Updated: Jan 27
What is the nervous system experience of gender? Bringing a polyvagal lens to trans and non-binary healing.
And a brand new resource.
Something I’ve found in myself and clients is that our lived experience of gender involves all aspects of experience, including our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, level of activation in our bodies, body sensations, movement that feels good or bad, in alignment with our true selves or not, our five senses of ourselves and the world around us, and so much more. We may have been to the classic “trans 101” workshops offered in our schools, workplaces, and communities and read the simplified definitions of gender identity versus expression (and I have used these myself when leading workshops to educate professionals on working with folks of gender expansive experience). And yet, these definitions fall short of encapsulating the vast and varied galaxy of gender experiences. What’s missed is both the breadth and depth of gender and the ways it shows up in the world and our bodies. With this post and these maps, I hope we can open new ways of exploring gender, knowing that these are simply a starting point (or truly another point in a long legacy of exploration around gender, bodies, and the larger gendered world as it shows up in our bodies). I hope that these tools will inspire deeper exploration into your experiences of gender, and help you uncover more resources to help you find moments or lifetimes of gender euphoria, and more awareness and greater self-determination about how you engage with aspects of your gender experience and the world that are not euphoric. I say this with full awareness that we are not in control of the cisheteropatriarchy itself and how and when it may rear its ugly head.
All that said, let’s dip into a little about the framework these maps are based on - polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory is a scientific and psychotherapeutic model of the nervous system and three different nervous system states. Created by Stephen Porges, the name comes from the vagus nerve, a nerve that starts at the brainstem and travels all the way down the spine and branches out to connect to several different organ systems (such as the cardiac, respiratory, and digestive systems). When we are in one nervous system state these organs function differently than if they were in another state. These states include ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal. Ventral vagal is our nervous system state that we’re in when we are feeling safe and able to feel connected to others and ourselves - we might experience a range of emotion and felt senses here: joy, excitement, calm, capable, amorous, in love, or just fine. A sympathetic state is a state of activation, in which we’re ready to mobilize (our fight-flight responses live here). We might be anxious, nervous, angry, frustrated, annoyed, or scared. In dorsal vagal, we experience the effects of immobilization or what we therapists sometimes call collapse. We feel shut-down, depressed, numb, dissociated, frozen, or hopeless.
These survival responses were formed to prepare us for dangers that usually don’t show up in our lives in 2022, like a tiger chasing us down to be its lunch. Instead these survival responses show up in response to everything from burnout at work, waiting to get a text, someone standing too close to us on the subway (if you’re anything like me, that is), our partner not making eye contact when we speak to them, to the more extreme end of external events like abuse, violence, harassment, lack of access to needed resources, and more. Our bodies tell us we’re in danger at any and all of the above instances, and when you’ve experienced real danger, it can be very challenging to simply tell yourself you’re safe if you don’t feel safe.
That’s where these maps come in. The original polyvagal maps were created by my favorite writer and creator on the subject, Deb Dana. Dana’s maps (highly recommend the flip chart for the original maps) give folks the opportunity to investigate what their nervous system states look, feel, sound like, what sends them in and out of these nervous system states, and how to use this knowledge to find more resources with themselves and others to help them spend more time in that ventral vagal goodness of safety and connection. Dana conceptualizes these three states as a ladder - one we move up and down all the time, with ventral at the top and dorsal at the bottom.
A couple quick polyvagal concepts that I haven’t stated specifically yet but are good ones to know for the maps - glimmers, self-regulation, and co-regulation. Glimmers are essentially the opposite of triggers (what sends us into the bottom two states): glimmers helps us get into and stay in ventral vagal. These can be anything: the fresh breeze on your face, the softness of your dog’s coat as you pet them, the look of love in your bestie’s eyes, an outfit that makes you feel cute AF. Self- and co-regulation are ways that we help our nervous systems return to ventral vagal - solo and with others. Our nervous systems are wired for connection and we do not have to lean only on ourselves to feel okay, safe, or good - that’s just not how we’re built. Eye contact, quality of voice (tone, pitch, etc.), proximity, facial expression, the presence or absence of touch, and more are read by our nervous system as ways of sensing safety and danger, and we use this understanding to ask for what we need from others. Glimmers can be self- or co-regulatory.
