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Vitality Part I: The V in Positive Psychology

Jun 30, 2021 01:00PM ● By Ann C. Reeves

Positive Psychology (PP) is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, its research encompassing neurobehavioral, cognitive behavioral and physiological science. The acronym used in PP is PERMA-V. V stands for Vitality, perhaps the most overriding factor that both encourages and supports the success of Positivity, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning and Achievement/Accomplishment in bringing about a deep sense of well-being. It is a concept put forth by advanced doctoral student, Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, MAPP, CEO and teacher for the Flourishing Center, and is the subject of her doctoral dissertation.

Vitality is defined as having the capacity to live and grow, to have physical or mental energy and strength and to endure. Research on vitality investigates many important areas of human functioning, including physical health, mental health and level of performance. According to Olga Lavrusheva, a Finnish researcher on vitality, the significance of vitality in human functioning is now well established, measurable in a quantifiable manner. She sees vitality as consisting of  “fluctuating physiological and psychological energy which can be regulated and harnessed by the person processing it”. That means we have choices and can learn to mediate vitality in our lives.

Vitality is essential to our well-being, including both physical and mental health. Many pathways to this capacity include sleep, balancing polarities, utilizing the breath, physical activity, body alignment, nutrition, the effect of nature on health, our senses, and sexuality and sensuality.

Several concepts related to vitality or wellness are worthy of attention. Our bodies are ecosystems with innate intelligence, and they are always striving for balance through the process of homeostasis, the system whereby the body constantly regulates internal conditions to maintain stable health. It reacts to imbalances in nutrients, regulates body temperature and strives to reduce inflammation. Homeostatis is vital to our well-being and is a feature of all living things.

Another concept is the Mind-Body connection. We have often heard about psychosomatic symptoms, meaning a relationship with both mind and body, and often thought of as bodily conditions caused by mental problems. The term somatopsychic is the opposite—the effect of bodily symptoms on the mind, such as PTSD. We cannot separate out the mind from the body.

The Wellness Continuum is another concept, developed by Dr. John Travis and Regina Ryan. Their original paradigm was a two-headed arrow with a neutral point in the middle. To the extreme left was “Premature Death” and to the extreme right was “High-Level Wellness”. An arrow called “Treatment” went from the extreme left to the neutral point and stopped. Over time, Travis and Ryan recognized that this paradigm was misleading, because they saw that some people who are very physically ill were nonetheless oriented toward wellness; thus, their model was one-dimensional. In their refined model, they recognized that the key difference between illness and wellness was not where they were on the continuum, but “the direction in which they were facing: toward high-level wellness or towards premature death”.

We have all known people with significant, often terminal illnesses who lived their life in positivity and love. They faced the direction of high-level wellness to the right rather than negativity and depression on the left. And there are those who seem physically healthy, but are always bemoaning and complaining about any slight symptom, facing toward the left despite their current level of health.

A last concept worth considering is Polarities, the work of Chris Kaysar, executive coach. Polarities are interdependent pairs that may appear to be opposite, but which need each other over time, creating balance. They can be energy systems that we live in, and which live in us. For instance: Activity/Rest, Inhale/Exhale, Work/Play, Clear/Flexible, Self-Assured/Humble. When we insert the word “and” in place of the words “but” or “or”, we can see how they are interdependent, a true win-win situation.

How often do we minimize something by starting out positively, and then flatten that positivity with a “but”? Or limit our outcomes by having to choose “this” or “that”? Our bodies work in the same way. Its parts are so interconnected that it is a matter of “both and”. Every slight physiological change causes a cascade of events as the body seeks homeostasis, out of our awareness.

As human beings, we have the capacity—one might even say the responsibility—to create a favorable environment for our bodies to thrive. We hear all the time that we need good sleep hygiene, or should eat less salt and fat, or to exercise. We know these “rules” we should follow, but often, we lack the basic physiological understanding or the scientific facts of how our bodies actually work, to motivate us to make necessary changes. Here are some of those facts.

The hypothalamus is the command center of the brain, and it communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system. It is made up of two systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the threat detection process that triggers the “fight, flight or freeze” response. We all know that feeling of dread and fear, even if it’s “only” the fear of speaking in public or responding to a negative remark. The parasympathetic system controls involuntary movements such as breathing, heartbeat and blood pressure, a rest and restore function.

The brain is connected to the gut through a two-way communication system called the vagus nerve, which is actually two nerves on either side of the body. It is the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system, beginning at the base of the brain stem and ending in the colon. It stimulates heart muscles, helps to lower resting heart rate, promotes involuntary contractions in the digestive tract and interfaces with the lungs. When one is stressed, glands in the body release adrenaline into the bloodstream, inhibiting the signals that travel through the vagus nerve. This brings about a cascade of physiological events: increased heartrate, pulse and blood pressure; shutting down of the digestive system; and increased blood flow to the muscles and heart. This promotes the body’s capacity to fight or run away—stress, by any other name.

Part II of this overview of vitality will offer stress reduction tips, such as how diaphragmatic breathing (deepening the breath) and relaxing or meditative practices can positively affect the vagus nerve. We will also explore the positive impacts of heart rate variability and sleep hygiene on vitality.  

Ann C. Reeves, Psy.D is a Licensed Psychologist in Wilton.

Read the last article in this PERMA-V series, Part II on V for Vitality, in the August issue.

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