Melody came to me to work out what was stopping her from dating. She often got stomach cramps before a date. “They seem to come out of the blue,” she told me, “and I’ve had to cancel or cut short so many dates. I just don’t understand why.”
Aaron often feels very despondent about dating. “I have a short burst of energy and activate my dating profile on Hinge, but then I lose it quite quickly,” he told me. “And then I can’t seem to get myself out of a state of hopelessness and a belief that I’ll never meet anyone.”
So many people come to me for help while holding a belief that what’s stopping them dating productively is all in the mind and that they just need to change their mindset or push through. But often there’s an emotional pattern or blockage and that is expressed through our bodies. Although it feels to Melody that her stomach aches are coming out of nowhere, this is a pattern that her body has developed over time to protect her. For some, getting a stomach ache very cleverly gets us out of doing something that feels too risky – so it’s part of an avoidance strategy. For others, it is part of a sympathetic nervous system response of fight or flight where the body goes into a state of high alert and tension as a response to perceived threat.
In both cases, the bodily response keeps us safe, protecting us from discomfort or threat. We all have survival strategies or nervous system patterns that at some time worked to protect us, often as children – but they may no longer be useful, or we may get stuck in them and are unable move back to a state of calm and safety. Being in a constant state of high alert and not being able to move out of it is an experience many of us will relate to. (There are healthy and unhealthy levels of alertness: we need a certain amount to get going, but too much or being highly aroused all the time is unhealthy, physically and mentally, and can stop us functioning in daily life.) So my work with Aaron and Melody started with identifying their survival strategies and what they were protecting them from.
While Melody’s pattern was one of high alertness and tension, Aaron’s despondency is part of a different nervous system response. While he was talking, I noticed a collapsed body posture: head in his hands, a heaviness in his movements, a lack of facial expression. This is part of a parasympathetic nervous system state, where there is a lack of arousal (as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system state of high arousal). We feel disconnected from others, frozen or paralysed. Aaron gets stuck in this state and can’t move out of it. Not doing anything about dating was a way to protect him from failure and rejection (and also from success – but that’s the subject of another blog post!).
Polyvagal theory can help us to understand what is going on and how to gain more flexibility in our nervous system responses, so that we don’t get stuck. The vagus nerve in mammals is a complex of two pathways, dorsal and ventral, that communicate back and forth between different parts of the body and conscious awareness in our brains. Our nervous system perceives safety and danger in the environment unconsciously (through a process called neuroception) and either increases or decreases arousal. If there is perceived danger, we either move into high arousal as Melody does (the sympathetic nervous system fight or flight response) or low arousal like Aaron (the dorsal vagal collapsed, immobilised response, the oldest of the pathways, found in non-mammalian vertebrates). And these unhealthy states were stopping them from dating.
If the nervous system perceives safety, mammals can move into a ventral vagal state, which allows us to socially engage with others. If we are too highly aroused or not aroused enough, it is impossible for us to socially interact in a safe way. So it makes sense that both Melody and Aaron would find it very challenging to date when in those states.
The signals are going in both directions, which means our organs (such as heart or stomach) are sending messages to our brain and our brain is sending messages back to the body. So Melody’s body perceives threat unconsciously, produces a stomach ache, and then she can respond to it anxiously or calmly. She may name or label it, perhaps as IBS or social anxiety. Then a whole series of connected thoughts and emotions follow on: “Why is my body stopping me from dating?” or “What’s wrong with me?” If instead she can communicate safety to her body, she may be able to reduce her symptoms. This can, with coaching, be done through a combination of self-compassion, mindfulness, breathwork and yoga. Notice that this combination includes both cognitive and somatic (body) processes because of the two-way process. In fact, 80% of the messages go from body to brain, so talking only takes you so far.
What is especially interesting is that, for mammals, the ventral vagal complex includes links to smiling (through facial and eye muscles) and part of the ear that responds to a gentle tone of voice. Perceiving someone smiling and talking gently communicates directly with our nervous system, bypassing the conscious brain. (Human babies can perceive safety without language, through smiles and a gentle tone of voice from their caregivers.) This means you can move into the ventral vagal state of safety without any thoughts, just by responding to cues of safety from others. You could try smiling and talking gently and compassionately to yourself, or watching or listening to someone else do that online, such as with a guided meditation.
(Remember the vagal complex is bi-directional. So as well as getting safety from a gentle voice and smiles, it works in the other direction too: feeling safe and calm can lead to a gentle voice and smiling. You’ve probably noticed that when you are relaxed, your voice is very different to when you feel threatened or anxious.)
Have you ever had the experience of feeling ill or very stressed on the way to work, and not knowing how you’re going to get through the day, but when you arrive and say hi to your colleagues somehow you regulate your nervous system back to normal? This is a process of co-regulation, where your body naturally moves towards the state that others around you are in. If everyone else is super-stressed, you become more stressed, but if others are smiling and relaxed, you will move in that direction too. The same can happen on a date – if you can get there in the first place!
There are lots of tools for getting the nervous system back to a place of safety so you can start dating, and it starts with exploring (perhaps through coaching) where your survival strategies come from and whether they involve high or low arousal. Then you can begin to notice how and when it stops you dating.
When you feel safe, you feel great and believe you can date, and may wonder “What’s the problem?” But when you are in high or low arousal, there’s a different emotional story. Being able to bring a mindful approach to those bodily states and accompanying thoughts and then to learn how to move back into calm and safety are key skills for emotion regulation generally, and especially for dating. Are you able to identify from the diagram the bodily state that accompanies your thoughts? Do you resonate with any of the beliefs?
For both Melody and Aaron, identifying the nervous system state (and the accompanying thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviours) was an eye-opening experience. Understanding that these states were survival strategies that originated in childhood was another important revelation. And then we worked on how to use breathwork, mindfulness and other techniques to move into a place of safety. It’s not a quick fix, but it has been transformational, for dating and for other areas of their lives.
Book a consultation and explore your nervous system patterns, unhelpful beliefs and emotions that are stopping you from enjoying healthy dating and relationships, and transform the way you date and relate in 2024!
Photo by Gustavo Fring.