Want X-Ray Vision? Step 1: Learn Polyvagal Theory

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This video series covers the basics of Polyvagal Theory. The poster PDF is at the bottom of the post. For embeddable video links (e.g. to add to your LMS or otherwise share) please contact us.

Video 1: Intro to Polyvagal Theory

Polyvagal Theory outlines three primary physiological states: the green state (ventral vagal) symbolizing safety and social connection, the yellow state (sympathetic nervous system) representing our fight or flight response, and the red state (dorsal vagal), a threat response where the body conserves energy via shutdown/ “disappear” when neither fighting nor fleeing is viable. This framework provides valuable insights into how we can better understand our responses to stress and interact more compassionately with others. It’s a key “X-Ray Vision” tool for professionals across various fields, from psychology and leadership to education and healthcare, aiming to promote well-being and effective communication.

Video 2: The Physiology of Safety

In this video, we explore how our nervous system continuously scans our environment for cues of threat or safety. This is called neuroception, and it happens behind the scenes… automagically for us. When it perceives safety, we enter what is known as GREEN, the ventral vagal state, characterized by a sense of safety, connection, and the capacity for social engagement and relaxation. This state activates our smarty pants brain, enhancing our ability to think clearly, solve problems, and be creative. It also influences our biological spacesuit by optimizing functions like digestion, reproduction, and immunity. This GREEN state offers access to a broad spectrum of positive emotions, feelings, and moods, such as curiosity, compassion, creativity, and courage. Why? Because the world around us is perceived as safe, so we can thrive and explore. Stay and play. Rest and digest. Broaden and build. Our inner light (authentic Self) is not blocked by the busy-ness of the survival processes. We can enter into a a flow state, fully engaged and immersed with our work… losing track of time.

Video 3: The Physiology of Mobilization in the Face of Threat

Here we delve into the YELLOW state, associated with the body’s mobilization to face perceived threats – the well-known fight or flight response activated by the sympathetic nervous system. This response is a fundamental aspect of our physiology, designed for immediate survival by prioritizing actions over analysis. When our nervous system (via neuroception) detects danger, it shifts resources accordingly: reducing blood flow to the smarty pants brain to limit overthinking, while pausing non-essential functions like digestion, immunity, and reproduction. This is our body’s way of preparing us to either confront the challenge or make a swift escape. Despite this state “covering over” our inner light – the essence of our authentic Self – it’s crucial to remember that our light remains 100% bright and intact, merely obscured by the immediate demands of survival. The YELLOW state is great for temporarily reallocating our resources to ensure we live to see another day. Well…. at least it’s supposed to be a temporary reallocation of resources… What happens when we stay in chronic YELLOW?

Video 4: Shutdown Due to Immobilization in the Face of Threat

This video addresses the RED state – a state of immobilization when the fight or flight response is deemed insufficient to address perceived threats. This state, governed by the dorsal vagal process, prepares the body for death, or the possibility of survival based on ‘disappearing’ through mechanisms like feigning death or shutting down in the face of insurmountable danger. In this extreme survival strategy, our body conserves energy to the utmost, significantly reducing functions like blood flow to the brain, digestion, immunity, and reproduction. It’s a physiological response to the most severe threats, where the body opts for immobilization as a form of protection. This state can leave us feeling numb and hopeless, overshadowing our inner light and authentic Self. By exploring the RED state, we gain insight into the body’s complex survival mechanisms and the profound impact they have on our mental and physical health.

Video 5: Blended State (Safety): GREEN + YELLOW

This video covers a dynamic blended state of safety: GREEN-YELLOW. We see the safety and connection of the green (ventral vagal) state with just the right amount of the mobilization energy from the yellow (sympathetic) state. This blended state is not about reacting to threats (“frazzle”) but rather harnessing the “razzle dazzle” of being safely energized to act. It’s where safety meets activation, allowing us to perform at our best, blending the ventral vagal’s sense of safety with a touch of the sympathetic system’s mobilization. This is often where creativity soars, productivity flourishes, and we feel fully alive.

