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.

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

A Secret Grave, an online serial murder mystery

I have a friend, Nicole Schindler-Jeffords, who is fabulously talented and creative. She is an artist who paints portraits in oil. She is also a published novelist and a born storyteller. She has many circles of friends. I’ve known her for at least a decade through the Austin ecstatic dance community.

Here’s are two of Nicky’s self-portraits:

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 8.02.45 PM

Self, by Nicole Jeffords

Continue reading

New video of Tom Best

I found an audio file on my iPhone this morning from April 17, 2011, that I didn’t know I had. What a sweet and unexpected joy it was to hear the voice of Tom Best leading a group of evolutionary NLPers on a hucha-clearing breath work journey, so much sweeter since Tom died the following April. (At least I think it’s been a little over two years since he passed.)

Enjoy this journey of lightening up the heavy events in your life!

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.

My experience with functional movement

If you’ve friended me on Facebook, you might be aware that I’ve been taking classes in functional movement since August, so four months now. I thought I’d post something  about what it is, what I’ve been doing, and my results.

What is functional movement?

Functional movement refers to fitness and the movements we use in everyday life. As opposed to yoga, for instance. Continue reading

This is water.

Here’s a video made about a  commencement speech, about the banality that is the water we swim in in our modern daily lives, and where our freedom truly lies.

The capital T Truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness, awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over, “This is water. This is water.”

Welcome, reader from Sao Tome and Principe

I just checked on my blog stats and noticed that someone in Sao Tome and Principe had looked at my blog yesterday. I had heard of it before and knew of it as a very tiny nation, but I wasn’t sure where it was.

I marvel at the reach of the Internet. Chances are I will never go there or meet someone in person from there, but there is now a connection between me, in Austin, Texas, USA, and some unknown person hailing from Sao Tome and Principe. Who could ever have guessed?

By hovering over the name, the map on the blog stats page showed that it’s a tiny island off the west coast of Africa. So of course I had to look up this exotic, enchanting place (where someone has read at least one of my blog posts!) in Wikipedia…

saotomemapIt’s actually a group of islands. Sao Tome and Principe are the two main islands formed from an extinct volcanic mountain range. (I bet the geology is fascinating. I love tropical volcanic islands.) This is the second-smallest African nation, after Seychelles.

The largest island was discovered by Portuguese explorers on the feast day of St. Thomas in 1471, hence the name (Sao Tome is St. Thomas in Portuguese.) The islands were uninhabited, and the Portuguese explorers decided they would make a good base for trade with the mainland.

The volcanic soil was good for growing sugar. Sadly, they imported slaves to work on the sugar plantations (not enchanting), but it became Africa’s largest exporter of sugar…until the Caribbean islands began outproducing it.

In the 19th century, coffee and cocoa were introduced. At one time it was the world’s largest producer of cocoa, still its most important crop. The landowners employed slaves, both legally and later illegally, and its history was marked by labor unrest and riots.

The islands became independent of Portugal in 1975 and is now a democracy.

saotomepeakAnyway, these islands have mountains as high as 6,000 feet! Here’s a photo of one. Yes, it is exotic with fascinating geology! Also tropical, with the average temperature of 80 degrees F. and a rainy season.

About 164,000 people live there, including someone who read a blog post here! (Hello there!)

Demographically it is also fascinating. Populated by mixed blood descendants of the Portuguese colonists and African slaves, there is also a group said to descend from African slaves shipwrecked in 1540 (!) who earn their living from fishing, as well as descendants of freed slaves, contract laborers from the African mainland, Portuguese and Sephardic Jews, and Chinese.

Cesaria Evora’s lovely song Sodade is about longing to return home to Sao Tome.

Beautiful video of the Earth’s ocean currents

Love this video produced by NASA of our planet’s ocean currents.

The man who taught the biodynamic craniosacral therapy training I took last week shared this. We have currents inside and all around us.

Video: Les Miserables goes gluten-free. Hilarious!

When Marius, Cosette, and Epipen are invited to an allergy-friendly party at the house of Jean Valjean, each must create a dish absent of all possible allergens.

I know how they feel sometimes.