Be a Labrador, Not A Lizard (for vagal’s sake)
Disclaimer: First admission, I am a dog person. Second admission, you don’t have to be a dog person to appreciate the little tidbit of neuroscience I’m about to share with you. Why? Because it will, unfailingly, help you be better at being, well, you. The real you. The best you.
Second Disclaimer: This post is for those of you science geeks who want to understand Polylvagal Theory in practical, everyday terms and examples.
I’m a dog person, specifically partial to the Labrador Retriever. In fact, I’ve only ever spent a few years of my life without a Lab. Those years were, respectively, spent in undergraduate (large breed dogs and college dorm rooms don’t mix) and allowing myself some space after the death of my 16 year old Lab named Owen.
But even if you are not a dog person (cat lovers unite!), I’m pretty sure everyone on the planet aspires to be happy, right? And there’s a lesson here.
Just like a Labrador – contented, joyful, unselfconscious and completely unconcerned about what others think of their exuberant, super-waggy tails, plus, eager to give hugs and smiles at the drop of a hat. Labradors live completely in the present, forgive easily, and always see the positive.
It’s why I aspire to be the person my Labrador thinks I am.
Scout is my first rescue Labrador, and she is a black beauty (see image below). Before her, there was Owen. He was a chocolate blockhead breed, and oh boy was he one accomplished yoga guru. The real deal.
He practiced yoga postures (asana) every morning – downward facing dog, upward facing dog, along with a few lion’s mixed in on the tail-end of his practice. Yes, he even chanted. He was a great orator. He was consistent, even as he neared 16 years old. Quite the philosopher…he was always positive, never egocentric (well okay sometimes he did think my only job was to pet him and play fetch), and eternally grateful. He was a wholehearted dog. I am sure Brene’ Brown would be so pleased.
He was also a great yoga partner. He loved a good yoga mat, always positioning himself perpendicular to the mat so I could, especially during pregnancy when restorative yoga was my best friend, get into and out of yoga poses safely.
Spoiler alert: For those of you who don’t know Labradors, they just want to be touched, so draping myself across and over and around him while he remained a perfectly stationary and pre-heated yoga prop, is a win-win for both parties.
That brings up the all-important point of this post: touch.
Touch is known to be responsible for a wealth of positive effects for Labradors AND their humans. Touch is comforting. It is calming. Touch is reassuring, and can help us feel safe.
Touch is also work on the nervous system. It can change the resting and working response of fascia, a living substance that envelopes our muscles, nerves, and vascular structures in our body. Touch can also diminish the perception of pain – both psychological and physical. Touch can transform and mediate the stress response, sending a cascade of relaxation inducing hormones to our rescue.
It is this last phrase “Stress Response,” on which our very life and health depends.
But for some…Touch is scary. Touch hurts.
Touch signals danger. Touch is avoided at all costs. Think of a child or person with autism, or, think of a lizard in the forest. Both can interpret touch, or even attempted touch, as a warning or red flag – which can trigger a fight or flight response. We know now that it’s more than just simply “fight or flight.” There can also be a “freeze” response.
But there’s more.
This is where the neuroscience lesson begins. Enter the concept of the polyvagal theory.
The Polyvagal Theory
Polyvagal theory challenges the notion of the binary “fight or flight” system. It’s creator, researcher and neuroscientist Stephen Porges, began to question the long-held idea of the binary system (parasympathetic response (rest and digest) versus sympathetic response (fight or flight) decades ago, and came to discover through years of research and inquiry, that indeed, there is more to the stress response than “fight or flight.” So much more.
In order to explain a complex psychobiological scientific concept, I like to use the Labrador versus lizard explanation.
Labrador or Lizard: You Decide
Imagine walking through the woods, and coming upon a lizard on a log, sunning himself. The lizard’s name is Stan.
So long as the Stan the Lizard does not see you, he is fine and all is right in the world. Stan is happy, content, at ease, relaxed. We could stop right there and learn from a lesson or two about living in the present, however –
Let’s say Stan sees you. What does he do?
Well, if you are far enough away that he feels like he can survive and escape, Stan will likely flee. But let’s say Stan wasn’t so tiny, and was, say, a Komodo dragon. Well, Stan may make the decision to stand his ground and stay the course – to fight because he felt threatened. It’s a good thing we only have to deal with the teensy Stan, yes?