Video 6: Blended (Threat) State: YELLOW-RED

This video covers the YELLOW-RED blend. As always, the biological spacesuit’s intent is helpful when it decides to plop us into this state… But, I’m not gonna lie… the mix mobilization to react (yellow) plus the immobilization of red is a pretty crappy feeling…. Exhausted but revved up. No brain power. A pretty much bleck mix of heightened alertness and a significant drop in cognitive clarity. This blend results in a challenging state where, despite being physically revved up, there’s a fog over our brain, making productive action or rest difficult to achieve. It’s the embodiment of being stuck between wanting to act and feeling unable to move forward, a state that can feel quite distressing.

Video 7: Blended State (Safety): GREEN-RED

This video focuses on a particularly restorative blended state: the combination of the green state’s safety with a hint of immobilization. This unique physiological state fosters an environment where profound rejuvenation can occur, making it ideal for practices like meditation and Yin Yoga. In this state, the dominance of the GREEN (ventral vagal) state ensures a foundation of safety and calm, while the slight immobilization of RED allows our bodies to deeply relax and restore. It’s a state where we can engage in activities that nourish our bodies at a cellular level, particularly beneficial for the fascia, connective tissues, and joints. Yin Yoga, for instance, leverages this state to encourage deep healing and relaxation, distinguishing it from the more active practices that might stimulate the mobilization aspects of our nervous system. As someone who has personally experienced the benefits of Yin Yoga, I decided to get certified as a Yin Yoga teacher. If you are in #SanDiego I often teach on Sundays, if you feel like checking it out. (I like to think of it as “cuddle yoga.”)

Video 8: PVT Connections – Telling Yourself You’re Excited vs Scared

The next few videos will focus on connecting all the cool things you know back to Polyvagal Theory… For example, Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School, conducted experiments where participants were asked to reframe their anxiety as excitement before engaging in anxiety-inducing tasks, such as public speaking, math performance, and karaoke singing. The study found that participants who were instructed to say “I am excited” outperformed those who didn’t reframe their anxiety or were told to calm down. The way I see it is: They all felt the mobilizing activation of YELLOW. Those who told themselves “I’m excited,” stayed in GREEN-YELLOW… Those who said “I’m anxious, etc,” took a fast train to YELLOW-ville. Get Excited: Reappraising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement is a study by Alison Wood Brooks. It was first posted on December 23, 2013, and published in June 2014.

Video 9: PVT Connections – The Yerkes-Dodson Law of Arousal

Ever wonder why finding the “just right” level of challenge and engagement feels so rewarding? The Goldilocks curve of arousal and performance, rooted in the Yerkes-Dodson Law, explains exactly that. This principle suggests there’s an optimal level of arousal for peak performance – not too little that we’re bored and disengaged, and not too much that we’re overwhelmed and stressed. In the sweet spot of this curve, we’re likely in GREEN-YELLOW: combining the safety of the ventral vagal system with just the right amount of sympathetic activation, allowing us to lose track of time and excel in our endeavors. Can you relate what you know of PVT to what’s going on in this curve? Watch to hear my ideas!

Video 10: PVT Connections – The Physiology of Crucial Conversations

Conflict might push us into the yellow zone of arousal, where our capacity for rational thought is compromised. Yet, solutions are found in the green zone – where safety, connection, and our “smarty pants brain” are fully engaged. This transition from yellow to green is essential for productive resolutions, emphasizing the importance of creating cues of safety that enable open, constructive dialogues. In this video I related PVT to the wisdom found in the book Crucial Conversations.

Video 11: Why Play IS the Way!

Why do I lean into humor and playfulness in my discussions about the Polyvagal Theory and stress management? According to the American Stress Institute, a staggering 83% of U.S. workers are experiencing chronic stress, essentially living in a perpetual YELLOW state of fight or flight. Beyond that, many are stuck in the RED of hopelessness and shutdown. Introducing complex topics like the anatomy of the nervous system whilst people have their “smarty pants brains” getting diminished blood flow is just not a bright idea. Humor and playfulness are not just strategies to make the topic stressed-brain-friendly; they are vital tools to transition from a state of chronic stress to one of safety and connection—shifting from yellow to green. Engaging in activities that evoke laughter or encourage play can significantly contribute to creating a sense of safety and connection.

Video 12:

As an astronaut, Edgar Mitchell witnessed the profound beauty of Earth from space, leading to an awe experience that changed his life — it led him to establish the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Awe is an example of a self-transcendent emotion (STE). I like to say that STEs get us to SUPER GREEN. In this video I talk a little about neuro-positivity, STEs and how we elicited awe our workshops.

Polyvagal Poster (16″ x 20″)