Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast

The 6 Nervous System States

May 09, 2023 Amanda Armstrong Episode 12
Regulate & Rewire: An Anxiety & Depression Podcast
The 6 Nervous System States
Show Notes Transcript

Episode 12

This is another nerdy dive into better understanding the nervous system by introducing you to the 6 primary nervous system states according to the polyvagal theory. By now you’re likely familiar with the 3 states of: regulation, activation, and shut down – aka green, yellow, red zone. In today's chat we'll review those and I'll introduce you to the 3 "mixed states" of play, stillness, and freeze. Hit play to learn more!

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Welcome to regulate, and rewire and anxiety and depression podcast where we discuss the things I wish someone would have taught me earlier in my healing journey. I'm your host, Amanda Armstrong. And I'll be sharing my steps, my missteps, client experiences and tangible research based tools to help you regulate your nervous system, rewire your mind and reclaim your life. Thanks for being here. Now let's dive in. 


Everyone, Today is another nerdy dive into better understanding the nervous system. And I'm going to do this by introducing you to six different nervous system states. So if you've been listening along for a little bit, now, you are likely familiar with three of the primary states regulation, activation and shut down those three states, we've talked about being on the nervous system ladder, we also refer to these as the green yellow and red zone, or they're more formally in polyvagal terms called the ventral vagal state sympathetic activation, or dorsal vagal shutdown. And today, I'm going to introduce you to three more states that are referred to as mixed states. 


So mixed states are when we are in two of these primary states at the same time, so we might be in a state of regulation and dorsal vagal, shutdown or activation, and regulation. And the three states we're going to learn more about today are freeze, play and stillness. So those are the labels for the three mixed states, the Free State, play state, and stillness state. So in all of these six different nervous system states, there are three states of regulation and three states of dysregulation. And the more familiar you are with the characteristics of each, the better you are at identifying where you are, which state you're in. And this is really important, because when you can recognize the state that you're in, you can more readily decide if you would like to change it, or cultivate more of it. 


So ideally, when you recognize that you are in one of the three states of disregulation, you can cultivate tools that help to move you towards regulation. And different tools work for different states as you move towards regulation. So a different tool is going to work when you're in shutdown, versus when you are in that activation state. Now, if you can recognize that you are in one of the three states of regulation, that play stillness, or regulation green zone, this gives you a moment to pause and reflect on what's supporting me what's helping me to be in this playful state right now, what's helping me to be in the state of stillness, and how can I stay in the state a little longer or cultivate it more frequently in my life. 


So to help you get familiar with these states, we are going to look at four categories of characteristics for each state, we're going to look at the thoughts or stories that are most frequent to that state, emotions, behaviors, and sensations. So we are going to come up with kind of a profile map for each one of these six states. Again, my goal is to help you become more familiar with the experience of these and again, what I'm giving you is a very generic story, emotion, behavior, sensation profile for each one of these states, it might be helpful for you to reflect more personally on the stories, emotions, behaviors, or sensations that come up for you, especially in the states of dysregulation that you spend the most time in, or the states of regulation that you would like to cultivate more of in your life. 


So first, we're going to do the three basic states. Again, this may be review for some of you who've been around a while. And then we'll talk about creating these profiles for the mixed states. So in a state of regulation, the thoughts that you're typically thinking, the story that you have, is I can handle this, I can handle this, I'm capable, there's enough time, the world is safe. So these are thoughts and stories of competence. Now, when you're in a regulated state, it doesn't necessarily mean that everything is perfect, and that you're perfectly happy, perfectly calm, perfectly present. Being in a regulated state just means that you feel like you have the tools and the competency to cope with whatever it is that you're dealing with at the moment. So if you're thinking thoughts, like, I got this, I can handle this. It'll all be okay. The world is safe. This person is safe. You're likely in the green zone. And the emotions that we experience when we're in this green zone are things like feeling calm, grounded, safe, curious, creative. We're open, we feel content, and then behaviors. So again, what we're doing by setting up this profile is oh, if I'm exhibiting any of these behaviors, if I'm thinking any of these thoughts or feeling any of these emotions, I can, with some relative confidence, say that I am in a nervous system, a state of regulation. And remember, this isn't just a cognitive state, the state of your nervous system is also what's happening inside your body in your physiology. And we'll talk a little bit more about that after we get these basic profiles. 


