The Polyvagal Theory developed by Stephen Porges, describes the way the internal body states influences the brain and perception of the environment, and the environment (especially the social environment) influences internal body states. 

In my own words, there are three main modes our body may be in:

Safe Mode makes us open for social engagement/connection, learning, and integrating experience into explicit memory. It is activated by the ventral vagal side of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.

Mobilized Mode makes us prepared for fight (to face the danger) or flight (to run away from the danger). It is activated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.

Freeze Mode -makes parts or all of the body shut down in the midst of overwhelming stress. It is activated by the dorsal vagal side of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system.

The Mobilized Mode and Freeze Mode are activated in order of increasing degrees of distress. You feel safe and relaxed inside until something triggers your brain to be on alert for danger, which triggers the body to shift its internal state in preparation for danger. The more intense the alert the more intensely guarded that internal state becomes. When the alerts become overwhelming the brain starts to shut things down in an extreme form of life protection.

These are not necessarily distinct modes. In many situations you don’t just switch from one mode to another, though it could feel that way at a sudden fright or frustration. Rather, in many of the ordinary daily stresses and challenges of life, as signals from your environment (people and things) and signals from within your own body and memory trigger new changes inside your brain and body, your body slides from one state toward another, experiencing a mixture of the two, shifting the ratio of dominance between them. You may consciously feel like you are mostly in one mode although underneath your body is preparing for being in another.


More Mobilized Than You Realize?

In other words, you could consciously feel normal and believe you are quite OK, but underneath, your body is quietly reacting to perceived danger, thus altering your heart rate, digestion, breathing, increasing muscle tension, and shifting attention to certain tones of human voice and facial expressions. 

For example, you may be having a relaxed, good time at a small gathering of friends, but when a new, unexpected person walks in the room, something inside you quietly goes on guard, and you don’t at first notice that notice your body has started to mobilize, to brace for the possibility of something unpleasant. A few moments later your conscious mind catches up and realizes the new person has dampened the atmosphere for everyone.  

Many people, in our stressed out modern world, actually live with a low-grade mobilized mode humming continuously in the background, continually draining hormones and energy. It could be from ruminating on a danger in the past, triggered by the present conditions, or worried about threats in the future. This makes it hard to feel fully rested or refreshed, even though one has had lots of sleep or taken ‘time off’. The body is made to switch into these modes for a while, but not to stay in them for long periods of time. Chronic mobilization leads to low energy, which leads to weak immune system, which leads to illness and disease.  


Preparing To Face Big Challenges

This understanding of Polyvagal Theory has huge implications for mental and physical health, and helping people heal from trauma, chronic stress, and many kinds of illness, as well as for shaping social environments that help people learn better, be more creative, be more productive and generally, help people to thrive. By studying these concepts as they play out in our own bodies, by practicing certain skills for awareness and self-regulation, we can more quickly notice when our body is shifting, more easily draw our body back to a more peaceful state, do more to prevent a slide into an undesired state, and help others become more aware and co-regulate with them. This theory has the power to help us create amazingly safe and attractive places to live, work and learn in. 

This has great implications for us in athletics also. In particular, I see so much value in understanding and practicing these skills, not only as an athlete, but in helping others improve their own internal and social experience of training and engaging in otherwise overwhelming challenges – taking skills from ahtletics and applying them to life at large. For an athlete on one end of the spectrum that challenge could mean preparing to swim 12 hours in the cold, dark sea, alone. For a person on the other, it could mean learning to submerge the face in the water for a few seconds without freaking out. 

Photo by Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Fear Is Actually Normal

Where healing from trauma and guiding (new) athletes intersects so clearly is in working with people who are deeply afraid of water. This is one of my favorite ways to help people. Nothing is quite as wonderful as seeing someone emerge in great relief and gratitude as fear is melted away in her life. And, it is good to appreciate just how special it is for humans to become truly, deeply comfortable in water, where they relax and cooperate while also relinquishing some control to the water they were previously afraid of. 

Perhaps humans do not encounter as much fear about running as we do about swimming, because land mammals have in-built skill and confidence for dealing with moving under gravity on dry land. But dropping a land-mammal in water naturally triggers a lot of protective programs in the organism’s brain for an environment it knows he is not naturally prepared for. To the person afraid of water, it may seems like he is the odd-ball because everyone else at the pool seems so comfortable and free of all fear. Yet…

  1. he can’t see what’s really going on inside many of them, and
  2. it is actually more ‘normal’ to feel some fear of water because aquatic skill and confidence are not in-built and most humans on the planet don’t develop these.

The fearful person is comparing himself to that sliver of the human population that actually hangs out at the pool, and many there are still masking the anxiety they feel.

No, the fearful person is more normal than he realizes, and his body’s protective reactions are actually good and wise. In fact, he should not be going into a potentially dangerous environment until he is prepared. He just needs new programs (skills) and then to convince his brain that they actually work (confidence) through practice and play.  


Obvious Mobilization, and Not So Obvious

It’s easy to observe the kind of internal hindrance experienced by a person who is admittedly terrified of being in the water. She not only has a physical resistance to putting her face underwater, and removing contact with the floor and wall, she is quite aware of it and resists willfully (and wisely). She will not let her body be fully supported by the water and so she cannot test if and how the water will support her. But once she feels the motivation to try and the initial trust in an instructor to guide and accompany her, we work through a very gentle process of learning micro-skill after micro-skill, layering these sequentially to build up a network of skills and confidence that allow her to eventually submerge her head and lift feet from the floor and hands from the wall to peacefully experience the full and trustworthy support of the water. Then we can continue to build from there. 

