Two Arrows (Part 2 ):

What could be different if you knew your nervous system response always wants to keep you safe?

It was years after my freeze experience (Two Arrows Part 1 post) with the students that I stumbled into handsanswers around this, when I became an accidental long distance sea swimmer. Ok, a little context here, I got what I can only describe as a deep pull to start swimming in the sea. I figured this really wasn’t a solo endeavour and the only sea swimmer group I knew at the time, trained together to do an annual 5 k sea swim. So, joining them to train towards this shared goal seemed like my only option and that is what I did.

Do I need to be able to swim with my face in the water? I tentatively asked a member of the group hoping the answer was no (I was a head out of the water breast stroker). “Yes” came the answer I really did not want to hear.

That is how I found myself at a group training session in a pool, trying to swim with my face in the water. My ‘not safe’ nervous system response kicked in and I literally gasped up and down the pool as if I was fighting for my life. Of course, I now know this is how my NS was reading the situation. I was mortified, as I huffed and puffed, panting very loudly, turning beetroot in colour and light-headed from hyperventilating.

So how can we work with our nervous system when this happens?

A very wise and grounded Donegal women who had witnessed this poolflapping and flaying came to me at the end of session, as I fought back the tears of frustration and embarrassment. She shared her story of struggle when she started to learn to swim with her face in the water as an adult. She suggested I try going to the pool on my own with a float and practice at my own pace.

At the same time I was reading the wonderful Peter Levine book “Waking the Tiger, healing trauma”. He talked how we can sooth the nervous system when it feels unsafe (and we are safe) by reassuring ourselves, like you would sooth a crying child. So I devised a little swimming routine where I would go into the pool with my float and when I put my head in the water and my NS got triggered and the hyperventilating kicked in I would thank it for trying to keep me safe and reassure myself repeating I am safe, I could get out at any time. I am not going die.

Slowly but surely my NS grew a new neural pathway that swimming with my face in the water was safe, it did not need to be so ‘on guard’. I am now in my seventh year of completing the annual swim across the Lough, with my face in the water (well most of the time anyway, when I am not chatting). Funnily enough, the shadow of the NS response still remains and I notice it showing up occasionally but it doesn’t take hold, it now co-exist with stronger NS response that says it is ok, we are safe here. Jellyfish? Well, now that’s another story.

swim tribe

My Swimming Tribe, (including my wonderful sister Carleen) and me

Polyvagal Theory

Stephen Porges wonderful work in Polyvagal theory in recent years has shed so much light on our understanding of the nervous system and how much it colours our experience. Deb Dana refers to Polyvagal theory as “The science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risk of living” (Deb Dana 2020).

Stephen Porges talks about the hierarchical nature of our nervous system response. When our ‘not safe’ response is triggered ‘fight or flight’ is our first line of defence, if that is not enough, the oldest safety system of ‘freeze’, that we have in our DNA kicks in- basically pretending we are dead. We see this in animals being attacked, when they roll up in a ball. This can present as fainting in us humans but a more common, adapted version is ‘dissociation’ where we literally ‘zone out’ from what is happening. Our body can’t get out of there but it can get your mind out of there. This nervous system response shuts down our social engagement system -that governs our ability to talk, listen and communicate well with other people, our diaphragm loses tone and our breathing becomes shallow. This explains my example of why I froze in front of the students and I couldn’t speak. In an attempt to keep me safe my social engagement system, governing our ability to speak had shut down.

The Vagus nerve

The freeze response is governed by a rather amazing nerve called the Vagus nerve, sometimes referred to as the wandering nerve as it runs the whole way from the brain stem across our face, ears, eyes, neck, heart, diaphragm, lower diaphragm, even below our diaphragm affecting our guts. Amazingly,  although we have no language in our gut, 80-90% of the Vagus nerve is dedicated to sending ‘gut information’ to your brain.  Why and I going on about this nerve so much? This nerve is a gateway to us showing up as we want to.

A gateway to connection, resourcefulness and compassion

When we feel safe, the vagus nerve has tone (as the neuroscientist call it) it brings us into presence and connection with others, resourcefulness, compassion and curiosity.

When we do not feel safe, the nervous system can take us into hyper-standing stonesarousal, when we feel out heart racing and we become hypervigilant, priming ourselves for danger. Being in this state actually changing how we hear things, telling ourselves a story of defensiveness and division (us and them, polarizing thinking). Or our NS will move us into (dorsal vagal) shutdown and we become foggy and numb and we move into a story of despair. We can move in and out of these different states and experience two at once, for example feeling very hyper-aroused and anxious and also feeling stuck and overwhelmed.

The great news is that we can become acquainted with our nervous system.

In the short term we can:

  • Learn how our nervous system works. We can learn to notice what NS ‘states’ we are in, and what stories we telling ourselves from these different states.
  • As in my swimming story, we can learn how to form new neural pathways, when our nervous system is stopping us from showing up as we want to, when we are misfiring a story of not being safe when we are safe.
  • We can better manage our ‘second arrows’ about mismatches of our nervous system reading the situation as unsafe when in reality we are safe. Reminding ourselves that our nervous system is always trying to protect us, no matter what. For example, you can be kinder to yourself in those times when you reflect on a conversation where you didn’t say what you wanted to say, when you found ‘your social engagement system shutting down’ or your found yourself going into ‘fight’ and becoming defensive and polarized in your thinking.

In the longer term you can:

  • Work to build the muscle of being able to more swiftly access your resourceful self where you can be more open, curious, connected and compassionate.
  • Experiment with simple practices which have been scientifically shown to build the neural pathways of resourcefulness, such as slow, rhythmic breathing, chanting/singing, yoga, meditation and human connection, in particular connecting to others who are calm in their nervous system.

What is the relevance of this in these in Covid times?

At a conference 2 weeks ago, Stephen Porges talked about the paradoxical challenge Covid presents. We could get infected by being with others, touching, being close and yet this is what our nervous system craves- human connection, we have a biological imperative to connect.

As we navigate this times of emergence and reconnecting, we still have so many cues telling us we are not safe. What would it be like if you invite compassion for yourself (and others) when you experience a nervous system ‘lack of safety’ response when it is to bewilderment of your rational mind?

What would it be like to get to know how to work with your Nervous System to bring more capacity and resource to your life? To your Family? To your work?

We can all work with our nervous system and build new neural pathways that bring us into new possibilities.

If you are curious to learn more, if this is sparks your interest, do get in touch, let’s have a conversation.

Do also get in touch if you would like to hear more about:

  • working one to one with me
  • coming along to a group session (day of discovery)
  • my corporate offerings

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“Earth will be safe when we feel in us enough safety” (Thich Nhat Hanh)