How to turn toward when they’re turning away

Using Polyvgal Theory to Improve Your Love

“What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”

This thought kept coming back in various forms. It was her worst fear, and her anxiety was roiling because her partner seemed to be withdrawing.

Her anxiety made sense. It was her adaptive brain doing a great job trying to keep her safe.

The fear she experienced was so common, so normal, so beautiful really because it was about her desire for connection despite her history. She’d had a lot of experience with inconsistent nurturing, and when we can’t trust our important people to stick around, our nervous system innocently adapts to anticipate abandonment.

It’s a smart stance, a survival stance.

It’s known as an anxious attachment position.

. . .

There’s an upside to not letting people in . . . loneliness is better than being rejected.

But it’s a hollow safety. It’s difficult for us to have emotional intimacy, to truly connect, rely on, and trust our person.

We may get stormy or quiet. It may compel us to throw up a wall of glass when there’s a rupture, so we can be “seen” but not accessed.

Our nervous systems are metaphorically perched on the edge of an abyss, looking for proof we haven’t lost our love and afraid it’s too late to take any step that won’t send us tumbling into oblivion.

. . .

Perhaps when my client’s fear made her get chilly and critical, it removed the emotional safety for her partner and activated his own protective defenses. Perhaps this is why he pulled away, perpetuating a cycle of disconnection between them that prevented emotional safety.

Emotional safety is different than physical safety.

Emotional safety goes deep. It is the safety of delight, of consistently lighting a sparkle in someone’s eyes, of being seen and accepted and loved—in our mess and in our glory, without fear of judgement, without needing to be any different.

We’re mammals. As much as western culture idolizes individualism, we still co-regulate to survive. Without emotional safety, we literally can’t access our full humanity or our full potential.

Emotional safety is the doorway to joy, connection, meaning, and play. Without it, we live a diminished life.

. . .

Polyvagal Theory is the neuroscience of emotional safety.

It has three cornerstones: our need for co-regulation, our neuroception of safety (meaning, our nervous system constantly scans the environment below the level of our awareness to monitor for threats), and autonomic hierarchy.

This last bit you’re already familiar with. When we don’t feel safe, we move into fight, flight, or freeze. It’s the autonomic ladder.

The amazing thing Stephen Porges figured out in the 90s is that the vagus nerve is involved in all of these responses, as well as our parasympathetic state of safety and joy.

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve.

When we feel safe, the dorsal part of the vagus nerve is active. Weaving throughout our facial muscles, ears, vocal cords, and heart, it tunes our systems for receptivity. A receptivity that displays to everyone around us that we’re safe to approach.

Stephen Porges calls this parasympathetic state Social Engagement. It is the state of thriving.

The muscles in our ears tune to collect and make meaning of moderate human vocal frequencies, and we attend and listen in a way that is deeply present. Our eyes gently gaze. Our voices develop prosody (consider the prosodic harmonies of Disney Lullabies, Johnny Mathis, Harry Nilsson, and Snatam Kaur).

Our facial muscles become soft and expressive, particularly around our eyes. Our heart rate slows. Our breathing deepens as our out-breath extends. We can turn toward each other, feel safe taking soft sips of nourishing eye contact and get closer, physically and emotionally. We can offer and take in the experience of love.

Ventral vagal social engagement makes us open, curious, receptive, and willing to repair ruptures.

Wherever we are on the autonomic ladder, the way back to Social Engagement is through co-regulation with another nervous system in the ventral vagal state of safety.

It is in the eyes of someone who is looking at us with warm care. The voice of someone speaking tenderly. The gentle touch we welcome. The presence of deep listening. The safety that slows our breathing and syncs our heartbeats.

This state is a gift.

We’re mammals. Co-regulation is the key to creating safety. Safety is the key to thriving.

. . .  

When our nervous system perceives a threat too great for our Social Engagement System to handle through cooperative co-regulation, it will step down the autonomic ladder, activating the uneasy fight or flight response we know as the sympathetic system.

With the ventral vagus nerve offline, our ear muscles tune away from the human vocal range to prioritize low frequencies, like the sound of a growl or predatory footsteps.

With these changes in our ears, we might lose the ability to make sense of up to 70% of the information coming to us from the human vocal range. The muscles in the top of our faces flatten. Our voices lose their prosody: the male voice gets lower and booming, and the female voice gets higher.

At a minimum, our face and voice will broadcast low-levels of threat to every nervous system around us.

We lose cognitive abilities, feel the effects of cortisol and adrenaline, and our digestion is thrown out of balance, says Deb Dana in the Polyvagal Flip Chart: Understanding the Science of Safety.

If we can’t resolve the threat using fight or flight, our nervous system will step further down the autonomic ladder, entering the dorsal vagal state for protection. (This second branch of the vagus nerve is why the theory is called polyvagal.)

Dorsal is the lower parasympathetic branch of shut down. We go here when we lose our hope. It is a foggy, low energy state that makes it hard to attend to ourselves and others. We may dissociate, collapse, and have digestive problems while our nervous systems await the safety of a co-regulating other.

