Fighting for survival

Lisa MillardBeacon Community Services, Beacon Education Services, Beacon Family Services, Family Relationships

When it comes to behaviours, often our nervous system is to blame.

For years I’ve specialised as a teacher working with the most difficult and hard to reach children. I loved working with those children and thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of breaking down the barriers and building relationships. Very often sharing my love and knowledge of football would get me out of a tricky spot and build  a much needed connection.

It seems that I instinctively knew that the magic of teaching hard to reach pupils lay in building safe relationships. I never really understood any of the science behind it, I just knew it worked to bring some joy into the classroom. I’ve always known how important it is to make sure those very pupils in particular felt valued and worthy of my attention.

More recently I’ve found myself parenting hard a hard to reach child after becoming a parent to two adopted twins. I became a SEND Warrior Mum and began my own journey to discover the science behind the behaviours that children exhibit.

When I stumbled across The Polyvagal Theory suddenly everything started to make sense – it was like I had found the lost jigsaw piece I had been searching for. I Googled, I read books and I searched out ever bit of information I could find about Dr Porges’ theory. Among other treasures, I discovered the Polyvagal Podcast (https://www.justinlmft.com/), which was a real revelation.

Polyvagal Theory in a nutshell

Dr Porges is a psychiatrist who researches into how our nervous systems impact on our capacity to manage social engagement. It has been hailed as the missing link to understanding trauma.

His concept is a simple one. Our nervous systems have three states which we are constantly moving between. At times, situations or circumstances can mean that we find ourselves stuck in one of the states for a prolonged period of time. Each state links implicitly to feelings and biology and, therefore, our behaviour. The primarily purpose of these states is to keep us safe.

The Polyvagal Theory in Action

Imagine for a minute that you are watching a documentary on lions. You watch as a stunning lioness silently stalks a herd of grazing antelope. Though they can’t yet see the lioness, the antelope sense danger. They move from their calm and safe state (known as the vagal ventral state) into a state of alertness. Their reaction is primal and they do this without thinking. Once in the state of alertness, their bodies tense and get ready to run. Their nervous systems are now in fight or flight mode (known as the sympathetic state). They listen and wait for the next sign.

The lioness then explodes out of the overgrowth and begins her pursuit of a smaller antelope at the edge of the herd. Fully aware of the danger, the antelope is now in a full sympathetic state and uses all of its energy to run away from the lioness. However,  the lioness is good. She is faster than the antelope and soon catches up, grabs it by the neck and pulls it down.

Terrified and with no other options, the antelope plays dead. It’s system enters dorsal vagus collapse (known as the parasympathetic state). With no movements coming from the antelope, the lioness thinks she has won and loosens her grip. Suddenly, the antelope senses a chance to escape and quickly mobilises his system. The antelope is back in the sympathetic state able to run back to the safety of the herd.

Throughout the pursuit the antelope moves through all three states. The antelope’s primal needs are to stay safe and survive.  As humans, we are no different. Our primal need is to stay safe and survive and, like with all other animals, our nervous system is geared up to make it happen.

The SAFE State

The SAFE state (known as the Ventral Vagus) is we sense no real or perceived danger. In this state we are safe, we can think clearly and we are able to engage socially with others. The muscles in our bodies are relaxed, our heart rate is steady and we can breathe normally.

Because we feel safe and calm we can access the frontal cortex (or control centre) of our brains which is responsible for emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and sexual behaviours.

In the SAFE state we feel:

  • Happy
  • Confident
  • Comfortable
  • Grounded

In this state we are SAFE. We are ready to connect with others, ready to play and ready to learn.

The STRUGGLING State

As we sense danger, we enter what is referred to as a fight or flight state (mobilisation) or sympathetic state. In this state we are STRUGGLING. We are focussed on doing only what we need to do to survive or get away from the threat. Our muscles become tense, our breathing gets faster and our heart rate rises. Our system mobilises ready to take us away from danger.

In the STRUGGLING state we feel:

  • Scared
  • Angry
  • Annoyed
  • Uncomfortable
  • Unfocussed
  • Frustrated
  • Vulnerable
  • Tense

In this state we are STRUGGLING to connect with others, not ready to play and not ready to learn. In this state we need connection although we may not acknowledge it. 

With help we can move back up to the SAFE state.

The DROWNING State

If our fear doesn’t go away or get resolved or if we don’t find safety then we drop down further into a Dorsal Vagus collapse state. We are DROWNING. We don’t feel safe with anyone and we are scared and are only motivated by a need to keep safe.  Our bodies are tense, our heart races, we are sweating and can’t control our bowels and / or our bladder. We seem disconnected with these feelings.

In the DROWNING state we feel:

  • Distant 
  • Alone
  • Empty
  • Invisible 
  • Heavy 
  • Numb
  • Disconnected

In this state we are DROWNING and therefore we cannot connect with others, we are not ready to play and we are not ready to learn.

We need help to feel SAFE.

Once I understood these states, I began to recognise them in myself and in others. It was a game changer, allowing me to provide better and more impactful support to the children I work with. I had learnt to understand and use my own nervous system to help others.

Imagine if all teachers understood the Polyvagal Theory. What if all teachers could recognise when a pupil is drowning and therefore unable to connect, unable to play and unable to learn? What would it mean for our children if teachers were able to recognise that the pupil in front of them was drowning and entirely unable to even hear and make sense of what is being said. Imagine how much better life will be for that pupil, their family and that teacher. 

For more information about the Polyvagal Theory here. 

If you would like to find out more about training with Beacon Family Services or for further information on how we, at Beacon Family Services, use the Polyvagal Theory in our work, contact us via info@beaconservices.org.uk.

Julie Ashby-Higgins is a former school leader, educator, therapist and Director at Beacon Education Services, a part of Beacon Family Services. Beacon Family Services works with families, schools and communities to provide therapy sessions which help build relationships and connections with others. They have continued to offer their services throughout Covid-19, providing valuable connections and acting as a lifeline to struggling families. 

You can find out more about how Beacon Family Services help families, vulnerable or at-risk pupils, or learn more about developing your practice as a therapist through training at beaconservices.com.