Panic: Polyvagal Practices


Love In The Time of Corona - Panic: Polyvagal Practices by Shannon O'Neill

As we begin to experience the reality of COVID-19 stay-at-home/shelter-in-place orders, it is not uncommon to experience high levels of restlessness and even panic. Therefore, it is important to understand the polyvagal nervous system, so that we can depathologize and reset these states.

Developing an understanding of this phenomenon is what Deb Dana calls “befriending the nervous system”. Thanks to the pioneering work of Stephen Porges, we know that the vagus nerve has multiple nuclei, whose branches’ neurological functions are literally only natural and are autonomically driven. These branches specialize in social engagement, fight or flight, and collapse.

The current restrictions on both our mobility and social engagement system (SES) can result in a phenomenon where the “brakes” and the “gas” are on at the same time.

This neurological cocktail can result in panic attacks, known in polyvagal science as the Freeze or Shock response. This is not the shutdown/parasympathetic state known as “dorsal collapse” -rather it is a mixed neurological state. One important practice to prevent or mitigate the freeze response is to release shock by rolling each joint in your body. Start at your ankles and work your way up your body rolling every joint 3/4 times in both directions.

Since both the ventral and dorsal vagus innervate the heart and lungs, it’s vital to intervene at that part of the body. A very effective exercise for this is “Sun Salutations”. Either standing or sitting with both feet on the ground, make sure that your head, neck and spine are straight. Then hold both arms out with your palms facing up and breathe in for 3 counts while moving your arms up until your palms meet over your head. Now breathe out for 3 counts as you face your palms out and down to your sides. Repeat this at least 3 times, remembering to go slow.

This exercise stimulates the nerves that innervate the intercostal muscles between your ribs, sending the signal to the pericardium-the double sacked membrane around your heart-to release, allowing healthy blood flow through your heart and facilitating proper lung function.

Understanding our nervous system not only helps it make sense, but also results in regulation and secure attachment. This is because we employ a circuit in the brain that is involved in perspective-taking/empathy. By starting with self-compassion, we can restore healthy regulation and return to loving ourselves and others. Love heals.

Next In Series: Orienting: Know News Is Good News