So when you're in a state of regulation, this gives you access to productivity, feeling introspective, you check in with yourself before you make decisions, your social, you reach out, you're able to offer compassion to other people. And sensations that you might experience in your body is a sensation of steadiness and feeling relaxed, you have stable energy, you've got good digestion, you have a relaxed and steady breath rate. So if any of those things are happening for you, or feel familiar, awesome, that's the green zone of regulation. 


Now let's talk about the yellow zone of activation. So what's happening in your body's physiology here, is you are preparing to fight or flee. This is a very mobilizing state. You're thinking thoughts like, I have to do this right now? Or else. There's that sense of urgency. You might be thinking, I can't rest I can't slow down. Are they mad at me, right? We're trying to kind of mind read a little bit here. There's no time I have to fix this. So these thoughts, our sense of kind of worry and urgency. When it comes to the emotions that we experience when we're in this yellow zone, things like worry, anxiety, fear, anger, panic, rage, irritation, it feels really chaotic and mobilizing behaviors that might happen here. catastrophizing thoughts, so if your brain is spiraling out on you worst case scenario, if you're feeling really defensive or protective, or even really avoidant, certain behaviors that happen here is this need to control or overworking. We'll also see some disrupted sleep in sympathetic activation. And then what it might feel like in your body, could be a fast heart rate, shallow breath, clammy hands, muscle tightness. You might feel really shaky or fidgety, like you have some tunnel vision, though all of those are indicative that you are in a state of activation, you're in that yellow zone. 


And then click Profile for our shutdown state. So this is what we've referred to as your red zone. When you're here, your physiology is immobilized, that yellow zone is really activated. Let's go go go. This is very shut down. And oftentimes our brain reflects that physiology by thinking thoughts like, it doesn't even matter. Like I can't cope with this, we feel oftentimes pretty helpless or hopeless. You might think thoughts like, everything is so hard. What's the point? I'm invisible. I'm all alone. I'm unlovable, nobody cares about me. So if you can catch your mind going to those places, that is a pretty clear indicator that your nervous system is overwhelmed to the point of shutdown. And emotions that we feel here often are numb, flat, disconnected, dissociated depression. This might be where we feel, again, that helpless, hopeless apathy, kind of like nothing, nothing matters. And when we are in this state, the behaviors that we see our social withdrawal, we isolate, a lot of times in conversations, you may zone out, you've got flat tone or facial expressions. 


I remember one time, I was talking to a roommate, and she had asked me it was raining. And she had asked me to pick her up from track. I was on my university track team. And I was injured at the time, so I wasn't going to practice. I wasn't competing. And I fell into kind of a situational depression. And I answered the phone and she's like, Hey, can you come pick me up? Like it's raining? I don't wanna ride my bike home. And I remember answering I was like, Yeah, sure. And she's like, if you're mad about it, like, you don't have to come get me. I was like, no, no, like, I'm not mad about it. Like, I'm actually totally fine to come get you. And I had to kind of recalibrate in the car and just explain to her like, Man, I did not mean for my tone to sound like that. No matter how fine I really was coming to pick you up. Like I'm struggling. Right now I wish I could be there with my team, there was another roommate situation that wasn't great, right? my nervous system was overwhelmed to the point of being in that state of shutdown. And so a behavior that we sometimes see here is just that numb or flat phone or facial expression. And that's just a quick example that comes to mind from from my life. 


And the sensations we feel in our body. When we're in the shutdown state or things like just numbness, it might be that you have an absence of connection to or sensation in your body. Fatigue, no appetite, a sense of heaviness or fogginess, low energy. Sometimes we have shallow breathing, you feel disconnected, like you're not in your body. 


