Peralta Community College District's Only Student-Run Publication
Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

Peralta Community College District's only student-run publication.

The Citizen

    Finding balance in your polyvagal nervous system

    Why couldn’t I fight back? It could be dorsal vagal
    PART 4 of 6

    Our criminal justice system doesn’t understand the human nervous system. One assumption I find especially tragic is the idea that anyone who’s the target of an unwelcome physical or sexual assault would fight back, and those who don’t are to blame for what happened to them.

    The truth is that how someone responds to an assault or other danger depends entirely on what their nervous system decides. When our nervous system senses danger, it shifts us into either a sympathetic (fight-or-flight) state or a dorsal vagal (freeze) state. Which state it chooses and how we’re affected depends on the nature of the danger and on personal factors, like sensitivity level, learned habits, and past traumas.

    For women and children especially, it’s very common for the nervous system to respond to threats by shifting into a dorsal vagal state. This does not happen because they consciously chose to freeze and submit; the decision is made automatically, below the level of conscious awareness.

    Assault can be especially devastating. But many other situations can bring on a partial or full freeze state, including …

    • When we hear low-pitched sounds and vibrations (like growling).
    • When we feel trapped or are subjected to persistent criticisms or lack of belonging.
    • When we experience physical trauma below the diaphragm (surgeries, sexual assault), where the dorsal branch of our vagus nerve is particularly active.
    • When our nervous system is overwhelmed and exhausted, lacking safety but unable to sustain sympathetic energy.

    Whatever the cause, once dorsal vagal takes over, our system begins shutting down. Heart and breathing rates drop; and movement becomes slow and labored. Physical and emotional numbing kicks in, reducing our pain but also leaving us unable to think or process emotions normally.

    Ideally, once the danger is passed, a well-toned nervous system will pull us out of this frozen state. But when we are traumatized severely or often enough, or subjected to repeated threats without adequate opportunity for recovery, the dorsal vagal state can become chronic.

    This can provoke a host of serious conditions, including depression and memory issues. We can feel like a passive observer to life, unable to participate with the world and the people around us. Since dorsal vagal lowers our metabolism, physical conditions like chronic fatigue, diabetes, digestive troubles, and weight gain are not uncommon.

    Unlike our sympathetic nervous system, which makes it hard to sit still and relax, dorsal vagal makes it hard to get moving. But moving is the only way out. In addition to a safe environment, we need stimulating activities that bring in energy and restore our sense of empowerment.

    This restoration of energy must be carefully paced and gentle. If we push too hard, we can further overwhelm our nervous system, making the safety and warmth of the ventral vagal (safe) state seem out of reach.

    For more on changing your life by changing your brain and nervous system, see past columns here.


    Thayer Robins is a staff writer at the Laney Tower.

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