Biology of Trauma® Podcast
With Dr. Aimie Apigian MD, MS, MPH
Episode 76
Navigating the Grief Journey: The Polyvagal Way To Become an Active Operator of Your Nervous System
"Every time I find my way to another moment of ventral, I'm reshaping my system. That's what we want to remember. You are reshaping your nervous system every moment".
~ Deb Dana

Navigating the Grief Journey: The Polyvagal Way To Become an Active Operator of Your Nervous System

Introduction to Polyvagal Theory: How It Helps Us Understand the Nervous System

Polyvagal theory was developed by my mentor, friend, and colleague, Dr. Stephen Porges. He developed this as a way to make sense of our autonomic nervous system and its responses. 

Another colleague of mine, Deb Dana, talks about how to use this knowledge to help us further find cues of safety. 

Even when we aren’t consciously aware of it, our bodies are constantly taking in information from inside and out. Our nervous system uses these cues to determine whether we are secure or threatened.

The Polyvagal Theory helps explain that we have three main organizing principles, or settings. Our social engagement system allows us to feel safe and connected with others, while our sympathetic and dorsal vagal systems enact a trauma response, and collapse responses when we perceive danger.

Within each of those systems, we each have our unique patterns that Porges’ work helps us recognize. Why is this important to note?

Because once we understand how our own nervous system functions, we can start to work with it! (Instead of feeling at their mercy during stressful times.)

By gaining insight into this process, we have more power to be active operators of our bodies. We’re no longer just passengers along for the ride. 

We can make more informed choices instead of reacting automatically. I’ve personally found polyvagal theory to be a very helpful framework for gaining that understanding of myself and others. 


Becoming Operators of Our Nervous System

When we gain insight into how our nervous system constantly monitors safety and danger cues, and how that determines our responses, it gives us a lot more power over our reactions. 

We stop feeling like we’re just along for the ride and being pulled in different directions we don’t understand.

We can start to work with our nervous systems instead of feeling at their mercy when stresses in life trigger feelings of anxiety, anger, or hopelessness. By recognizing our own patterns within the three main systems, we have the tools to make more informed choices instead of reacting automatically.

We all have moments when feelings like worry, frustration, or despair don’t serve us well. But with self-awareness, we can be curious about what cues may be triggering those responses rather than judging ourselves. That opens up options to rebalance our perception of safety versus threat.

In short, gaining insight through polyvagal theory helps us become the bosses of our own bodies. We feel more in control instead of feeling controlled by our automatic reactions during difficult times.


The Three Principle States of The Nervous System

The first is our social engagement system. When we’re in this state, it allows us to feel safe, connected to others, and regulated. Our bodies are in a rest-and-digest type mode.

Next is our sympathetic nervous system, which prepares us for different freeze responses when we perceive danger cues. This gets us mobilized and ready to take action.

The third is our dorsal vagal system, which enacts a collapse or shutdown strategy when we feel overwhelmed. It’s our body’s way of conserving energy by playing dead when all other options feel unsafe.

Within these systems, we each have our own unique patterns of response. The more we understand our tendencies, the more we can recognize when we’re shifting between states of feeling regulated versus triggered.

Gaining insight here is so important for empowering ourselves as operators who can make choices, instead of just reacting. 


Understanding Our Own and Others’ Nervous System Responses

First, it’s so important to cultivate self-awareness. 

By paying attention to our internal cues, patterns of response within the three main systems, and what triggers we have, we come to truly know ourselves. A daily check-in can also help with this.

Just as valuable though is developing empathy – the ability to understand others may have different experiences than us. 

Their nervous systems may react in unique ways based on their life experiences. Being curious about someone instead of making assumptions allows for deeper connections.

This self-awareness and empathy together are powerful. When stresses in life impact those close to us, we can avoid reactions rooted in our own triggers by focusing on their needs. 

We also bring more patience to ourselves through understanding the diversity of human responses.


How the Nervous System Influences Grief, Loss, and Life Changes

For those navigating difficult times like grief, loss, or major life changes: understanding how the nervous system can impact the experience provides a lot of comfort. 

Our journey depends on where our bodies are at, any given moment.

If we’re already feeling stressed or dysregulated before a loss occurs, this impacts our experience more in comparison to someone with more stability. 

True healing involves finding our way back to feeling regulated after periods of being triggered into survival mode or another trauma response.

The story we tell ourselves about what we’re going through depends on whether our bodies are in a state of social engagement, freeze, or collapse. 

Recognizing this helps reduce noise in our internal narrative – we stop judging our ups and downs as abnormal and see them as natural shifts that we all experience.

Having compassion for the process, and knowing our systems inherently know the way back to equilibrium, provides hope even in the hardest of times. With patience and understanding of where our bodies need to be, we can partner through transitions at a gentle pace that considers both mind and body.


Honoring Where the Nervous System Needs To Be

When we’re navigating difficult periods like grief, loss, or stressful changes, one of the most important things is being kind to ourselves. Yes, I said it. 

That means honoring where our nervous systems need to be in each moment with patience and understanding.

We have to give ourselves permission to fully embrace days when our systems need to shut down and prioritize rest. There’s no shame in listening to what our bodies are telling us they require – even if that means just getting through the motions without pushing for more.

Healing requires establishing a felt sense of safety within ourselves. To do this, we have to allow ourselves to approach and integrate these feelings so we can regulate on our own. 

We also need to make space for times when our nervous systems want to discharge intense emotions without judgment. Whether that’s feeling fired up, sad or hopeless, suppressing our natural responses will only create more distress long-term.

With self-compassion, we accept that ups and downs are normal as our systems reshape new pathways. 

