Have you experienced a racing heart beat or tightness in your chest in response to a threat? Your sympathetic nervous system has activated the fight-or-flight response because your brain has sensed a threat. A perceived threat may be physical or emotional. Fight-or-flight is an evolutionary defense mechanism designed to get you to safety. It gives you the ability to run fast when there is a scary animal chasing you. Once safe, the parasympathetic nervous system calms your body down. But what happens when there isn’t a definitive end to the threat?
When there isn’t a definitive end to a stressor, or social connections haven’t been established to create calm, the body sometimes decides to ‘check out’. Physically or mentally checking out may be a sign of dissociation, caused by the dorsal vagal nerve network. While disassociated you may feel depressed and hopeless. Addiction is an attempt to self-soothe via dysfunctional means. However, in trauma cases addiction may have been a method of survival. Polyvagal Theory, by professor of psychiatry Stephen Porges, suggests that it is possible to tune into the parasympathetic system to initiate a state of calm amid chronic stress. Successful addiction recovery requires multiple tools to activate the parasympathetic system regularly to mitigate stress. Without this activation, the risk of cravings and relapse will be high. The body will demand to be soothed by the drug of choice once again.
The ventral vagal nerve network in the parasympathetic system gets activated when you feel connected to another person. It is also known as the social engagement system. This network runs upward centrally from the diaphragm to the brain stem. Stimulating this part of your central nervous system when you’re stressed triggers calmness. Activating this part of the body via humming, singing, deep breathing, gargling, smiling, and making eye contact signal the brain to relax. The ability to downregulate the body in this way supports chemical dependency recovery.
Steps to Initiate Calm
1. Tune into your body
Practice mindfulness by noticing the physical sensations of your body. What does a state of calm feel like for you? Once you have a sense of your body’s baseline you can notice small changes caused by stress. Extend an attitude of self-compassion and gratitude to signal a sense of safety.
2. Use your breath
Attention to the breath is a powerful way to self-regulate because it directly stimulates the vagal system and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. Practice deep breathing exercises.
3. Work the 12-step program
Have you ever gone to a 12-step meeting after a bad day and left feeling calm? Social connection is a vital way to activate the ventral vagal system, while supporting recovery. Attend meetings regularly and utilize your sober support network.
4. Catch anxious thoughts
Thoughts cause feelings. Develop an awareness of anxiety producing thoughts which may be an exaggeration of your fears. Direct your thoughts to a more realistic and positive perspective to restore a state of calm.
5. Have fun!
Activate the ventral vagal system with smiling and laughter. Watch a comedy, catch up with a friend, listen to music and sing and dance like no one is watching 😊
Claudine Knox, MS, NCC
Crossroads Centre, Antigua