013: Using Applied Polyvagal Theory To Regulate The Nervous System with Martina Barnes

Martina Barnes

Martina Barnes is an international coach, entrepreneur, licensed psychotherapist and master Intuitive. Introverted and highly sensitive herself, Martina finds great joy in helping high-achieving introverts & Highly Sensitive Persons understand and embrace their sensitivity so they can learn how to find their natural power and move from Hiding to Thriving.

💝 Key Takeaways

The nature of the polyvagal nervous system based on the research of Stephen Porges.
Why as HPSs, our nervous systems are more highly attuned to safety or danger.
Traffic light analogy to understand naming and shaping the different states.

📚 Resources Mentioned

Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory by Deb Dana

HeartMath Institute

For Martina’s graphic mentioned in the episode, please email here at: martina@thebraveintrovert.com

🔗 Where You Can Find Martina

Website: http://www.thebraveintrovert.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/search/top/?q=the%20brave%20introvert

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/martinagbarnes/

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjvL-sOyn_DkSH4Jl-gIdzw

📖 Transcript

[00:00:00] Rose: Hey, it’s Rose and welcome to another episode of The Sensitive CEO Show.

And in today’s episode, it’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you to Martina Barnes. Martina is an international coach, entrepreneur, licensed psychotherapist, and master intuitive.

Introverted and highly sensitive herself, Martina finds great joy in helping high-achieving introverts and highly sensitive persons understand and embrace their sensitivity to learn how to find their natural power and move from hiding to thriving.

Welcome, Martina. It’s awesome to talk to you today.

[00:00:46] Martina: Thank you, Rose. It’s awesome to be with you again. Thank you for inviting me to your show.

[00:00:52] Rose: I’m excited about our topic today, Polyvagal theory. I think a lot of people will be interested in that. Could you, I guess, start us off with why you chose this topic in particular?

[00:01:04] Martina: Such a big part of the work that I do with executives, especially those who are introverted and highly sensitive. Quite a bit of the work I do in addition to the neuroscience work is I work with the nervous system because if our nervous system is dysregulated, Our thoughts are dysregulated often, and our emotions are dysregulated.

So there’s been quite a bit of exciting research in recent years that has come out by a researcher named Dr Steven Porges. And he’s identified rather than just two branches of the nervous system, the sympathetic and parasympathetic, also known as the autonomic nervous system. He’s identified the third branch of it.
And that is based on the vagas nerve. I always wanna say vagas baby, like Las Vegas, but it’s not spelt the same way. But it’s easy to remember it that way, that we have a vagas nerve that starts at the brain stem and winds like a serpent through the body and touches all of the major organs in the body.

And this is what he’s identified as the third branch. And thereby calling it polyvagal. So in my experience, we can shift our mindset. We can do positive self-talk; we can ground ourselves, all of these things. But other things will be quite difficult if we don’t know how to regulate our nervous system.

[00:02:54] Rose: Yeah, I love that. And I’ve read one of his books. I can’t remember which book because he has written a few books, hasn’t he?

[00:03:03] Martina: I think so. And there’s a clinician who has taken his work. Her name is Deb Dana. And she has put it into languaging for clinicians like therapists, to then teach in very accessible ways and accessible languaging.

And so Steven Porges did all of the research, then Deb Dana came along and said, Okay, here are ways to regulate the polyvagal nervous system.

[00:03:39] Rose: I was just gonna ask how you use this regulation to help or work with your clients.

[00:03:44] Martina:. Yes. So to answer that, I might back up a little bit and say that the polyvagal.

The nervous system, or the Vagas nervous system, has occurred through hundreds of millions of years of evolution development. And so if we think about, I don’t know, in your country, but in the states, our traffic lights, there’s red on top, yellow, and then there’s green. Is it the same there?

[00:04:26] Rose: Yes it is. We call it amber. The one in the middle.

[00:04:28] Martina: Amber. That’s so much nicer. So if you think about flipping the stoplight upside down, and we go to the bottom, the red. This is the dorsal vagal system, and in evolution, it’s believed that. When a life-threatening threat came along, the only option was to completely freeze and shut down.
A modern version of this would be if you’ve ever seen a possum, we have possums in North America that play possums. They are convincing because my dog got a possum in its mouth and kept spitting it out because it thought it was dead. So that’s the dorsal vagal. And then if we, if we go on up to the beautiful amber colour, then we, move beyond life threatening simply to danger.

And the danger, the amber colour we’re familiar with as the sympathetic nervous system which is fight or flight. We’re gonna activate and go into fight or flight. Then as we continued our evolution, then we came into the green, and green is a connection; it’s a social connection, and we know that as mammals, social connection is is a biological imperative. If we don’t have a mammal connection, then we die. And we were just talking before the show about the kangaroos. And the little babies, Joey’s, Is that what they’re called? Joey’s? Yes. Joey’s are in the little pouch of, like, they’re gonna die if mom’s not there.