We become the bosses supporting our bodies through the process, instead of harsh critics of ourselves. This gentle approach is what allows deep healing to unfold at its own natural pace.

The most caring thing we can do is honor where our nervous systems are. With understanding and patience for what we’re all going through, we nurture both mind and body back to equilibrium over time.


Working With the Nervous System Through Transitions

Throughout life, it’s so important to partner with our nervous systems. Especially through the transition process. 

With compassion for what we’re all going through, we can support our bodies in reshaping new pathways over time.

Rather than pushing ourselves with harsh expectations, we make space for our systems to move at their own pace. We observe our responses as having received a cue of safety or danger, rather than reacting to our responses.. 

If we feel ourselves getting triggered into survival mode, we can pause to tune into internal cues with curiosity instead of criticism. 

This leads to the most important question you can ask yourself when you have a reaction as you go through a life transition: What might my nervous system need at this moment to feel a little bit safer? 

This is how we can consciously rebalance our perceptions of danger and bring in more safety.

By bringing patience and understanding to each of our responses, we allow deep shifts to unfold gradually through a series of gentle transitions. Resilience is built as we keep practicing ways to support our nervous systems and strengthen feelings of safety.

With compassion as our guide, we walk alongside our nervous systems on their journey instead of trying to force a specific outcome. 

This is how we partner with our nervous system during transitions to move through experiences and allow the healing to happen. 


The Challenges of Caregiving

For those caring for loved ones through illness or other hardships, it’s important to recognize how our own state of mind can influence the care and support we provide. 

It’s important to know that we do our best given our capacity in each moment, so there’s no room for shame or guilt.

Coming from a place of social engagement, our care is likely to be infused with welcome, kindness, and compassion (If we’re feeling regulated and calm within ourselves). 

But when stresses have us feeling triggered into freeze or collapse, that colors our approach even if tasks still get done. Rather than harsh criticism, self-awareness allows us to tune into internal cues with curiosity. 

What might our systems need in this interaction to promote safety? 

How can we rebalance perceptions and shift out of survival mode to nurture both parties?

We find moments to remind ourselves of well-being even within alternative words. Notice small moments where you felt safe, connected, or at peace.  Deb Dana calls these glimmers and they strengthen regulation over time.

With patience and understanding of what we are holding, we can walk alongside loved ones as we care for them and tend to our nervous system and what it needs. 


Awareness, Strategies, and Wellbeing

Understanding our nervous systems is a lifelong journey of cultivating awareness, honoring where we’re at, and nurturing well-being along the way.

We practice tuning into internal cues each day with curiosity – what are our nervous systems telling us at this moment? How can we meet the needs for safety while also strengthening connections? 

When experiences trigger well-honed survival strategies, we accept those responses non-judgmentally. 

Our protective behaviors have served us well and don’t define our worth. With empathy, we extend that same understanding to others, too.

Even in the depths of difficulty, we can find tiny moments that remind us of equilibrium and feel grateful for them. Over time, these small acts of self-care and connection with others reshape neural pathways toward greater resilience.

Here’s what you’ll learn in the full podcast episode:

  • The three organizing principles of the nervous system and how they influence our unique way through grief 
  • What not to ask someone who is grieving
  • How to recognize when others are uncomfortable with your grief? 
  • How to become an active operator of your nervous system by asking this one key question.
  • The surprising equation our nervous system uses to create our grief reactions  
  • The critical role of identifying cues of safety and danger in our inside, outside, and between pathways.
  • Why dysregulation is a normal response and the key to returning to regulation.
  • The profound impact of our preexisting state on the grief response.
  • The most important thing is to provide your nervous system during times of grief.
  • The unique challenges caregivers face in the grieving process 
  • How to make gentle transitions during grief by accessing this specific type of energy.
  • The role of glimmers in grief 

Helpful Links:

Where To Start:

When you are ready to take those steps with me, I invite you to join me for your Foundational Journey – A 6-week journey into your nervous system through guided somatic and parts exercises.  An online course I lead with 10-minute daily exercises on your own, a new one every day (42 exercises), and a live daily group meeting for 30 minutes to do the same exercise as a group to learn from each other and experience it being guided live. 



Essential Sequence: This guide walks you through the 3 states, has an image, and the process of working with our dorsal vagal state or stored trauma in the body, safely through an essential sequence of 3 steps. 


Related Podcasts:    

Unlocking the Role of Disguised Grief in Health: We are oftentimes holding grief that is not readily apparent. Delve deeper into the idea of disguised or hidden grief and how it impacts health.

Recognizing and Overcoming the Freeze Response with Irene Lyon, Part 1: The freeze response and the grieving process so often go hand in hand. Learn how to recognize the freeze response and how to move beyond it in this episode.

 What is My “Why?” with Alex Howard, Part 1: Grief can shake up our fundamental beliefs and perceptions about life. Regaining a sense of “why” can be an important part of the grieving process.



Tri-Magnesium Power: A powder drink that contains three forms of magnesium, providing 300 mg of elemental magnesium per serving. This product supports cardiovascular health, blood vessel function, and healthy blood glucose metabolism.

Cellular Energy Power:
 Designed to support the mitochondria, the cell’s powerhouse with a synergistic blend of nutrients and botanicals. In cells and tissues, this component produces more than 90% of the energy or adenosine triphosphate, ATP. Mitochondria that function efficiently and optimally can support a healthy body composition, vitality, and health.

Products I recommend from this episode

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One Response

  1. Thank you for this podcast, I’ve learned a lot of useful information very needed right now in my life and it was also very useful to have the supplement recommendations. Thank you from the bottom of my heart Amie.

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