But it’s not so easy to observe and appreciate the kind of internal hindrance experienced by a person who consciously feels no fear of water, but his body still does. It is fairly common to have a person come to a swim lesson series, willing to try swim lessons once again, yet wondering why he has had such a hard time getting the skills compared to others. He often has strong motivation, is willing to do any exercise the instructor gives, and actually puts in extraordinary effort to try to do it right. But something is still hindering his progress into the ease he sees other new swimmers seeming to find more quickly than he is. 

Sometimes this hidden mobilization, the hidden tension built up for fight/flight, will manifest as overly-effortful (think ‘muscle through it’) attempts to perform the drill or exercise. Sometimes it will show up as hyper-toned muscle activation. Sometimes it will show up as jerky movements, or the two sides of the body not being able to do different-but-coordinated actions. Sometimes it will show up as a body that sinks, when we would expect it to have some buoyancy in the upper body. Excessively activated muscles from an over-mobilized body will use up more oxygen, decrease effectiveness of respiration, create more waste products in the cells and blood stream, press fluids out of the tissues, hinder smooth movement, hinder attention, and constrict the swimmer’s sensitivity to the natural forces that would otherwise assist him in his swimming. He may not consciously experience fear, but deep down the body is still anxious, guarded, afraid. It knows he is not connecting with the water.


“Just Relax!”

Telling an admittedly fearful person to relax is quite cruel. It means the instructor has no clue to what’s really going on in the body and brain of a person in this state.

Telling the unconsciously anxious student to ‘just relax’ doesn’t work because he are mostly unaware of why and how his body is slipping into a mobilized state. Even if he did, he likely doesn’t have the skills for triggering those deep internal changes in the midst of an environment and in the presence of an instructor who doesn’t seem to understand. And, he is probably really tired of hearing that too. 

The relaxation this swimmer needs to discover is within the instructor. The swimmer can’t be commanded to generate it himself. Humans learn to relax by feeling it from another. He needs to be connected (in this neurobiological sense) to a safe companion, to feel the peacefulness present within the other, and this is how he may more easily learn to generate relaxation within himself. This is not magic or woo-woo – this is how babies learn to sooth themselves from the touch, vocal tone and facial expressions of a mother, and through this process on higher and higher levels grow up to become mature, stable emotional adults . This is how intimate companions bring relief and comfort to one another in stressful times. This is social neurobiology at its best. 


Finding A Safe Companion And Guide

Here is the powerful thing that I have noticed in my practice and the primary reason I started a formal mentoring process with a therapist who could teach me how interpersonal neurobiology works and how to more intentionally, more skillfully set up a superior learning environment: people caught up in a mobilized state can be assisted out of that state when an instructor attunes, connects and lets the student tap into his own peaceful internal state. The state of the instructor, his attunement to the state of his student, his response to the student’s internal reactions, and his offer to co-regulate make a tremendous difference in how that student experiences the lesson and affects the progress they may make.  

A step-by-step breakthrough or a result is not guaranteed in any sort of predictable time line, because the way that fear has been woven into each person is unique. The process is simply two people connecting and then exploring the way this student’s body is expressing its fear, and together learning how this unique body needs to find and unwrap the sense of safety. This takes an understanding, patient, secure, open mind on the part of the instructor. This takes time and patience and trust on the part of the student (and money if she needs to pay for time with this instructor or therapist). 

With fearful, anxious and excessively tense people – with people feeling various mixtures and levels of mobilization – a great part of the instructor’s work is to offer this person, on the interpersonal level, signals of safety, of relaxation, of hope. If accepted this helps diffuse the inner tension and make it easier for the student and instructor to discover the solution together. It may be initially challenging to patience and trust because the tension inhibits the breakthrough, but the tension won’t be released unless the person experiences some breakthrough, or some hope of breakthrough. So, creating an atmosphere of safety, patience, acceptance and confidence that this person will succeed can help their nervous system calm down and move from mobilized, defensive state to more open, learning state, making that breakthrough more likely. But no one knows how long this will take to work out – you enter in and let the body guide the process and timing.


Compassion For The Mobilized Body

Before all this takes place it is good to explain to the consciously fearful student that there is nothing wrong with her because she is feeling so much fear, or experiencing excessive internal tension. In fact, her land-mammal brain is doing its best to keep her away from the place it feels threatened by, in the absence of skills to deal with it safely.

It may take a bit more scientific explanation, but it could be as important to assure the tense-but-unafraid swimmer that his brain too is doing a good job trying to keep him safe. It will go easier if we acknowledge the goodness of this protective response and show gratitude for the body’s wisdom for using what tools it had on hand to keep him safe, rather than denying it and have him try to force his way past those strong protective reactions. 

It makes sense to me now why so many people have had frustrating experiences with well-intended but unknowing instructors who could do nothing to help the swimmer slide away from mobilization, or did things to make it worse. Now I see how an aware and skillful one could make it a lot easier, and I want to be one of those.

If you suspect you’ve got an over-mobilized body keeping you from swimming, or from swimming better, then I recommend that you take some time to observe, interview, and then choose your safe instructor carefully. It will make a big difference on your experience and breakthrough.

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