How to be with others with awareness of polyvagal theory

I’m summarizing polyvagal theory, originated by Dr. Stephen Porges, from a 10:48-minute video interview of him. I’m doing this for my own understanding, and I want to share because it’s a new way of thinking about traumatic responses. It has major implications for my work, and I’ve added my own comments in brackets. I am sure I will continue to refine my understanding.

Dr. Porges says that polyvagal theory is the understanding of how our body reacts to various challenges. The autonomic nervous system [involuntary, like heart beat] has evolved in vertebrates, changing and adding new circuits that function in a hierarchy. The newer circuits can inhibit older circuits. The older circuits were circuits of defense.

[The image below is my attempt to describe the branches of the ANS and how we automatically behave when we feel safe and when we feel threatened. Remember, newer circuits can inhibit older circuits, so what do you do if your friend suddenly looks threatened — and there’s no actual threat in the present moment? You make eye contact and speak reassuringly — helping to move them from threatened sympathetic to safe social. If they freeze, you do the above and also engage them playfully, perhaps by squeezing their hand and inviting them to squeeze back — helping to move them from threatened parasympathetic to safe sympathetic to safe social. Thanks to Stephen Derkacz for the inspiration.]

polyvagal chart

hierarchical branches of the autonomic nervous system in safety and in threat, according to polyvagal theory

Most diseases, including chronic diseases of physical health, are really diseases of the autonomic nervous system, which changes with mental health as well. (See my 2011 post about the percentage of illness that’s related to stress.)

The newest circuit [that Dr. Porges’ research discovered in the vagus nerve] is a circuit for social interaction, only seen in mammals, who have a nerve running from the brainstem to the heart that’s also linked to the muscles of the face and head and is involved in vocalization, listening, facial expressivity, and gesturing.

This [social nervous] system enables our bodies to be in states that support health, growth, and restoration. It’s interactive. [We are very social creatures, and we automatically respond to seeing others’ facial expressions and gauging our relative safety.]

When the [social nervous] system doesn’t work, we start seeing the behaviors and symptoms associated with mental health issues: mobilized behavior, rage, tantrums, anxiety [sympathetic dominance, fight or flight].

Polyvagal theory got its name for an earlier study of the evolution of the ANS where Dr. Porges and associates identified another response: shutting down or passing out, which are considered dissociative states in mental health. Previously to this discovery, physiological immobilization associated with fear was not acknowledged in psychology and psychiatry, and it wasn’t included in studies of trauma. [When fight or flight fails because the person is unable to escape, they freeze.]

People who freeze in fear have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s in the autonomic nervous system, a reaction beyond their control. Understanding this shifts one’s identity from victim to survivor. Behavior isn’t always voluntary, having intention, being learned. There are a lot of responses that are implicit in the body.

Sometimes people who experience freezing blame themselves afterward. “Why didn’t I fight?” [We’ve heard this a lot recently about women who were raped or felt threatened with rape, like Dr. Ford and others in #metoo. Actually, they involuntarily froze.] It wasn’t a voluntary choice. Their body made this decision beyond their conscious awareness. If we had to make a conscious decision about whether to fight, flee, or freeze, we’d probably be dead. It’s adaptive for the species for our bodies to have this built in.

Our own personal history influences this. Learning through association is out of the realm of awareness. For example, when Dr. Porges was talking to a female colleague with a history of trauma and his voice deepened, she had a fear reaction, because that voice tone was associated in her memory with her father’s voice.

The body responds, and we don’t always know what we’re reacting to. In therapy, the person can come to appreciate the defensive, adaptive behavior of their body. We are always aware of our bodily responses that are triggered by memories associated with feeling unsafe, [even if we don’t immediately recall the memory].

When we recontextualize, we respect our bodies and appreciate these responses. Part of traumatization is disrespect for the body, feeling the nervous system failed us and feeling angry at ourselves. Be appreciative and love what the body did. [You survived.]

The organs below the diaphragm are part of this immobilization response. When people have had shutdown experiences, they experience irritable bowel and digestive problems.  Fight or flight responses are above the diaphragm.

Improving vagal tone

When do you feel safe? When are you on guard?

If you feel safe except when there is an actual threat to your safety, then you have high vagal tone.

If you feel guarded most or all of the time, even when there is no actual threat to your safety, you have low vagal tone. Low vagal tone can be raised.

