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.

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.

 

 

Wellness news and private appointments

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I’m writing 30 posts in 30 days on my Facebook business page on TMJ disorder (jaw pain and dysfunction), which is something I treat. Please follow and like if this topic interests you, or you know someone who would be interested.

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If so, please send an email to wellbodymindspirit@gmail.com with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line, and I will add you to my email list. You will only get this quarterly newsletter, from which you can easily unsubscribe if you wish.

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I have an advanced integrative bodywork practice in Austin, Texas. I focus on bodywork, where people typically stay clothed and experience themselves in a new way.

Some descriptors my clients have used after a session with me include:

  • being more organized, more coherent
  • being lighter on my feet, more grounded, more solid, in my body
  • moving with effortless ease
  • having better posture, aligned
  • feeling expanded, less stuck, more freedom
  • feeling more confident

My most transformative work has roots in both Chinese medicine and osteopathy.

One of the treatments I’m most known for is TMJ Relief. I offer a free 30-minute consultation for those who are curious about what a well-trained and experienced massage therapist can do to relieve jaw pain and dysfunction.

I integrate multiple techniques into sessions as needed.

For more info or to book an appointment online, please check out my website.