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.

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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.)

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Continue reading

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.

 

 

MTHFR: my micronutrient testing results

I previously wrote about learning that I have a homozygous (from both parents) mutation in my MTHFR C677T gene, and that I was going to a new doctor who wanted to have my blood tested to see which nutrients were actually getting into my cells.

Why is getting tested for nutrients important for people with this mutation? The mutation, which affects 40-70% of the population, impairs a cellular process called methylation, which can create deficiencies in nutrients. This can affect metabolic processes including cell repair, immunity, detoxification, inflammation, neurotransmitter production, and fat processing and result in serious disease.

Health conditions that can be influenced by nutrient absorption include addiction, miscarriages, birth defects, autism, diabetes, mental illness including anxiety and depression, ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, cardiovascular disease, neurological disease like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, thyroid disease, certain cancers, hypertension, inflammation, migraines, and many more. These health issues are common.

If you could take the right supplements and eat the right foods to recover from or prevent problems, would you do it? I would. When you have your health, life is definitely better. 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

I have an MTHFR mutation! Stay tuned for what that really means.

Last fall, my daughter and I decided to take advantage of a 2-for-1 special offer from 23 and Me, the genetic testing company. We sent in saliva samples to have our ancestry analyzed.

No surprise: I am 100% European. I’m 66% British & Irish, 22% French & German, 10% broadly Northwestern European, and 2% Scandinavian (which was a surprise). Hers was similar, but she was also surprised — she has no Native American blood on her dad’s side, which she’d been told she has.

23 and Me is working on providing more ancestry detail, separating British and Irish (but not Scottish, which I believe I have plenty of), French and German, and Scandinavian into separate countries of origin. Soon we’ll get new reports with this new information.

At that point, we both decided to have our health data analyzed. They’ve already done the analysis, after all. You pay for the health data, and they send you the results immediately.

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Come NightWalking with me in Taos, NM, in August 2018

Today is an exceptionally cold day in Austin, Texas. At noon the temperature is 27 degrees F (-2.8 C). It rained last night, then froze, sleeted this morning, and now it’s snowing. Schools are closed, and many people are staying in, staying warm, staying safe. People in cold areas may laugh, but most Austinites don’t know how to drive on ice. We don’t have snowplows. Sand on bridges is about it. So we call everything off and stay in.

Today (besides staying cozy in my pajamas and sipping hot bone broth), I’m daydreaming about an event I will attend this summer, August 10-12, 2018, when it will probably be over 100 degrees F (38 C) here. I’m going up into the southern Rockies where it will be cooler, to Taos, New Mexico, a legendary town in the high desert mountains. Continue reading

After my first 10-day Vipassana meditation course

On Wednesday, August 9, I got up early, loaded my car, made a home visit to massage one of my regular clients, and drove from Austin to Kaufman, Texas, a 3.5 hour drive.

BTW, my client commented afterwards that it was really a great massage. He even had a waking lucid dream toward the end of the session. I attribute that to his learned ability to relax deeply while staying awake and to me having more presence and being more tuned into him and myself. I knew that for the next 10 days, I’d be stepping out of my everyday life and meditating quite a lot without distractions. I didn’t have my normal everyday thoughts about logistics (travel, meals, timing, errands), which made a huge difference in my ability to really be present. So it started before I even left town.

IMG_0175I arrived at the Southwest Vipassana Meditation Center near Kaufman mid-afternoon. I registered, was assigned a room in the women’s dorm, and surrendered my wallet and cell phone. I had left books, computer, and writing materials at home.

I unloaded my stuff and set up my room, which was small, furnished with an extra-long twin bed and a plastic chair and small table, with open shelves and a place to hang clothing, and a bathroom with a shower. And a big window looking out on trees and clothesline. Very simple and adequate, and yet this particular Vipassana center is considered one of the more luxurious centers worldwide. Continue reading

Orienting to space

Not too long ago, I posted Orienting to stillness, orienting to motion, providing some options for people who are interested in exploring awareness. Today I want to share some experiences with orienting to space.

First, a little backtracking. Starting in 2010, I wrote here about the 12 states of attention (and also here), which I learned from Nelson Zink on his website Navaching (which also included instructions for night walking), which sadly he has taken down. Reading his book of stories The Structure of Delight is an experience I highly recommend. It’s like no other book you’ve encountered, and if you’re interested in acquiring wisdom from a bunch of interesting characters, you’ll enjoy it.

(If you don’t want to click the links about the 12 states, here’s a summary: We primarily use our visual, auditory, and kinesthetic senses. Our experience can be subdivided into narrow and broad. For instance, a broad auditory state would be listening to the whole orchestra playing, while a narrow auditory state would be singling out the oboe in the orchestra. These states can be further divided into external and internal. An external visual state is seeing your environment with your eyes, while an internal one is imagining or remembering something. The image below shows the 12 states.) Continue reading