• CarolyneHill

Rabbit in the head lights?

All human beings feel anxious, this is normal. Sometimes we can feel like a rabbit in head lights, unable to move, other times we want to get away as fast as possible.

One of the issues I work with quite a lot as a counsellor is anxiety. Under the current circumstances with the pandemic and all of the consequent negative impacts, many people are understandably experiencing increased anxiety. I hope you find the following useful.

I have recently been reading Deb Dana’s book ‘The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy’(2018). I will briefly outline this theory because I have found it really helpful.

If we learn more about how our body physically responds to distress we can better understand how to overcome any unhelpful ways of coping that we might have developed e.g drinking too much, eating more than we need, retail therapy etc. If we regularly become overwhelmed by anxiety, the good news is that we can learn how to move to a more calm way of being.

Sometimes we remain stuck in an anxious state without even being aware; it feels normal. Being chronically stuck in a stressful survival response increases the chance that we become ill; this is associated with many different health issues in the short term and long term. If we have experienced a lot of stress and/or have experienced any kind of trauma in our lives, it is likely that we may be more easily triggered into anxiety.

It is vitally important we tune into ourselves, become more aware of how our physiology is responding when we’re going about our daily lives, then try to arrange or rearrange our lives to develop more peaceful and calm ways of being - easier said than done!

All human beings are hardwired to physiologically respond to anxiety in the same ways. The way our nervous system gets used to responding to stressful or traumatic events has been shaped by our past experiences. We have habitual patterns that we unconsciously activate when we become anxious.

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) is always switched on and always asking the question ‘Am I Safe?’. The ANS is part of our evolutionary development that keeps us safe and alive; it is operating all of the time and out of our awareness.

The polyvagal nerve is one of the longest nerves we have. Travelling down through our body, it controls unconscious body functions such as heartbeat and lung contraction. It starts at the base of our brain and it takes two main routes through the body. One route is around the heart and lungs (ventral vagal) and the other route is below the diaphragm around the abdomen (dorsal vagal).

The ANS has three main ways of responding to our environment:

1. Fight or Flight

When we perceive danger, adrenaline prepares our body to run away from danger or to fight. We are mobilised into action by our ‘sympathetic’ system. This is a state of confrontation or avoidance. We feel out of control, overwhelmed, confused.

Typical indications that we are in fight or flight are: sweaty palms; rapid breathing; increased heart rate; urgent need to go to the toilet; dizziness; palpitations; pins and needles in hands and feet; muscle tension, aches and twitching.

If we are chronically activating this state, and usually without realising this, our nervous system remains on high alert Interestingly we can misread cues when this happens e.g. neutral faces can appear angry/dangerous or we mishear or don’t hear things.

What type of things have triggered your fight /flight response…raised voices….deadlines…bills…not being heard…queues?

How does it feel for you? How do you know you are in fight or flight?

2. Freeze

This is an ancient part of our system, the first evolutionary response to extreme danger to develop. This is a place of collapse and shutdown to protect us from emotional and physical pain.

When we are in this place, stillness, is the survival response; we feel numb, frozen, immobilised. We see this in animals e.g. a rabbit staring into car headlights, hedgehogs curling up into a ball. We can hide away frozen with fear. We feel dark, foggy, fuzzy, silent, numb, cold, hopeless, disconnected, shutdown, shut off.

Reduced blood flow and reduced oxygen to the brain means we experience loss of cognitive function and can experience feelings of dissociation. When traumatised, people often feel paralysed, frozen and distanced from what is happening.

What type of things make you feel frozen or cut off …being ignored…feeling powerless…chronic pain…losing a friend…left out of conversations… constant demands?

How do you experience this state? How do you know when you are in this state?

3. Social Engagement

This is called the ventral vagal state. We feel safe, calm and connected. This is the newest part of our evolutionary development. In the ventral vagal state our nervous system seeks out cues of safety eg by reading facial expressions and tones of voice in others. Here we feel regulated, at ease and compassionate with ourself and others.

Polyvagal theory explains that human beings are hardwired to care for others; we need each other to survive. The ventral vagal state is the foundation of health, growth and restoration. We seek out connection, talk and listen to others, have the ability to soothe and be soothed, we send cues of safety, all of which nurtures good relationships.

Here we feel warm, open hearted, curious, engaged, capable, organised, passionate.

How do you know when you are in this state?

Ventral Vagal Brake

There is a ventral vagal brake which is very important in achieving and maintaining a calm state. The brake represses our fight/flight and freeze responses and thereby helps us to cope with the changing and shifting circumstances throughout daily life. It is unrealistic to expect that we can remain calm all day everyday because there are many things in an average day that can cause minor upsets e.g. washing machine breaking down, spilling a drink, a car pulling out too quickly. We need our ventral vagal brake to work smoothly and efficiently so we don’t become stuck in a response. So the key to experiencing more calm in our lives is to work out what we need to do to move more easily between the states.

We have to be able to easily move up and down the ANS ‘ladder’; it is a hierarchical and linear movement. We descend from a peaceful place into fight/ fight and then down into a frozen state if things become worse. If we find ourselves at the bottom of the ladder frozen, to feel calm again we will have move back up through fight/flight to reach the top rung of the ladder to feel better.

Think about ways you can help yourself out of a frozen place….sleep….prayer….turning the TV or music on…meditation…a good cry…a cuppa…a hot bath…accept a hug…sit in a place where there is activity and other people?

What helps you move from fight /flight feelings? What has worked in the past for you….cleaning…walking…shouting out to yourself…making a to do list….rant to a friend…going to a yoga class?

What things have helped you move out of anxious responses into a socially engaged state…. a friend’s smile….a hug …. your pet …feeling the sun on your face…children playing?

Some of the things we can do to feel more calm involves connection with others; social engagement is something we are hard wired to do because it keeps us safe in times of threat. We need to understand how to help ourselves and we also need to do things with others. Due to our past experiences and habitual responses some of us will find it difficult to know how to help ourselves and look to other people too much to do this for us however, for some of us it is very difficult to ask for help from other people and we cope with our distress alone. A mix of both is the best way.

My feeling is the rapid rise in social media platforms through the lockdown is our natural state of reaching out to others for reassurance and to achieve feelings of calm, safety and connection.

Further information:

1. Books by Deb Dana are available to buy online on More information on polyvagal theory and therapy can be found on Free videos are also available on Youtube.

2. Dr Stephen Porges originator of polyvagal theory -website has many helpful free links to articles and videos also lists of books available to purchase.

3. Free resources and advice around anxiety and COVID 19 are available online: (click on ‘Health A-Z’ then click on 'mental health and well being') (click on 'information and support') ‘Guidance for the public on the mental health and well being aspects of coronavirus (COVID -19)’

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