And, so, this is this third branch. The Vagal system, or the vagus nerve, allows us to feel safe and connected. It allows us to thrive. But if you think about it the pressures, especially of Covid and nobody having a roadmap, and let’s say you’re an executive and you’re a highly sensitive executive, not only are you feeling the loss of connection yourself, in-person connection but if you’re leading a team, then you also feel that loss of connection. You are feeling dysregulated as the executive team leader, and your team members are also feeling dysregulated. Even if you don’t know the term dysregulation, everyone can bring it to mind. . , especially during that first year of Covid. And how dysregulating it was.Does that make sense?

[00:07:30] Rose:Yeah, absolutely. And even now, I know it’s been a couple of years or even over a couple of years, but there’s still a lot of, I know a lot of my clients do have, their nervous systems are still in fight-flight, and alot of them are shutting down as well. And so where does the freeze fit in with the traffic lights?

[00:07:52] Martina: Freeze is in the red zone. So freeze. We think about that, the dorsal shutdown. But I’m gonna nuance it a little bit for you. So I’m gonna say that first, we need to understand our nervous system. We need to name what state we’re in, and then we can begin to shape the different states into something that’s working.

So, for example, quite a few people went into a free state and shut down into dorsal at the beginning of Covid right? And then many folks started to activate and get into survival mode, which is the amber colour. Some people didn’t shut down; some went straight into amber mode, straight into fight-flight activation, and every state’s important.

So, right now, as you and I are talking, we are sharing and doing what’s called co-regulation. So we’re both in a regulated state and regulating with one another through our connection. So we’re in the green zone, but we’re also in some yellow or amber zone of activation because if we weren’t in some of that blended state of activation, we might be so relaxed we would fall asleep or lose track of our thoughts.

Now a great example of a blended state, a positive blended state would be, let’s say that you and your husband are watching a movie together. Something that’s not a period drama, since he doesn’t like that and, but you’re enjoying a movie together, you’re relaxed and connected in the green zone, but you’re also experiencing some red dorsal in a relaxed manner, correct? So we are; you are in an immobilised state through choice. You’re choosing to be immobilised, sit next to each other, or cuddle with each other. And you’re also in green.

And that’s a very different state. It’s also the state that if we have an infant, and we’re holding that infant, and that infant feels safe. They can be immobilised in our arms. They can be sleeping immobilised in our arms, so they’re in quite a bit of red, but because they have that green, it’s safe. There are so many implications of understanding what zone we’re in. And I’m happy to tell you more about that, but I wanna pause and see if you have any questions coming up.

[00:11:12] Rose: No, I really love the traffic light analogy because it helps separate the different parts of the vagus nerve. So, carry on. I would love it. You’re a wealth of information here.

[00:11:29] Martina: Well, I’m still learning. I keep learning and learning about this in the nuances. So, it used to be that. When I took a nap, I would go too deeply into that dorsal or red zone, and I would wake up, and I would feel a sense of disorientation. I would feel isolated, I would feel a little depressed. I would feel very alone. So it tells you that I was stuck in some of the negative qualities of that red shutdown zone.
And so, one way that I learned to pull myself out of that zone was to get up, put my clothes on, and go to the gym. And work out. So to do that, I have to climb up the nervous system ladder into at least yellow or amber because that’s a state where I have some energy. I have some activation.
Now, if I go join a class, a group of people at the gym, and we’re having fun and a bicycle class or something, then I’ve got connection through the green zone, and I have positive activation.

However, let’s think about someone who is chronically anxious, and susceptible. Which highly sensitive individuals are prone to anxiety.
It’s not our fault. It’s the way we’re wired. So not only is our brain wired in a more sensitive way than, 80%, maybe, of the population? Our nervous systems are also more highly attuned to safety or danger. So let’s say I’m in a chronic state of the yellow zone of anxiety, and then, a big event happens at work, and I get even more anxious. Then another event happens, and I can’t come out of this state of activation to the point that maybe I’m not sleeping well, I’m not eating enough, or I’m eating too much because I’m dysregulated.

And one of the things that we know about anxiety is that historically in the medical model, anxiety was considered to originate from the head or brain. But now what we’re finding out through Dr Porge’s research is that it’s actually in the nervous system. . . So if I can begin to help you as an executive or as anyone, any highly sensitive person, if I can help you learn to start to regulate your nervous system and come out of that chronic state of overactivation, right?
Then you’re going to notice that your anxiety starts to come down over time, your sleep is going to improve, and you’re gonna start to come into some more of the green state.

