope up my body to ignore what’s happening, but it will still happen. So if I take something like a sleeping pill, I’ll feel very drowsy and dizzy, but I still can’t sleep because the anxiety is still going. I’m in a red light, yellow light state or mainly yellow. I can sleep sometimes in red light. But I still have to do the work of dropping. It’s almost like dropping under the medication and then trying to work with it in my system, the chemistry is trying to do this very tricky dance.
And if you have an extremely easily triggered nervous system… I know people who can take sedatives and it makes them have a panic attack because their nervous system has imprinted this idea that being alert is necessary at all times. So the nervous system is tuned to that. And then if they take a drug that says, “Guess what, you’re off duty.” The nervous system says, “Oh no. No, you don’t.” And it actually revs up. I have the same thing with caffeine. I can take it to try to feel better, but what it typically does is feed the yellow light state. It gives me a little energy, but it feeds the yellow light state and it doesn’t feel like genuine creative energy. I cannot actually work with it the way I can with the psychological and frankly spiritual cues.
I really believe that in my case, and maybe in yours because you’re here at the Gathering Room, in my case, I don’t think I can go all the way to calm without connecting to everything Deb Dana talks about self, others, nature, and spirit, the world and spirit. If I don’t ground into what neuroscientists are now finding out is the spiritual part of my psyche that is just born in us, and I’m not saying anything is true or false in terms of religious ideology, I’m just saying they’re finding that we have this part of us. And if I don’t tap into that, none of the… I once took a sleeping medication that literally in medical history, the doctor said, “No one has ever failed to go to sleep when they are given this substance.”
Not a drop of sleep. So yeah, I believe you drop all the way in to your emotions and also to your spirit. And then medicines are wonderful and I wouldn’t be alive without them. And you should keep taking your medication, but also think about these other factors. Okay, Melanie says, “Can remaining in this place of peace and sending to those suffering be effective? Absolutely. It’s so fascinating, because the things that do trigger calm in the vagal system are, for example, a soft human voice. It goes right from the ear straight to the vagal nerve without going through the brain. It just goes right into the right side vagal nerve, which slows heartbeat and calms us down.
Being gently held or touched, so a weighted blanket, but more even better, a person that you can hug or if you don’t have a person around a pet that you can hug, even a stuffed animal. Ro and I were talking about how a lot of our best friends that help us regulate are dead. We read their words in the pages of books and then we get really, really connected to them. So we can be senders of cues of safety. And you can tell someone is feeling safe when you’re emanating a feeling of calm and you see their faces relax, and you see them take a breath, you see them stretching a little.
And it’s fun actually to watch those cues and the way they affect the body and then sort of take it as a challenge to give the gift of peace to another person once you get there yourself. And doing that, can I imagine the distance between my eyes, can turn you into that a little peace generator. All right, Dee E Hardo says, “Can we drop into the green state when we feel under attack from others who are resisting change I’m trying to make in my life? How do I let go of guilt from moving toward what I feel is my path?”
Sometimes you need to break away temporarily from the people who are triggering negative responses when you try to change. So you consciously know, “I want to make this change and it’s the right change for me.” Let’s say you wanted to move and your family didn’t want you to move. And you knew it was right, but when you’re around them, all the triggers you’re getting are going to make your vagal system go out of regulation because they’re not regulated, they’re afraid, and they’re sort of beaming that at you. And knowing that, that that’s what’s happening, okay, I’ve got my conscious intentions, but I’m getting emotionally hijacked because I’m getting these very powerful signals from others, then you know what to do.
You spend some time away from those people and with people who do get it, even if it’s just us on the Gathering Room. And you do a lot of meditation, you connect. I mean, I’ve done this. I’ve done this a lot. And I have to say my paper friends, the friends that spoke to me from the pages of books were the most powerful regulating forces that helped me calm down when I was dealing with this. It’s hard, but you can do it.
Okay, Jessica says, “When do we sit and love on our physical and emotional discomforts? And when should we use this process to transform them? I spent years befriending discomfort instead of rushing to feel better.” Yeah, you’re on the right track. If you just stop fighting. You don’t even have to befriend. Just stop fighting things that are unpleasant and go, “All right, this is uncomfortable. It’s not so bad.” And you can go into a still place. And what should happen at a certain point if you get deeply connected to it, is that that green light state emerges by itself.