Now let’s bring it back to why we might want to have maps that are specific to the experience of gender. Firstly, it can be tough to navigate what feels good in the world, in our relationships and in our bodies, what doesn’t, what does and doesn’t feel safe and where we do and don’t feel safe. This applies to everyone, but for folks who experience gender policing, ranging from so-called “micro”-aggressions to physical violence this can be particularly tough to navigate, especially when what feels good and right may seem to invite harm. We are never responsible for abuse from others or institutions but that truth doesn’t always live in our nervous systems. Further, I believe there is something to living in a marginalized body, a body that doesn’t do the whole binary gender/sex thing, a body that undergoes invasive stares and questions, that has been violated because others felt the right to hurt or touch in ways they might not for a person assumed to be cis, a body that wonders if it’s safe to pee in a public bathroom, or if it will be one to be called out during next year’s trans day of remembrance, that lives in specific nervous system states of fear, danger, hopelessness, and dissociation. My hope is these maps give back more choice on how to navigate these complexities. With that said, gender is not only a source of strife but of joy, pleasure, and connection and we need to acknowledge this too if we are not to pathologize ourselves - so let’s spend some more time in ventral vagal! Building our resources and glimmers are a way of staying in ventral more of the time and I would like to see this made accessible and geared towards folks who have historically and presently been pathologized in the larger realms of psychology and psychotherapy (that topic could be a whole huge post on its own).
If you’ve peeked at the maps already, you may have noticed that I do not use the word dysphoria on them. If we take dysphoria at its definition (according to Merriam-Webster, “a state of feeling very unhappy, uneasy, or dissatisfied”), we can see that dysphoria could be present in both dorsal and sympathetic and so to avoid confusion I’ve left it out. More importantly however, I did not include the term in an effort to move away from a pathologization model of gender and towards what the experience is actually like for folks - which is so much more important for our understanding of ourselves and for any therapists that may like to use these maps with their clients.
If you choose to download these maps, you will find in addition to blank ones with my terms, sample maps to help you get an idea of what yours might look like, there are also maps that have no name for each state. This is in order to Invite you to find what terms feel right for you - maybe dorsal vagal does not feel like despondence, maybe it feels like dissociation or darkness or a cishet suburbia or something else entirely. Speaking of despondence - the term “gender despondence” was chosen based on dictionary.com’s definition: “depression of spirits from loss of courage or hope” and is meant to convey the impact of society on one’s experience of their own gender, since this is where a great deal of distress and pain can come from, in an effort to incorporate a broader perspective of what can send us down our ladder. But if that’s not what the term despondence brings up for you - please make it your own and find a term that feels right to you.
My wish is that these maps invite you (and your clients) to notice, get curious about, and find resources of all kinds in your bodies, relationships, and communities to bring more pleasure, joy, and safety into your lives. Please let me know in the comments or at email@example.com what this post and these maps brought up for you.
Download all of the maps here.
Looking to learn more about polyvagal theory? Read this blog post .
More Polyvagal Resources:
The Polyvagal Flipchart by Deb Dana - get here
More TGNC+ Healing Resources
A Clinician’s Guide to Gender-Affirming Care: Working with Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Clients by Sand C. Chang, PhD, Anneliese A. Singh, PhD, LPC, and lore m. dickey, PhD - get here
Queer Healers - a directory of all types of healing workers
Manhattan Alternative - a directory for mostly psychotherapists (and some other medical providers) in the NYC-area that are LGBQ+, TGNC, kink, polyam, and sex worker-affirming providers