Here’s the trap that we get into, especially those of us who are height achievers, that we find ourselves having a situation where maybe we don’t have the energy to meet a challenge for that day. Maybe it’s at home, maybe it’s at work, and we go into a state of override. . So override might be, Okay, I don’t have the energy.

I’m going to have five cups of coffee, or I’m going to suppress what I’m feeling in my body, I’m going to push my emotions down. I’m going to override the fact that I’m tired, and I’m just going to push on because I’m in a constant state of battle, and that’s that yellow zone getting stuck in that yellow zone.
All of the states are important, and it’s not that one is preferred to the other, but we want to have much flexibility between the green zones of positive connection and well-being and the yellow zones of activation. So we can have positive activation like you and I are having right now without being in a mode where we want to fight or flee from each other.

Thank goodness. Right. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be having this podcast. So I know I’m throwing a lot of information out at once. I’m just trying to give you a crash course.

[00:16:41] Rose: It’s so helpful. I think it’s practical too. To not only executives but, as you say, all highly sensitive people, especially home-based business people or service-based businesses. Because I think not having that connection, especially lately, when we haven’t been able to connect with others face to face and not having that connection, can cause much unrest within ourselves.

[00:17:12] Martina: Absolutely. And I think especially for those of us like you and I both have home-based operations, and I spend most of my time in video chat, and it’s not the same as being in person.

And so part of the challenge is that we can, as I said earlier, I started to get isolated, feel down, and feel disconnected, and I think the world was feeling especially hard during the first couple of years of the pandemic. I suppose we’re at 2021. Yeah. We’re in our third year now. Yeah. Right. Hard to believe.
So if we, as highly sensitive individuals, can gain tools to regulate our nervous system when we’re working, especially, say, with a client, we want to; we want to, be present in as a regulated state as possible because if our client’s going through a challenge, we want them to feel our calm and safe connection so that they can begin to regulate with us.

But sometimes what happens is being highly sensitive, and if you’re Empathetic, highly empathic, which many of us HSPs are, it is maybe our default pattern to sort of drop our energy and tune into what is not regulated, like another person’s distress. I just had an experience this morning.

It wasn’t my experience, it was my client’s experience, and he’s highly sensitive. He’s very empathic and has never had this experience before, but he ran into an old friend at a conference. She discovered that her adult son had died last fall, and he instinctively reached for her hand to comfort her. What happened?
She started sobbing, and he felt her grief pour into him. And I’m guessing some of your listeners will relate to that story.

[00:20:10] Rose:It’s so easy to take on others’ emotions as an empath.

[00:20:14] Martina: Yeah, it truly is, and I think sometimes it’s even challenging to know, is this my emotion? Or is this their emotion?

So the more we get to know our nervous system and what our energy feels like when it’s flowing in our body in positive states, the more quickly we can recognise if we have accidentally taken on another person’s emotional or nervous system experience.

[00:20:53] Rose: What advice can you share with the audience on getting to know our nervous systems and whether what we are taking on is our own or someone else’s?

[00:21:05] Martina: Well, I think there are so many wonderful resources out there. One of the Basic resources that I will return to over and over again is meditation. And I also recognise that not everyone is suited for meditation with their eyes closed. And so moving meditation, like yoga, restores the balance of the nervous system.

It’s such an ancient system, probably thousands and thousands of years old. And the other thing is you can start to educate yourself. I like Deb Dana’s work. As I mentioned, she has so many terrific exercises and one of her books that the layperson can practice independently.

When I work with someone one on one, or if somebody works with you on one, or you have someone in your life that has a calm presence who can mentor me or can be the sounding board, you want to move toward those people because they will teach you quite naturally about they can be mirrors to show you, Oh, this is what regulation. It looks like. Does that make sense?

[00:22:47] Rose: Yeah, absolutely. I was going to ask Martina if you have any simple exercises from Deb Dana’s book that you could recommend. I’ll also pop a link in the show notes because I think that sounds great. I’m going to check out her works.

[00:23:05] Martina:So, let’s see. Let me pause and think about one of my favourite exercises. So, this one is not Deb Dana’s work. This is from a modality called somatic experiencing. Peter Levine did very trailblazing work on trauma recovery. And so it’s something that’s very, very simple.

And I can walk you through it if you like.

[00:23:43] Rose: I’d love that. I’m sure the audience would be pleased about it.

[00:23:46] Martina: So just find a place where you can be quiet, and you can be undisturbed. And if it feels safe, you can close your eyes. It’s not necessary. I find it easier to close my eyes, and I want you to think about a person, a place, or a memory that brings you a powerful feeling of well-being.

