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.

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).

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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.

What to bring to a vipassana course

Just got back home yesterday after taking my second 10-day vipassana course at Dhamma Siri, Kaufman, Texas. I reached new abilities to sense subtle sensations and found deeper stillness and inner silence. Reentry into the real world has been easier this time as well.

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Plus, I made eye contact with a bobcat. More about that later.

While it’s fresh, I want to put into writing what to bring next time. I am into avoiding unnecessary suffering for myself, and others. It doesn’t mean that I can’t sit with some discomfort and be equanimous — and discomfort is inevitable unless you already are sitting still for 12 hours a day, day after day. Your low back, mid-back, upper back, shoulders, hips, knees, feet — at least one area of your body is going to feel the strain — and this is an unavoidable part of the process.

The pain and discomfort are necessary to get the full vipassana experience. Meditation isn’t all about transcendence. It’s about learning to witness and accept the truth of what you are experiencing with equanimity. You become more familiar with your mind, craving what isn’t there and feeling aversion to what is there. Continue reading

A round holiday feast

I’m tired of turkey and all the traditional Christmas and Thanksgiving meals where a big slab of meat is the centerpiece. This year I decided to do something different: most of the foods are round in shape. (Okay, look, I’m an Aquarian, and I’m allowed to be quirky. I thought it would be fun and different and still delicious.)

Here’s the menu:

  • beet-pickled deviled eggs
  • salad with mixed greens, pickled beets, feta, and walnuts
  • baked brie with roasted cranberries, served with round gluten-free crackers
  • meatballs with marinara sauce
  • roasted brussels sprouts with fig balsamic vinegar
  • mashed potatoes (not round but my daughter’s favorite, and I rarely cook for her any more so a special addition to the menu)
  • arancini (risotto balls stuffed with mozzarella, breaded and deep fried (something else I almost never do)
  • chocolate truffles

It seems like a fun meal to make and share, and if you’ll notice, it has a lot of red, green, white, and golden foods, so it’s seasonal, it’s seasonal! And there’s a lot that you can do in advance, so it’s not so stressful the day of the feast.

Continue reading

Homemade red cabbage sauerkraut

I just made my second batch of sauerkraut with a head of red cabbage. I’m getting into this, and I will never buy sauerkraut in a store again. It’s so easy and gratifying to make at home.

The first time, I used half a head of green cabbage, wakame (seaweed), and salt. It was good. Not that juicy, so I added a bit of sauerkraut juice from a jar of Bubbie’s!

This time, I used only two ingredients: cabbage and salt, and followed these easy steps: Continue reading

The rapture of being alive

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life… I think that what we’re really seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonance within our innermost being and reality, so that we can actually feel the rapture of being alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell

This quote has been a long-time favorite and is included on my Favorite Quotes page.

I want to go on record as saying that one of the times when I most feel the rapture of being alive is when I’m practicing biodynamic craniosacral therapy.

It’s like meditating together, but with much more connection, yet totally safe because nothing is expected.

I don’t know what else to say about it, except that if you want to experience it too, I’m happy to do a session with you.

 

 

Gift suggestions that increase well-being

If you’re looking for gift ideas for those you care about, here are a few suggestions. Since I am a licensed massage therapist, that’s where I’ll start.

Although there are a few people around who don’t like to be touched, most people enjoy a professional massage that’s tailored for their needs: the right modality, the right pressure, the right length. One thing people say they’d do if they had unlimited resources is to get massages more often.

Massage gift certificates are welcome gifts, especially with a personal note from you letting them know how much they deserve to be pampered. If the recipient is a busy person, adding the promise of watching the kids or making dinner afterwards so they can enjoy the afterglow is an extra nice touch. Continue reading

Morning green drink nourishes, improves health and energy, staves off hunger pangs

These days I’m doing Functional Movement System training 5 days a week and doing 15-20 hours of massage per week. Just had my 62nd birthday, and I’m feeling pretty darn good! Illness, including even seasonal allergies, seems to be avoiding me.

To keep my energy levels high and to feel great, I’m making a green drink each morning. Here’s what I put in it*:

  • IMG_4171A small handful of berries. I used blueberries today. They contribute to brain health.
  • Another fruit or combination, like apple, banana, or pineapple. I find green drinks most palatable when just mildly sweet. Avocado is good, too.
  • Greens. I add a big handful of power greens (chard, kale, mizuna, and arugula), enough to cover a dinner plate well. They add vitamins and minerals and fiber and other healthy benefits.
  • A chunk of ginger root the size of the end of my thumb, for digestive health.
  • Same size chunk of turmeric root, an anti-inflammatory.
  • A bit of raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar, up to a tablespoon, for alkalinity, nutrients, and to keep candida levels down (if I haven’t already drunk it in a glass of water).
  • 3 tablespoons of coconut oil for energy.
  • A half scoop of whey powder for protein. (I use a half scoop because I am small.)
  • 12-14 ounces of filtered water.

Continue reading

What If?

What if our religion was each other?
If our practice was our life?
If prayer was our words?
What if the Temple was the Earth?
If forests were our church?
If holy water – the rivers, lakes and ocean?
What if meditation was our relationships?
If the Teacher was Life?
If wisdom was self-knowledge?
If love was the center of our being?
~ Ganga White

New addition to my Favorite Quotes page.

Thanks to David Baker for sharing on Facebook. Yes. These are the questions to be asked.

Beautiful movements: murmuration, Northern lights, primary respiration

When birds do this, it’s called a murmuration, and it’s a wonder of nature.

 

Love this beautiful video below of the Northern lights.

In biodynamic craniosacral therapy sessions, we get in touch with movements like these within and around the human body. Called primary respiration, the long tide, or the breath of life, these are the movements of the fluid body (emotional body) healing itself according to its own agenda, called the inherent treatment plan.

It arises from stillness and silence.

Experiencing this in your body is a mysterious, beautiful miracle of nature.