Fight/Flight/Freeze or Cha-Cha?

polyvagal guys

(image credit: Anthony “Twig” Wheeler)

I’ve been thinking about our culture’s relationship to exercise, fitness, body image, and even the modern and thankfully-mainstream yoga buzz.  We can compare our relationship to our moving or sedentary body – or our feast or famine relationship to exercise – to the Polyvagal Theory, developed by Stephen Porges.  While looking for an easy infographic to explain the Polyvagal Theory, which you might commonly hear as fight/flight/freeze, I found the above image of the red/yellow/green figures on Anthony “Twig” Wheeler’s website.  For a more complete read on the Polyvagal Theory, Google Stephen Porges, or simply check out the interactive site Anthony “Twig” Wheeler has created at:

In a nutshell, the Polyvagal Theory explains three behavioral stages in the development of a mammal’s autonomic nervous system: 1) shutting down, 2) fighting/fleeing, and 3) social engagement.

You can see the red guy above is crouching.  He’s shutting down.  He’s avoiding a situation or feeling.  He represents the dorsal vagal complex, the oldest and most primitive branch of the vagus nerve. He might say yes when he means no.  He might say no when he needs to say yes. He might go through the movements but be wondering miles away.

You can see the yellow guy wants to fight!  “I’ll show you!”  He represents the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight, the reptilian brain. He might boast his opinions and righteousness and might but from a biting, snapping place.

You can see the green guy wants to engage.  He wants to dance, do the meringue, have a peaceful conversation perhaps with a cup o’ tea, a cold beer, or at least he’s willing to toss his gun.  He wants to cha-cha with life.  This is where the person can stay grounded, present, socially engaged through thick and thin without fleeing, fighting or dying.  He says no like he means it but without biting off a head. He says yes when he really means it. He represents the ventral vagus system.  As I like to say, cha cha cha.

So let’s take this back to our relationship to our bodies.  Earlier, I wrote about How You Move is How You Live.  And, granted, we aren’t aiming to be perfect (anyway, that’s a sneaky way of that reptilian response to fight ourselves, to mask our lovely imperfect selves).  But, many of us are aiming for a more engaged and mindful relationship to movement, exercise, fitness, our bodies, our lives.  And, that’s what I teach.  So, before my baby wakes and requires social engagement from moi, I quickly drew and wrote an illustration that makes sense to me in terms of how the Polyvagal Theory can be shown in relationship to exercise/movement.  I can already think of things I could add to this bit, but without further ado:

PV theory illustration

It boils down to this:  Do you want to dance, to cha-cha, to flow, to expand in a sustainable way?  Or do you want to push yourself to the extreme or avoid having a conversation with your body at all costs?  The former takes time.  It doesn’t produce results in 30 days.  (well, I think you might feel better internally which inevitably has a domino effect elsewhere, but….)  The latter might be a cheap salve to harden your muscles and send you straight to the cookie aisle after 6 days of strict dieting and rigidly exercising…or perhaps a really grumpy, hungry way of living.

You can be socially engaged (aka attuned and connected) to your body and life and reap all kind of benefits.  I promise.  It takes stepping off the wheel of self harm and avoidance.  It requires kindness and compassion and courage, blended with the playfulness of effort and ease.  You can be socially engaged through running, cha-cha-ing, lifting weights, flowing through sun salutations, gardening and various other forms of mindful movement.  It’s about staying open to your intentions, to your feelings, to your body.  Allow a conversation.  Write your body’s story.  Seek some healthy support.  Commit to dancing with your lovely self.




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