I wonder what percentage of Americans feel threatened when they are not facing an actual threat. Perception of threat is, of course, subjective.

The vagus nerve is a big, long nerve — almost as long as the spinal cord and nearly as thick — that comes out of your brainstem, goes down your neck into your torso with branches affecting all of your organs except the adrenal glands.

Screen Shot 2018-11-08 at 9.30.02 PM

When you feel safe and relaxed, this nerve helps your organs function better. Your heartbeat slows, your breathing slows, digestion improves. This is when repairs take place.

The vagus also influences social functioning: facial expressions and whether your voice sounds animated, inviting engagement.

I’ve gotten interested in how to raise vagal tone and will be posting more about it as I research and learn. For now, here are some activities that can raise vagal tone:

  • singing or humming
  • pranayama (yogic breathing exercises)
  • gargling (it’s near the back of the throat)
  • feeling connected
  • cuddling
  • friendly eye contact
  • cold showers
  • compassion for self and others
  • gratitude
  • yoga
  • massage
  • craniosacral therapy

This is my first post while researching applications that I can use myself, share with my friends (including you), and apply to my bodywork clients. I will add links to subsequent posts below.

How to be with others with awareness of polyvagal theory

Meet Amanda Lee, humanitarian and therapist

My friend Amanda is an amazing woman that I want everyone to know about. She’s a trauma survivor who went on to spend many years of her life working in the world’s crisis zones on humanitarian projects.

Honestly, I started to call her a super-therapist, but I decided not to because it might convey the impression that she’s inaccessible, beyond the human. She’s definitely living in this world, has worked through many of her own struggles, and she’s accessible. (And still super in my heart.)

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 11.00.36 AM

Continue reading

Fall is the best time to plant a tree

Just added this quote to my Favorite Quotes page:

The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil. ~George Orwell

How are your trees doing, the ones you planted?

If you haven’t planted any, time to get busy! Fall planting gives the roots time to get established before winter, ensuring stability and adequate nutrients for growth in the spring.

Even low-water trees need regular deep watering in the summer for the first few years, especially where summers are hot and dry (like here in Texas).

Screen Shot 2018-10-01 at 10.05.34 AM
Ginkgo biloba leaves, courtesy of ScienceDaily.com
I’ve planted several trees at my place. I’ve lost a few, mostly ones that can’t tolerate a cold Austin winter. These have survived a few years:
  • Montezuma cypress
  • ginkgo
  • redbud
  • loquat
  • arroyo sweetwood
  • Shumard oak
  • Canby oak
  • fig
  • moringa (foliage dies with first freeze, comes back from roots in late spring)
  • Mexican buckeye
  • kidneywood

When your children are grown, let trees become your babies. Plant them, tend them, enjoy them, and they will outlive you, reminding those who knew you of you, and after everyone who knew you has passed, they will provide for posterity.

Nightwalking, New Mexico, tornado.

It’s been awhile since I posted, so I thought I’d put something up just to let you know I’m still here.

I’ve been on vacation, driving westward to Fort Davis, Texas, where I attended a Star Party (my third) at McDonald Observatory.

Then I drove to Silver City, New Mexico (stopping at a food co-op in Las Cruces), where I visited a beloved friend for a few days and explored this old hippie town with its own food co-op, a lot of artists, and craft stores. It rained every day, August being the monsoon season. (They were showers every afternoon or evening.) Picnicked in the Gila National Forest and enjoyed catching up with Laura.

I then drove to northern NM, passing through Albuquerque (stopping at yet another food co-op) and skirting Santa Fe (next time) on my way to Taos.  Continue reading

Treating TMJ issues: a series of posts

I’ve been writing about TMJ pain and dysfunction on my Facebook business page and on my Austin, Texas, USA, private-practice website’s blog. Now I’m sharing an index of these posts here on my “big blog”.

If you have TMJ disorder and want to read any of those posts, here are the links.

I view TMJ issues as not just biomechanics, although it plays a role. This issue has social, emotional, historical, biological, cognitive, and spiritual aspects. I am very aware that some people, especially in the mainstream medical and dental fields, may believe it’s unnecessary or even laughable to provide information on so-called “woo-woo” or “fluffy” topics like essential oils, yoga, and the throat chakra for people who are suffering from jaw pain and dysfunction.