. . .

Every state tells a story, says Deb Dana.

In the collapse of dorsal, our pre-frontral cortex attends to our somatic neural streams and tells a self-critical story of disconnection. “I’m never going to measure up.”

From fight or flight, we are armed to protect ourselves: critical, judgmental, competitive. “I have to be better than everyone else.”

Ventral allows us to connect with curiosity and compassion. In our social engagement system, we feel the safety to connect, collaborate, and cooperate. “I belong, and so do you. We’ll figure it out together.”

Not one of these states is a choice. Our nervous system uses neuroception to decide how much threat is too much, and then it activates the appropriate state.

If we’ve been exposed to trauma, as so many of us have, or live in chronic states of stress, we may get stuck lower on the ladder, spending our lives sheltered below ground, rarely if ever accessing the securely attached state of the socially engaged.

The way back up is through. Dorsal goes through fight and flight before it arrives at ventral.

The way back up is with. Co-regulation with a safe-other weaves the nest of safety our nervous system require to rest and take flight.

. . .

As my client honored her history and overtime came to trust our relationship as a source of safety, she found herself wondering if her reaction was an attachment pattern or a reality. Might she really be in an unsafe relationship? Or was her nervous system setting off her partner’s in a cycle they could disrupt?

Either thing might have been true. She had to suss it out.

She decided to work from an image of safety, held between us and within her imagination.

What would happen if she had enough resources to risk turning toward?

“What if I knew I was safe? Who would I be in this relationship if I felt secure? What would I offer my partner? What would I offer myself?”

This is a ventral vagal question. It’s about turning toward.

The stressful conversation she imagined having with him became playful and loving. Rather than the charged expectation of disappointment, she became curious. It bolstered her enough to gently share her fears and hopes. Touched by the depth of that experience, he reciprocated and took her hand.

. . .

Being in conversation with someone, whether friend or lover, is an intentional act. It’s an ongoing invitation. When our intention is to nurture emotional safety, our lives become about finding the resources we need to feel safe-enough to take the risk of turning toward.

By filling our lives with safety, we make room for the love that we are to unfold all around.

Camille Pack is the founder of StoryKeeper, a safe, healing community for cultivating the art and practice of secure attachment skills to increase authenticity, mindfulness, and belonging. She is a certified facilitator of The Building a Lasting Connection Workshop developed by Rebecca Jorgensen and Debi Gilmore and offers facilitated mat work for couples on the Connection System™️. Camille also offers IPF (ideal parent figure) coaching to individuals seeking to heal early attachment wounds. Learn more at officialstorykeeper.com

“What if he doesn’t want me anymore?”

This thought kept coming back in various forms. It was her worst fear, and her anxiety was roiling because her partner seemed to be withdrawing.

Her anxiety made sense. It was her adaptive brain doing a great job trying to keep her safe.

The fear she experienced was so common, so normal, so beautiful really because it was about her desire for connection despite her history. She’d had a lot of experience with inconsistent nurturing, and when we can’t trust our important people to stick around, our nervous system innocently adapts to anticipate abandonment.

It’s a smart stance, a survival stance.

It’s known as an anxious attachment position.

. . .

There’s an upside to not letting people in . . . loneliness is better than being rejected.

But it’s a hollow safety. It’s difficult for us to have emotional intimacy, to truly connect, rely on, and trust our person.

We may get stormy or quiet. It may compel us to throw up a wall of glass when there’s a rupture, so we can be “seen” but not accessed.

Our nervous systems are metaphorically perched on the edge of an abyss, looking for proof we haven’t lost our love and afraid it’s too late to take any step that won’t send us tumbling into oblivion.

. . .

Perhaps when my client’s fear made her get chilly and critical, it removed the emotional safety for her partner and activated his own protective defenses. Perhaps this is why he pulled away, perpetuating a cycle of disconnection between them that prevented emotional safety.

Emotional safety is different than physical safety.

Emotional safety goes deep. It is the safety of delight, of consistently lighting a sparkle in someone’s eyes, of being seen and accepted and loved—in our mess and in our glory, without fear of judgement, without needing to be any different.

We’re mammals. As much as western culture idolizes individualism, we still co-regulate to survive. Without emotional safety, we literally can’t access our full humanity or our full potential.

Emotional safety is the doorway to joy, connection, meaning, and play. Without it, we live a diminished life.

. . .

Polyvagal Theory is the neuroscience of emotional safety.

It has three cornerstones: our need for co-regulation, our neuroception of safety (meaning, our nervous system constantly scans the environment below the level of our awareness to monitor for threats), and autonomic hierarchy.

This last bit you’re already familiar with. When we don’t feel safe, we move into fight, flight, or freeze. It’s the autonomic ladder.

The amazing thing Stephen Porges figured out in the 90s is that the vagus nerve is involved in all of these responses, as well as our parasympathetic state of safety and joy.

The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve.

When we feel safe, the dorsal part of the vagus nerve is active. Weaving throughout our facial muscles, ears, vocal cords, and heart, it tunes our systems for receptivity. A receptivity that displays to everyone around us that we’re safe to approach.

