Polyvagal Theory and a New Evolutionary Response to Stress

Polyvagal Theory and a new Evolutionary Response to Stress

I love the “new science” supporting what the yogis have said for millennia…

The polyvagal theory states that we can train our vagus nerve to not just go from 100% PNS activity to 100% SNS activity ~ but that there are gradients in between being stressed and relaxed.

This is good news as we need a new evolutionary approach to stress. In cave man days which seems to be when our bodies learned the stress response, stress was life threatening… outrun the tiger or you die. Your body is not going to waste a shred of energy on healing that infection or on regeneration because if the tiger eats you it’s for naught. So all systems go to run, fight, and think quick survival.

Most stress is no longer life threatening.  We need a new evolutionary response to stress that allows us the benefit of some circulating stress hormones for motivation and energy without breaking down the entire body in the process.  Turns out we might be able to do this 🙂

In the polyvagal theory, there are levels of tapping into a little SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System — aka the stress response) activity while we remain predominantly PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System aka the rest and digest response). This is the new evolutionary response I am talking about.

It’s not new, I learned this is in yoga terms 30 years ago as I began this journey. Yoga postures I learned, put a little stress in our body, but we use our breath and bandhas (remember both bandhas stimulate PNS activity) to mitigate this stress and stay calm and relaxed while we do the “work” in the posture (and part of the work is to relax in the posture!).

Yoga is effectively helping us raise the barre of how much work we can do without tripping our stress response 🙂

This is a big upside to a yoga practice. Learning to control your stress response while you work or do something challenging will allow you the grace under pressure that gives one clearer thinking while they deal with the stressor at hand keeping us healthier and younger while we go through our lives.

Recently a big research paper was released which I came across in a new book “Yoga & Science in Pain care”.

This paper explained polyvagal theory as basically a modern view of yoga’s gunas (sattvic, rajasic, tamasic) or finding balance (sattva) between activity and stillness.

Sattva is the quality of pleasure, calmness and tranquility that serves the function of illumination. Sattva is described as: lightness, clarity, harmony, buoyance, illumination, lucidity, joy and understanding (Stoler-Miller, 2004; Bawra, 2012; Miller, 2012).

Rajas balanced with sattva and tamas creates the motivation and creativity for inspiring change, movement and right action. Conversely too much rajas,  may increase anger, agitation, or anxiety. (Bawra, 2012; Miller, 2012).
Tamas balanced with sattva and rajas may provide form and stability, whereas an over-predominance of tamas may give rise to delusion, inertia or obscuration (
Bawra, 2012; Miller, 2012). “

Polyvagal theory and HRV or heart rate variability can be similar concepts — most people think our heart rate should be a metronome at 70 BPM, but this is not the case. A healthy heart varies from beat to beat depending on what we are doing and thinking. People with a high stress response actually don’t have this variability — they have that driving beat . . .

Same goes for our nervous system we need it to be able to have some variability between stressed and relaxed as we go throughout our days. You can support this process!

Just go throughout your days with your tongue on the roof of your mouth (improving vagal tone), breathing deeply and rhythmically through your nose (stimulating PNS and oxygenating your body), staying connected to your bandhas (more PNS stimulation), and smiling 🙂 And you too can stay young while you work and go through your days.

In this way you too can raise the barre of what you are able to do without any stress hormones!

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