And boy, the first time I went through therapy when I was 18, that was quite a thing when it came back online, the green light. The whole world looked different. When you’re in the yellow or red light states, you’re actually seeing everything through that filter. So it looks like the whole world is really just scary or just depressing. But when you get back to the green light state, it’s like a miracle. But if you have taken care of befriending your nervous system and it’s not there yet, co-regulating with other creatures is what’s necessary to take you to green.
So find a way to interact with a creature, a person, or an animal, or maybe even a forest, a landscape, but preferably a conscious sentient being because their green light state can help you develop yours. So if you’re with a happy baby, I love going online and looking at videos of babies laughing hysterically. It’s magic that’ll regulate you right up into the green light place. And give yourself the gift of other creatures to co-regulate with, even if it’s just looking at videos online.
Now, Elizabeth says, “As an empath who scored extremely high on Anita Moorjani’s empath assessment, any advice on how to prevent one’s nervous system from getting hijacked to begin with and being entangled with others’ energy?” Yeah, I think that daily meditation anchors again, Deb Dana, read her book Anchoring. It’s really good. A daily practice of medication anchors us because what fires together, wires together in the brain. And we’re all firing a ton of anxiety because the world is what the world is. And so take just a little time every day to fire those circuits of calm, safe, happy, green light. Clear out the things that are telling you to beware. Clear out the scary news bulletins. Clear out thoughts of past and future and be present in meditation for 15, 20 minutes a day.
For me, it really started happening when I was sitting for an hour or more a day. But I know not everybody can do that. But I was desperate and it worked. So yeah, if you have a nervous system that needs that, it’s worth giving yourself the gift of that because it saves a lot on hospital bills later on, I’ve found. Oh, A City Lotus asks, “Is there a good book by Deb Dana, we can read?” Yes. My favorite one of hers right now is Anchoring, so check that out. And she’s got a lot of presence online, videos, things you can go to. She’s awesome.
All right, Deirdre says, “How can polyvagal theory apply when you can’t see the next practical step? I want to return to uni but can’t figure out how to afford it and find myself frozen and not moving forward.” Yeah, okay. Here’s what I would do. Take little steps that demonstrate confidence that you can eventually go back. When I started getting intimations of buying a ranch, I was middle-aged. I was like, “Okay, now I have a house and that’s great, and a dog.” And this impulse to buy a ranch in another state came to me and it just kept returning.
So I started doing little things like I bought a sweater that I would wear on the ranch. Because I was living in Phoenix and I did not need this sweater. But I got a sweater and I put it in my closet and four years later I had the ranch and I wore that sweater a lot. But I would do little things. I would make a vision board. I know that sounds so hokey, but it works. And make little steps of faith and confidence that give you just these slight glimmers of joy. A glimmer of joy is the opposite of a trauma trigger. It pulls you into the good parts of your future that are wanting to happen. Good luck. You can do it.
Ready To Go Teacher says, “Do you think that Gathering Room folks might be more sensitive to both ends of the spectrum? Spiritual things and the anxiety, fight flight, et cetera?” I think they’re the same thing. I actually think that if you’re super-duper sensitive to joy, for example, it’s a package deal. It comes with an equal amount of sensitivity to pain. And my experience like studying the medicine people of many cultures for about five years of my life, convinced me that for folks who do have that inborn sensitivity, the first half of life is very difficult and the second half is less difficult.
And it’s the opposite of the typical pattern where youth and childhood are wonderful and happy and joyful, and then you get middle-aged and old and miserable. It’s kind of good news if you’re in that category because if you had a tough start and you find out that you have the characteristics of the medicine people, including high sensitivity to emotion and other people’s feelings and physical condition, you can expect through study, meditation, and being motivated by your suffering, to get to a place midlife in adult life where things are better than they’ve ever been before.
As I said, when I went into my green light state when I was 19, for the first time I could remember, that was a magical moment. Literally my whole visual field seemed to clear and everything was more colorful and everything was more beautiful. And there was love in the world and life was good. And ever since then I’ve been able to creep back to the green light zone, since it took me months of being like, “What?” Before I learned the way back. But the way back that I’ve talked about today, it has worked over and over. And the more you practice it, the quicker you come back. And that’s a healthy nervous system. Not something that never feels the red light, yellow light sensations, but a nervous system that can feel those, take the actions that they motivate, and then return quickly to the happy, relaxed green light state.
So thank you all for coming here and really greening up the world for me today. I started out with no tech support in the room, trying desperately to work with Facebook and being in a yellow light state. And then you all put me in a green state and it makes me feel good. So thank you very much. Everybody, don’t worry, be happy, and I’ll see you next time on the Gathering Room.