Stephen Porges calls this parasympathetic state Social Engagement. It is the state of thriving.

The muscles in our ears tune to collect and make meaning of moderate human vocal frequencies, and we attend and listen in a way that is deeply present. Our eyes gently gaze. Our voices develop prosody (consider the prosodic harmonies of Disney Lullabies, Johnny Mathis, Harry Nilsson, and Snatam Kaur).

Our facial muscles become soft and expressive, particularly around our eyes. Our heart rate slows. Our breathing deepens as our out-breath extends. We can turn toward each other, feel safe taking soft sips of nourishing eye contact and get closer, physically and emotionally. We can offer and take in the experience of love.

Ventral vagal social engagement makes us open, curious, receptive, and willing to repair ruptures.

Wherever we are on the autonomic ladder, the way back to Social Engagement is through co-regulation with another nervous system in the ventral vagal state of safety.

It is in the eyes of someone who is looking at us with warm care. The voice of someone speaking tenderly. The gentle touch we welcome. The presence of deep listening. The safety that slows our breathing and syncs our heartbeats.

This state is a gift.

We’re mammals. Co-regulation is the key to creating safety. Safety is the key to thriving.

. . .  

When our nervous system perceives a threat too great for our Social Engagement System to handle through cooperative co-regulation, it will step down the autonomic ladder, activating the uneasy fight or flight response we know as the sympathetic system.

With the ventral vagus nerve offline, our ear muscles tune away from the human vocal range to prioritize low frequencies, like the sound of a growl or predatory footsteps.

With these changes in our ears, we might lose the ability to make sense of up to 70% of the information coming to us from the human vocal range. The muscles in the top of our faces flatten. Our voices lose their prosody: the male voice gets lower and booming, and the female voice gets higher.

At a minimum, our face and voice will broadcast low-levels of threat to every nervous system around us.

We lose cognitive abilities, feel the effects of cortisol and adrenaline, and our digestion is thrown out of balance, says Deb Dana in the Polyvagal Flip Chart: Understanding the Science of Safety.

If we can’t resolve the threat using fight or flight, our nervous system will step further down the autonomic ladder, entering the dorsal vagal state for protection. (This second branch of the vagus nerve is why the theory is called polyvagal.)

Dorsal is the lower parasympathetic branch of shut down. We go here when we lose our hope. It is a foggy, low energy state that makes it hard to attend to ourselves and others. We may dissociate, collapse, and have digestive problems while our nervous systems await the safety of a co-regulating other.

. . .

Every state tells a story, says Deb Dana.

In the collapse of dorsal, our pre-frontral cortex attends to our somatic neural streams and tells a self-critical story of disconnection. “I’m never going to measure up.”

From fight or flight, we are armed to protect ourselves: critical, judgmental, competitive. “I have to be better than everyone else.”

Ventral allows us to connect with curiosity and compassion. In our social engagement system, we feel the safety to connect, collaborate, and cooperate. “I belong, and so do you. We’ll figure it out together.”

Not one of these states is a choice. Our nervous system uses neuroception to decide how much threat is too much, and then it activates the appropriate state.

If we’ve been exposed to trauma, as so many of us have, or live in chronic states of stress, we may get stuck lower on the ladder, spending our lives sheltered below ground, rarely if ever accessing the securely attached state of the socially engaged.

The way back up is through. Dorsal goes through fight and flight before it arrives at ventral.

The way back up is with. Co-regulation with a safe-other weaves the nest of safety our nervous system require to rest and take flight.

. . .

As my client honored her history and overtime came to trust our relationship as a source of safety, she found herself wondering if her reaction was an attachment pattern or a reality. Might she really be in an unsafe relationship? Or was her nervous system setting off her partner’s in a cycle they could disrupt?

Either thing might have been true. She had to suss it out.

She decided to work from an image of safety, held between us and within her imagination.

What would happen if she had enough resources to risk turning toward?

“What if I knew I was safe? Who would I be in this relationship if I felt secure? What would I offer my partner? What would I offer myself?”

This is a ventral vagal question. It’s about turning toward.

The stressful conversation she imagined having with him became playful and loving. Rather than the charged expectation of disappointment, she became curious. It bolstered her enough to gently share her fears and hopes. Touched by the depth of that experience, he reciprocated and took her hand.

. . .

Being in conversation with someone, whether friend or lover, is an intentional act. It’s an ongoing invitation. When our intention is to nurture emotional safety, our lives become about finding the resources we need to feel safe-enough to take the risk of turning toward.

By filling our lives with safety, we make room for the love that we are to unfold all around.

Camille Pack is the founder of StoryKeeper, a safe, healing community for cultivating the art and practice of secure attachment skills to increase authenticity, mindfulness, and belonging. She is a certified facilitator of The Building a Lasting Connection Workshop developed by Rebecca Jorgensen and Debi Gilmore and offers facilitated mat work for couples on the Connection System™️. Camille also offers IPF (ideal parent figure) coaching to individuals seeking to heal early attachment wounds. Learn more at officialstorykeeper.com

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