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Mapping the Nervous System

This week my work with clients has been all about mapping the nervous system. Let me explain. You have probably heard of the fight, flight and freeze responses - our nervous system’s response to danger. You see our brains are wired to be on constant alert for danger. It’s how we have evolved since….well… way back in the past when we used to have to be on the look out for sabre-toothed tigers. Let’s face it, if you didn’t have a well developed fight/flight response you probably didn’t survive long enough to reproduce. So here we are now…no sabre-toothed tigers to be seen but lots of people around with very astute nervous systems.

Our nervous systems are kind of running in the background like Norton antivirus software scanning for danger and are quick to move from our safe and social place into fight, flight or freeze whenever it deems necessary. It’s kind of like we are moving up and down a ladder throughout the day. At any time of the day we can notice where we are on the ladder. Where are you on the ladder right now?

We go to where it feels familiar

Sometimes people have a go to place that seems more familiar to them, kind of like home. Ideally if you were raised in a safe and secure, non-threatening home environment you tend to hang out in safe and social (ventral vagal). That’s where we’d all like to be most of the time in an ideal world. For some of us, who experienced a less than safe home environment, or have experienced trauma (that’s a lot of us BTW), we might find our go to place is flight, or fight (sympathetic).

Now fight doesn’t always mean punching heads, it could be aggressive words, simmering rage, or constantly on edge in a competitive workplace, always watching your back for the next attack or fighting to reach your KPI, targets or budget. Your nervous system is on high alert, ALL THE TIME! This is exhausting. There’s adrenaline and cortisol washing through your system on a regular, almost constant basis, you find it hard to switch off, you’re constantly on the go. Eventually, your nervous system has had enough and you collapse. This is freeze – shutdown, collapse, dissociation (dorsal vagal). On a less dramatic scale we might see a numbing out on FB or Netflix.

While we can move through all these states throughout the day, sometimes people can get stuck. Flight feels very familiar to me from my childhood – I would take off to my bedroom when things got difficult at home and lose myself in books….flights of fancy perhaps? I’ve had times when I’ve been stuck too in freeze. Do any of these feel familiar to you? Do you ever get stuck?


Dana, Deb, A., (2018) The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation

Porges, Stephen, W., (2011) The Poly Vagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation


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