Cues of Life-Threat (3/6)

Presenter: Deb Dana

One of the main nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve, which has sensory and motor functions. There are two parts of the vagus nerve- dorsal vagus and ventral vagus.

Our dorsal vagus nerve is responsible for subdiaphragmatic (below the diaphragm) body functions, such as our digestive system, which stay shut off when it is in charge.

When our body perceives something that it has decided is a life-threat or when the challenge we are facing is too long or too intense for our sympathetic nervous system, our body responds by activating our dorsal vagus and turning off our ventral vagus and sympathetic nervous systems. This is a survival response. It includes changing blood flow in the body so we don’t bleed out and decreasing sensations of pain. Many people who experience chronic pain spend more time in dorsal vagus responses because it helps to manage their pain. The body enters conversation mode and protects you through disappearing. As opposed to the deer in headlights freeze, this is freezing while collapsing.

When you are in dorsal vagal response you might feel:

  • zoned out
  • shut down
  • unaware
  • immobilized
  • disconnected
  • numb
  • foggy
  • collapsed
  • drained
  • untethered
  • floating
  • alone
  • lost
  • abandoned
  • unreachable
  • hopeless
  • invisible
  • dissociated

Think about a time when you felt collapsed and numb. What happens in your body when you feel this way? What things do you do? How do you feel? What thoughts do you have? What happens to your sleep? Eating? Substance use? Compulsive addictive behaviors? What color would describe this state for you? If you were to call this something else, what would you call it (for example, sunny, stormy, foggy)? Complete the sentences- I am… The world is…

What does my nervous system need in this moment to find the way home to safe and social and anchor there?

Head here to learn about how I help clients who have had bad shit happen or head here to learn about how I help clients feel safer.


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