Maybe it was when your grandmother made cookies in the house. Perhaps it’s on a beach at sunrise, and there’s no one but the birds. Maybe it’s a beautiful memory that you have. An animal that you loved, say a pet that you loved, and what you do is you bring this person, this place, this memory, this animal to mind, and you recount to yourself a description.

What it was like when I would come into grandmother’s house, and she would time the cookies after school to be ready to go out of the oven, and the smell was incredible, and my stomach would start gurgling. Or I’m thinking about my beloved pet that’s no longer with me, who always came to me when I was, when I was sad or, or disturbed, you know, disturbed about something. And then you pause, and you notice, you simply notice what’s going on inside you.

Do you feel tingles? Do you feel the warmth? Do you think a little bit of a lift of happiness in your heart? That’s a beginning way to start to track your nervous system by coming into a very, very positive state. And then it’s best to find somebody to do this with. Then you bring to mind something mildly annoying.
Maybe somebody cuts you off in traffic, and your heart jumps a beat because you got scared. You’re in that calm, peaceful state you are in listening to music, singing. Maybe your favourite song is suddenly interrupted. Then you pause, and you notice what just happened. Did my heart rate increase? Did my breathing become more shallow?

Did my throat start to tighten up? So you’re tracking this different state where you’ve gone from a green zone of connection to something beautiful and positive into a yellow zone or an amber zone of mild fight or flight, and then you go back to the first place you started. You recount more details about that beloved person or pet and you start to notice the contrast. Does that all make sense?

[00:27:26] Rose: Yeah. I’m loving this.

[00:27:26] Martina: And it’s wonderful if you do it with a friend, you could do it with a husband, and just. Start with your positive state, describe it, then go to the mild annoyance, then go back to your positive state, and then you’re simply recounting or reporting to your partner what you’re noticing.
And then if your audience contacts me at martina@thebraveintrovert.com and says, I heard you on Rose’s podcast. I will send them a little infographic about it. What qualities are in the green zone? What qualities are in the amber Zone, and what are in the red zone? And that way, it’s the first step in learning to name what state you are in.
And once you know you’re in a particular state, then you can start to find out what brings me out of that amber state of overactivation into a place where I feel calmer. Maybe it’s connecting with a friend I trust. Or a mentor and that will start to bring me into the green. Or let’s say I’m in red and see everything as a life-threatening danger to the point that I just want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head.

Then you can start to notice, Oh, that’s the state I’m in. I need to do something activating, positively activating; maybe I’m going to get up and take a walk. I’m going to call a friend. I’m going to make a meal. And that’s going to. I’m going to find out what brings me out of that zone, and then it’s a beginning, like an exploration from there.

[00:29:37] Rose: Brilliant, I love that, and I’ll pop your email in the show notes so people can contact you, and I might get you to send me that infographic too.

[00:29:47] Martina: I would be delighted to send you that infographic. It’s truly life-changing and when I was in college, and I was having migraine headaches, I went through; I was from that generation, and it’s probably still available.

I went through biofeedback, not the neuro biofeedback, but biofeedback. And you work with a clinician, and you are learning to start to regulate that sympathetic arousal and come into a more calm, parasympathetic state. And I think that that was the beginning. From a scientific standpoint where we began to understand, we’re talking back in, you know, the late seventies, early eighties, maybe before then, where people started to realise, oh, there is a connection between the mind and body, which seems so apparent and obvious now, but many, many, many decades ago, it wasn’t. And so this is, this is the new realm of nervous system regulation without having to have a machine hooked up to you.

[00:31:09] Rose: I have a very simple Inner Balance device from HeartMath, and I know that’s very good for the regulation of the nervous system.

[00:31:18] Martina: Absolutely. Sorry, I didn’t mean to speak over you. I was going to mention right before you said that I thought, go to HeartMath Institute.
And they have so many free balancing little meditations that you can do. And it’s really along the lines of that exercise I just shared with you in the audience.

[00:31:52] Rose: I’ve got the app that the little device hooks into, and they’ve got beautiful meditations as part of that. So I’ll pop that in the show notes as well.

[00:32:03] Rose: We’re coming up for the time already. There’s a lot more I wanted to ask you, but we need to wrap up because I promised the audience that we are keeping the episodes to 30 minutes or less.

But it’s just been wonderful talking to you, as always, and I will pop everything into the show notes. But again, I just want to thank you so much for being on the show and for everything you shared today, Martina.

[00:32:29] Martina: Oh, it’s an absolute delight, and I hope it can help your listeners in some way just as a starting point.

[00:32:40] Rose: Thank you and thanks everyone for tuning into another episode.

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