So taking a moment to pause, which one of those three states felt the most familiar to you? Or felt the most applicable to the season of your life you're in right now? Or how you feel right now, in this moment? Can you identify some of the thoughts you've had in the last hour or so? How it feels to be in your body right now? If you had a particular emotion, what kinds of behaviors have you been exhibiting lately? Where do you think you are? Based on those three states? Are you more in a state of regulation, activation, or shutdown. And again, my goal is not just to list a bunch of things that you but also hold some space for you to reflect and to explore. 


So now I want to talk about the three mixed states. So again, those three mix states are labeled freeze, play, and stillness. So freeze, is a mix of activation, and shutdown. So this is a state of dysregulation. And this is where our nervous system is so activated, that it becomes immobilized. It sometimes looks from the outside in like that shutdown. But we often feel it a little differently. So if that shutdown in red zone, to the outside looking in looks like isolation, not taking action, procrastination. 


The Free State also might look like those things, but when we're in shutdown, we feel like it doesn't matter. We feel numb, we feel flat. But in that free state, we feel active. So we're almost so activated, we're stuck. And so the thoughts that you think here in this free state are often contradicting. So there's that sense of urgency. But you can't take action on that urgency. So you might think things like I have to right now, but I can't, I should right now, but I can't. I feel so behind. But it feels impossible, right? This idea of like I have to I have to there's urgency, there's activation. But that activation feels so intense, and so overwhelming that you you get stuck. And so what we feel in this state a lot of times is just that stuck. It's anxiety met with overwhelm. This can feel really confusing for us, really frustrating. This is where a lot of my clients have stories of shame, blame and guilt, right, like I know better, but I can't do better. I have so many things to do, but I'm just not doing them. And they kind of chalk that up to them being disorganized or lazy or a procrastinator when in reality, it's that their nervous system is so overwhelmed, it's stuck. And so we feel responsible. But avoidant. And behaviors that we see here, again, is thinking about doing something all day, but not actually doing it wanting to do something, but not being able to do it. And we often see behaviors like mindless scrolling, or avoidance. And that could be a good indicator that you're stuck in a state of freeze. And then if you're in tune enough to feel into your body, a lot of times with the sensations are there is a sense of stiffness of being trapped. It's that surge of energy met with shut down. 


So again, remember this is a mixed state. It's activation and shutdown. At the same time. You may feel racing thoughts, but also a level of kind of blankness and freeze feels heavy. You might feel frozen appropriately. So, again, looking at this free state as I have to right now, but I can't So when you feel the sense of urgency, but what you're actually seeing is inaction, there's a good chance that you are in a free state. 


Now, the two other MCs states are states of regulation. Play is when we are mixed with that green zone, and yellow zone, you're regulated and activated. So just like the title implies, this is a playfulness. So thoughts and stories here might be, it's safe to be silly, and play. I'm really excited. And so if you are feeling activated and energetic, and safe and grounded, you are in a nervous system, state of play, and emotions that we feel here. Like I mentioned, our playfulness. We feel fun, joyous, happy, excited. The behaviors that we see happen when we're in this state is a lot of laughter, maybe silliness. This could also be where there's some competitiveness. This could also be, you know, when you're out playing soccer, and it's light hearted and competitive, and fun and playful. And there can be an edge to play for sure to maybe this is when you're playing games. This could also be when you are sitting and watching a comedy show. So behaviors are just laughter, silliness, playfulness, and the sensations you might feel in your body when you're in the state is a sense of energy. lightheartedness, you might feel kind of a buzzing, that's also grounded. And so thinking back to how it feels in your body, when you feel safe, to be silly, and to play, and maybe some of you haven't experienced much of that, or haven't in a long time. 


