State Shifting

Sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, but it is actually one of my main goals for this year. I want to be a master state shifter. And very much like I’d imagine as I picture this as a Star Wars movie, in order to be a master state shifter, I’m going to need to train.

I find the practice of state shifting absolutely fascinating. State shifting, for those not familiar, refers to shifting between safety, fight/flight, and freeze. The practice of state shifting, is doing things to deliberately help yourself change your state. To change from being in our sympathetic nervous system to engage our parasympathetic nervous system (of course, it also goes the other way, but most of my efforts are in the service of down regulation). 

I usually delve into a topic that intrigues me by reading more about it. This hasn’t been the case with Polyvagal Theory, or the practice of vagus nerve stimulation and state shifting. In part this is due to timing, my inability to get books from amazon before I left the country, and space, having already overfilled my suitcases with books and food. So this time it’s different. It may not have been planned to be different, but it is and I’m grateful. I can see how reading about it more will be fun and I will do it once I’m back. For now though, I’m going to do what I often fail to do – at least until later. I’m going to actively pursue the topic through experimentation. Actually applying the ideas and the strategies I’ve learned. And I’m super excited about it. 

There are many ways we can do this, by activating our vagus nerve. And, as it turns out, they are much more effective than being told to “calm down”. The techniques I have stumbled across while doing my initial research and learning are:

  • breathing exercises (especially where exhale is longer than inhale) 
    • some people practice the opposite in a fast paced way to shift into fight/flight but this is not something I have tried, I find my body goes there enough unintentionally 😛 )
  • anchoring to safety (visualizing a time when you felt safe)
  • singing, chanting
  • audible sighing 
  • being around animals
  • being in nature (some studies have found even having plants near you inside can have an effect)
  • long distance looking (where you are focusing on looking at things in the distance, not close up as we often do with our screens and reading)
  • cold showers 
  • ice on your face/back of neck
  • heat; warm drinks, warm blankets
  • smiling
  • hanging (arms over your head)
  • sitting/lying on the floor 
  • squatting down/changing body position
  • walking barefoot
  • laughing
  • playing a wind instrument/blowing bubbles (anything that involves a long exhale)
  • connecting to other people (allows for co-regulation)
  • meditation
  • using calm tone and nice language with ourselves (showing compassion)

This list may not be extensive, but there are plenty here to play around with. Since I am on a hiatus from the Canadian winter, I am dedicating some time to experimenting.

What I find interesting while looking at the list, is that there are many things that are more a part of my daily life while I am in Costa Rica (and to some extent during summer months at home). Being in nature, being warm (from the weather), walking barefoot, lying/sitting on the floor, and spending more time long distance looking (for birds, etc) are natural for me when I’m here. Perhaps these things alone give me a greater sense of being grounded in a safety state. No wonder I crave this environment. 

So far I’ve been making sure to meditate, do breathing exercises, practice compassion, change my body position (including doing heart openers), have cold showers (so far has been more like start and finish with cold shower), and use ice on my face/neck. 

I have been trying audible sighing, but I have noticed a block when it comes to doing the more audible ones (sighing, chanting, singing, etc). I am letting my self consciousness of other people hearing and judging stand in my way, and though I am not okay with that, for now I am just noticing and letting it be. Years ago when I was at Earth Dance, there was a lot of practicing of free sounding. At first I was so uncomfortable with it, but over the days it became freeing. I left Earth Dance having learned how freeing and healing it can be to let go of tension in that way. Over the years I’ve clearly gone back into my silence and my discomfort for it has come back full force. This research about the vagus nerve is enticing me again to explore this practice, and conquer my discomfort with it. 

The ice has so far been my favourite technique that I have tried. Or, perhaps, my favourite out of the “new” ones. I find it has an instant affect on me, where I feel calmer and more settled. I have tried this mostly when my body is already very warm though, like after exercise in this plus 30 weather, and when I’m in a panicky state (which also raises my temp). More experimenting to be done, but it’s proven helpful enough to keep in my toolbox (or freezer :P). 

It is not my goal to avoid shifting out of safety, I know this will never be the case. I understand it is part of life and healthy to be able to shift through all of the states on a regular basis. I do, however, hope that with practice and go-to strategies, I can help myself shift back into safety more quickly, and that knowing I have tools to do so will empower me even more. Doing hard things is empowering, and knowing you can handle hard things is even more empowering. Being certain of my ability not only to handle the hard things, but to handle them like a Master State Shifter – who knows what kind of opportunity comes from that level of empowerment. 

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