Are you familiar with the term "Polyvagal safety"? If not, don't worry - you're not alone. But it's an important concept to understand if you're dealing with trauma or emotional dysregulation. I'll explain the difference between accessing your Polyvagal safety state and coping with emotional dysregulation, and how you can utilize both.
(You'll need to head to this Polyvagal Intro page if you're brand new to the Polyvagal Theory.)
What are we talking about?
First, let's define some terms. The Polyvagal Theory suggests that our autonomic nervous system has three branches responsible three different states: safety & social engagement, flight & fight mobility and shutdown immobility. If you want a more academic look at these states, I of course recommend the primary source himself, Dr. Stephen Porges. (Have a dictionary handy.)
The Polyvagal state of safety and social engagement is central to your ability to feel things like: calm, relaxation, play and connection with yourself and others.
Polyvagal safety vs Coping
So, what's the difference between accessing your Polyvagal safety state and coping with emotional dysregulation?
Coping involves using techniques to manage uncomfortable emotions, while accessing your polyvagal safety state involves actually experiencing a state of calm and connection.
Examples of coping would be counting things in the environment, breathing exercises, fidgets, distraction through media and so on. Coping techniques can be helpful in the moment, but they don't necessarily address the underlying issues that are causing emotional dysregulation.
Accessing your safety state can look similar, but is fundamentally different. Safety means you are activating the ventral vagal pathways and able to experience connection. Being in safety means bringing a level mindfulness and present-momentness to what you're doing. So instead of fidgeting in panic, you would fidget from curiosity and actually experience what's like to use that fidget.
How to tell if you are coping or in safety
There are some key ways to identify the difference:
1. One way to determine if you're accessing your polyvagal safety state or just coping is to ask yourself if you're mindfully experiencing your sensory experience. Are you able to notice what your senses are telling you and how it's affecting you? Or are you simply distracting yourself with coping techniques like holding an ice cube or doing breathing exercises?
2. Another indicator is curiosity. Are you curious about your inner experience, or are you just trying to make uncomfortable feelings go away? If you're curious, it suggests that you're well anchored in your safety state. If you're trying to make uncomfortable feelings go away, it suggests that you're in a more defensive state. It is eventually possible to actually welcome and experience those uncomfortable feelings, something you can learn and practice in depth through Unstucking Defensive States.
3. A third indicator is the impulse to connect. When we're in our safety state, we have an impulse to connect with others or with ourselves. If you find yourself wanting to connect with others or take a break to breathe and connect with yourself, it suggests that you're grounded in your safety state.
Transitioning from coping to safety
Of course, transitioning from coping to accessing your polyvagal safety state is easier said than done. It's okay to segment and just deal with the situation at hand through various coping mechanisms.
You will likely take this information and reflect on yourself, but with evaluation and not curiosity. That's normal. As best you can, invite some curiosity into your system and notice when you are coping compared to when you are actually grounded in your safety state.
Accessing your polyvagal safety state is about more than just coping with uncomfortable emotions. It's about experiencing a state of calm and connection, and it's a key part of trauma recovery. By being mindful of your sensory experience, staying curious, and following your impulse to connect, you can begin to access your Polyvagal safety state and find relief from emotional dysregulation.
If you think you are ready to get to the next level in your trauma recovery, I created a multi-phase System that will address everything you need. Not just my courses, but a private community that meets twice a month virtually with me for open Q&A. You won't be alone in your recovery and will never have to wonder if you are understanding the material or not. It's called the Polyvagal Trauma Relief System, find out more here or contact me through email if you have questions about it - firstname.lastname@example.org
Q: How do I know if I'm truly in a state of safety versus just coping with my emotions?
A: Three ways: are you able to notice your sensory experience? Are you curious? And do you want connection with yourself and/or others?
Q: Is it possible to transition from coping to experiencing mindful curiosity in my safety state, and if so, how?
A: It is, but not easily. At first, you might cope with your dysegulation. Once that is "under control" enough, you can do some safety anchoring and ground in your safety state.
Q: Can the Polyvagal Trauma Relief System help me build the strength of my safety state and learn to access my curiosity in a more grounded way?
A: Heck yes. The second phase of PTRS is all about building the safety state. This phase is consistently overlooked in therapy and other trauma-informed practices, modalities and service-providers.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast, and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.