And then we have the sixth and final mix state, which is stillness. And this is a combination of regulation and shutdown. So it may seem a little bit contrary that anything mixed with shutdown could be a state of regulation. But remember, with the shutdown state, and in the polyvagal theory, it's called the dorsal vagal. It's a part of our vagus nerve that is activated. And so when that dorsal vagal is activated, with this green safety regulation state, this is when we can find that deep stillness. And so this is, when we're thinking thoughts like, it's safe to rest, it's safe to be still, I'm worthy of rest, there's time. It's okay for me to just be right now, this is when we can take a pause from being a human doing, it just be a human being in a calm way. And so motions that we feel when we're in this stillness, state is calm, present, relaxed, safe. And when you're in this state, you might see behaviors like just sitting on the couch without feeling guilty about it, you might go on a leisurely walk, not with a purpose of like fitness or getting somewhere, but I'm just here to relax and to enjoy and to see the world around me. You might be able to just sit in a hammock, or sit at your table, looking out the window. Anything that allows you to feel still and calm and safe, without in the background, thinking about your to do list or how you're wasting your time or how there's so much to do. 


And again, the sensations that we feel when we're in this state are those sensations of being grounded, calm, we have a regulated heartbeat, our breath is slow and regulated. We may feel a sense of I don't want to say heaviness because I've said heaviness and states of dysregulation, but almost just like a letting go sensation. So especially when I am doing like a yoga nidra practice, or I'm in shavasana at the end of a yoga practice, or even taking some deep breaths to prepare me for sleep. Right? There's that different level of release, maybe it's not heavy in your body, it's released in your body, there's a release intention. 


And so these are the six different nervous system states. So really quick review because I know that was a lot of different pieces and characteristics, etc. So in the six nervous system states, you have your three foundational states and your three mixed states. And amongst those six states, there are three states of regulation and three states of dysregulation the three regulated state eights are the green zone. So that state of regulation where you're thinking things like I can, I'm capable, I can do this play, which is a mix of activation and regulation, that green and yellow zone, where you're thinking things like it's safe to be silly, it's safe to play. And the third state of regulation is stillness. So this is that mix of green and red, it is safe to rest, it's safe to be still I do not have to earn the right to relax. So anything green or mixed with green is one of those regulation states. And our three states of dysregulation is that activated yellow zone that says state of fight or flight I have to right now or else, then we have shut down, which is that red zone of it doesn't even matter. And then we have freeze. So you've likely heard the terms, right, fight, flight, and freeze. And sometimes freeze gets categorized into the red zone because they look the same externally. But when we look at nervous system states this way, I love that they're separate, because freeze feels different internally, then that red zone breeze is that sense of urgency and shutdown, I have to right now, but I can't, I really should. But I can't. And that's that mix of red and yellow, that we often experience before the total shutdown of well, it doesn't even matter. 


And as you cultivate more nervous system awareness, and you grow your regulation toolbox, the point of today's conversation and this work, and creating even unique maps and profiles of how you experience each one of these states, you are going to be able to more quickly catch yourself in one of those three states of dysregulation and know how to support yourself. This is the work that we do in coaching so intimately with clients is helping them to create a personal profile of how they experience fight, flight, freeze and shutdown. And then we help them to identify specific somatic practices, cognitive tools, environmental shifts, that helped them to move towards regulation. And what regulates you, when you're in a state of fight or flight, that yellow zone is going to be different than what regulates you when you're in a state of freeze or in a state of shutdown. And this awareness, again, of these three states of regulation helps you to create that moment of pause to explore what contributed to that. I'm feeling really playful right now. And that's not normal for me, maybe i normally feel pretty anxious. But right now I feel really playful. What's contributing to this? Is it the people that are around me, is it the sleep that I got last night? Is it the environment that I'm in, and this is how we can explore with the purpose of intentionally creating more of that state in your life, if that's something that you want. For me, even still, with all the work that I've done, when I find myself in true moments of stillness. That is something that I want to explore. 