However, the story doesn’t end there. There is a third response.
Freeze, or better stated, shut down. If Stan feels he cannot run for safety and alternately, cannot fight – he will stay. absolutely. still. He may stop breathing, and Stan is stressed out enough, he may even pass out. That’s called vasovagal syncope, and humans can also experience the same range of responses. However, I’ll save an explanation of those for another post. What we need to take from this is, the Stan’s response options are limited and not evolved. They are literally reptilian, or lower brain, responses. And no matter what we do to try and coax or calm the lizard out of the fight or flight response, it just isn’t going to work. Lizards just don’t appreciate hugs, right?
Exit Stan the Lizard, Enter Scout the Labrador
Let’s leave Stan alone now, sunning himself happily in the forest and return to the happy Labrador, and call her Scout. At this very moment, Scout is MORE than ready for a game of fetch.
Wagging her tail, hopping up and down, or sitting patiently, waiting for the big game of fetch to begin, Scout is obviously, sublimely happy. Now Scout the Labrador Retriever rarely, if ever, chooses the fight response if she feels threatened. However, she will run away, as Owen used to, when he heard fireworks or loud noises. He would try to wedge himself between the washer and dryer, head-first, trembling at things he considered scary. Fight or flight is available to each Lab, as a canine, just like it is to the lizard – and to us as humans.
But this particular Labrador, is ready for fetch. What does she do? She freezes, but in a good way. Let me explain.
First, if she is well trained, she sits. She’s ready. She makes eye contact with you, holding the ball. She slows her movements, making them deliberate. Her mouth may even stop moving, she may even slow her breathing if she gets very intent on the task at hand. She is immobilized, just like the lizard, actually. But her response is polar opposite from the lizard’s, neurologically speaking. It is a different vagal response entirely.
Now, this explanation is an over simplification of a complex subject – something called the vagal brake mechanism. The point is – the Labrador is NOT in fight, flight, or freeze (shut down) – but the lizard is – in fact, the lizard is in the worst category of vagus response – the dorsal vagus response. He has shut down.
By large contrast, the Labrador is *enjoying* the opposite response – a ventral vagus response – in that she doesn’t mind being immobilized in order to socially engage, so that brake is functioning properly.
Another example is a person receiving a hug – or any kind of intimacy. In order for a person to get that “face-heart” connection described in Porges’ polyvagal theory, they have to be okay with being immobilized. Thus –the person is able to experience immobilization without fear.
The Labrador – she is totally fine with being immobilized – absolutely still and completely content, just like Owen when he “helped” me practice restorative yoga during my pregnancies. He would lay on my yoga mat and I would practice restorative yoga postures using him as a prop. But to him, he was being massaged, petted, and hugged for up to an hour at a time. He was in heaven. It’s a complicated social neurocognitive process, eh?
The difference with the lizard – and with children or adults with ASD, sensory processing disorder, or PTSD – just to give some examples – is that they are immobilized WITH fear.
Here are some examples:
- The child with ASD who cannot be touched.
- The veteran who hears fireworks at 4th of July and has a breakdown.
- The woman who has suffered sexual trauma and begins to dissociate during a physical examination.
Their responses are a huge difference, and it often is the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back – in terms of allostatic load and HPA axis dysregulation (which have to do with our stress response and which predict our health). They cannot tolerate being immobilized – any form of it – it is perceived as an unsafe place. That process, coined by Dr. Porges, is termed neuroception.
Neuroception – the body’s ability to accurately detect risk.
So in life, we are much better off being Labradors than lizards,for our brain’s sake, our health’s sake (a healthy stress response lowers our risk of chronic disease and cancer) and also for giving and receiving compassion, empathy, love, and nurturing. Today’s take home message: Be a Labrador, Not a Lizard! Be Scout, not Stan.
Polyvagal theory (aka safety theory) is one of Dr. G’s favorite topics, including Dr. Riane Eisler’s partnership theory to reform healthcare culture and end violence and discrimination against women.
Learn more about Polyvagal Theory applied in Yoga in Medical Therapeutic Yoga.
Dr. G has most recently expanded her advocacy role by running for State Senate in North Carolina. Learn more here.