So let me share how I came to write this series of posts. Instead of just going to experts (and I have done that), I also asked women who suffer from this problem what helps, and they told me. And I believe them!

Since nine times more women than men experience severe, chronic TMJ issues, this is super valuable information to share.

I want the world to know that TMJ treatment is available beyond night guards, pain meds, and surgery, and there are so many options for self-care: massage, exercises, training yourself in new habits, reducing stress, improving posture, acupressure, nutrition, stretching, journaling, meditating, and more. I’m working on designing programs to evaluate and treat specific TMJ-related issues. More later!

If you bump into this limited and limiting attitude, please share this post, and please share in the comments your experiences and any other resources you have found helpful.

FB posts on TMJ disorder and remedies

I am writing 30 posts in 30 days on my Facebook business page on TMJ disorder (jaw pain and dysfunction). Please like and follow my page if you are interested in this topic, either as someone who suffers from it (or cares about someone who does) or provides treatment (or wants to learn about treatment, ahem, dentists and hygienists).

I’ve been offering TMJ Relief sessions since 2013. I was lucky to have learned how to do intra-oral work from Ryan Hallford of Southlake, Texas (near Fort Worth). Ryan is a craniosacral therapist who also teaches internationally, and he is the creator of The Craniosacral Podcast.

I’ve also studied craniosacral techniques with the Upledger Institute, including how to work with the hard palate.

None of my TMJ sessions would be complete without some massage techniques.

I am so attracted to doing TMJ work because it so often makes a dramatic difference. One session will help your jaw move with more ease and feel more spacious. I recommend three sessions (a week to 10 days apart if possible) for lasting results.

I often never hear from people again after they’ve received three sessions. Others come back for a session only after experiencing prolonged dental work or stress. If you are interested in booking a session with me, here’s my website with online booking.

I am always interested in learning more about what works, and I look forward to researching and connecting in this area.

 

 

Introducing one great lotion for face, hands, and body: Essentiel by Adele

I found a great new moisturizer and here’s the backstory: My dear friend Clarita’s daughter, Adele Uddo, grew up to become a parts model. That means she is a bit short to be a fashion model but is amazingly photogenic (and incredibly youthful looking in her 40s).

Adele’s hands, eyes, lips, face, legs, feet, torso, etc., have been used in numerous advertising campaigns for years: selling jewelry, nail polish, makeup, fragrance, shoes, food, wine, credit cards, paper towels, kitchen tools, etc., as well as in feature articles.

I bet you didn’t even know there was such a job title as parts model! I didn’t. But here you go: some images from Adele’s website featuring her parts.

Screen Shot 2018-04-26 at 9.35.17 AM

Continue reading

Check out The Center for Healthy Minds

In my recent presentation, Investigating the Power of Silence, at Austin’s Free Day of NLP, I drew on some research done by the Center for Healthy Minds.

I love that name! And I just got on their mailing list.

You may have heard of it. It’s located at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is run by Dr. Richard Davidson, who was encouraged by the Dalai Lama in 1992 to study the brains of Tibetan yogis. Dozens of monks have flown into Madison over the years, been hooked up with caps of electrodes for EEGs to study their brainwaves and undergone fMRI to see where the brain is most active during meditation, rest, and tasks. These are the “professional” meditators with over 12,000 hours of practice.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 10.43.54 AMThe research I mentioned in my presentation was done on the Tibetan yogi with the most meditation experience they’ve studied so far, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who’s clocked an astounding 62,000 hours of meditation (and looks like he’s about 30 years old but is actually 43 in 2018).

Here’s the link to the article, and here’s a photo of the rinpoche.

Yongey Mingyur became a wandering monk for four years, leaving behind his life as a prominent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, and then resuming it with new perspective. His story includes overcoming panic attacks as a young teenager. Read more here. To find out about his experience wandering, read this.

The Center for Healthy Minds has also improved the rigor of the science behind studies of meditation, holding it to high standards including classifying meditators as beginning, long-term, and professional and distinguishing between types of meditation.

Continue reading

Accept what comes from silence…

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

~ Wendell Berry

IMG_3467

Tomorrow, Saturday, April 7, 2018, I will be Investigating the Power of Silence with attendees at the annual Free Day of NLP, held at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. My presentation is at 1 pm.

To RSVP, please click here, which will help with planning for the free breakfast and lunch and free parking (you need to register your license plate number — otherwise it’s $3).