And I've shared with you before, I have struggled with debilitating productivity based self worth, for most of my life, that is a pattern that I will likely be untangling for the rest of my life. And so when I find myself in these true moments of laying in a hammock with my toddler, where I'm not feeling like I should be doing other things, I'm not stressing out over the long to do lists that I have. I like to reflect on those moments of I'm feeling truly still a as a celebratory moment for how far that I have come in my healing journey, that I have access to authentic moments of stillness. Because I spent over a decade of my life where I don't think there was a single one of those moments. If I wasn't being productive, then I was thinking about how I should be should be productive. 


So becoming aware of these little pocket in moments of stillness or playfulness could also be indicative to progress that you've made on your healing journey. And I love just last week, a client came in and shared. She's been struggling a lot with anxiety. And she goes I was able to read five minutes of my book before he started to feel guilty for reading my book. And that as silly as it sounds was a huge celebratory moment for her because typically she would sit down with the book, open up the book and immediately think I shouldn't be reading the book, I should be doing my dishes or I should really be responding to emails or I should be whatever. And she said I was able to really get five genuine minutes of enjoying my book before those thoughts came in. And amazing and she can do use that as kind of a benchmark for when she gets seven minutes or 10 minutes, or, oh my gosh, the day that she can sit down and read for an hour and not feel guilty. That shows us that she has started to reset her nervous system baseline to a place that is more regulated and feel safer in rest. 


And so just reiterating that if you have been living in states of dysregulation for a long time, one of the things that you might notice first with this awareness is that sense of unease that you are in a regulated state. So for a long, long time, like I said, stillness and play felt so uncomfortable for me, and to our nervous system uncomfortable and unfamiliar reads as unsafe. And so learning about these states, and consciously being able to see how uncomfortable I was in them, gave me just enough context to allow that discomfort. And what I mean by that is, often when I would have those moments of stillness arrest, I would get antsy and immediately jump back in to productivity. Again, just reinforcing to my nervous system is stillness isn't safe. You need to stay in an immobilization. Or when I would find myself in play, it wouldn't be long before I started to question like, What are other people going to think about me? Am I being too silly? Am I being judged, and I would suddenly play small or dim, that playful sparkle, again, reinforcing to my nervous system, it's not safe to be playful, it's not safe to be fully seen. And building my awareness around the states and how I would experience kind of feeling that regulation and that dysregulation. And this dance between getting more comfortable in states of regulation is very much still an active part of my healing journey. Noticing, when I'm being pulled towards kind of that old dysregulation, and can I take a deep breath, and stay with that playful side of me to stay with that stillness. sort of bring everything together. 


The three tangible takeaways from our conversation today is first this education piece, that you have six states of your nervous system, three states of regulation, three states of dysregulation, and each of these different states has their own stories, motions, thoughts, and sensations. And you have a unique way that these show up and express themselves for you. What I shared with you today was a basic, generic profile of each tangible takeaway. 


Number two is this awareness, inviting you to explore what states feel most familiar to, and which states feel most foreign to you. 


And then tangible TAKEAWAY NUMBER THREE is an action takeaway. I want to invite you to notice moments where you are in one of the three regulated states, but feel uncomfortable being there. And then try to remind yourself that you're not uncomfortable there because it's wrong. But because it's unfamiliar, and do what you can to take that deep breath, give yourself a quick shake, grab a sip of water, and try to keep reading that book. Keep sitting in that hammock. Keep being silly and playful, with your kids at the park. Slowly proving to your nervous system, that it can be safe, be and stay in those states, too. 


And as always, if you are looking for support in this work, this is exactly what we do every single day. Inside our coaching programs at rises, we and I would love to be able to more intimately support you there. Thanks for being here. And I'll see you next time. 


Thanks for listening to another episode of The regulate and rewire podcast. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and leave a five star review to help us get these powerful tools out to even more people who need them. And if you yourself are looking for more personalized support and applying what you've learned today, consider joining me inside Rhys, my monthly mental health membership and nervous system healing space or apply for our one on one anxiety depression coaching program restore. I've shared a link for more information to both in the show notes. Again, thanks so much for being here. And I'll see you next time.