Tag Archives: Polyvagal Theory

April-May 2015 “New Brain” Webinars

James ReeseDr. Daniel J. Siegel gave a webinar April 8 to kick off the 2015 “New Brain Series” of weekly webinars by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM).  The series is airing Wednesdays April 8 – May 13, 2015, at 5 pm Eastern Time, repeated at 6:30 pm Eastern.

NICABM head Dr. Ruth Buczynski ran a terrific “Rethinking Trauma” series last year, pointing out that “talk therapy” can’t always cut it — we need body work and other alternative “somatic” therapies, as I’d written for months.  It’s still available; click here: http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/Ruth-trauma2014/

Ruth’s April-May 2015 “New Brain Series” weekly schedule is below, and what a great lineup.

Pat_Ogden AmazonI want to especially recommend two speakers I haven’t covered yet:  Dr. Pat Odgen (right) on “Why the Body Matters When Working with Brain Science,” and  Dr. Rick Hanson on “Why Ancestral Survival Skills Trip Us Up Today,” (otherwise known as the negativity bias of the brain, and how we can overcome it.)

RickHanson AmazonTheir past webinars have helped me enormously. (Rick Hanson, left)

I’ve done a series of blogs on Dr. Stephen Porges  and another series on Dr. Dan Siegel, who both were pivotal to my healing.

You can sign up to watch Ruth’s April-May 2015 “New Brain Series” free at the time of broadcast, or support the series by purchasing it and be able to watch, get audio mp3s, and transcripts any time. Here’s the link to watch live: http://www.nicabm.com/brain2015/freeconfirmed/?wemail=
Here’s the link to buy and download anytime: http://www.nicabm.com/brain2015/lay/info/

Webinar Schedule

The Brain In Two Places: Inside Your Head,  Embedded in the World  –  Dan Siegel, MD     Wednesday, April 8th    5:00 PM EDT & 6:30 PM EDT

Transforming the Brain through Good Experiences –  Rick Hanson, PhD  Wednesday, April 15th     5:00 PM EDT & 6:30 PM EDT

The Neuroscience of Willpower – Kelly McGonigal, PhD  Wednesday, April 22nd  5:00 PM EDT & 6:30 PM EDT

Unlocking The Enormous Potential of Neuroplasticity –  Norman Doidge, MD   Wednesday, April 29th    5:00 PM EDT & 6:30 PM EDT

How Neurobiology Changed the Way We View Trauma Treatment   –  Pat Ogden, PhD   Wednesday, May 6th    5:00 PM EDT & 6:30 PM EDT

Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm  –   Stephen Porges, PhD    Wednesday, May 13th   5:00 PM EDT & 6:30 PM EDT

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NICABM 2011-2014 Series Library on Trauma and the Brain: http://www.nicabm.com/programs/trauma/

Rethinking Trauma 2014 Webinar Series http://www.nicabm.com/treatingtrauma2014/post-info/
Peter Levine, PhD
Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Stephen Porges, PhD
Pat Ogden, PhD
Daniel Siegel, MD
Sebern Fisher, MA
Ruth Lanius MD, PhD
Laurel Parnell, PhD
Richard Schwartz, PhD
David Grand, PhD

New Treatments for Trauma 2013 Therapy Program http://www.nicabm.com/trauma2013/trauma2013-post/
Peter Levine, PhD
Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Pat Ogden, PhD
Stephen Porges, PhD
Francine Shapiro, PhD
Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD

New Treatments for Trauma 2012 Training Program http://www.nicabm.com/trauma-2012-new/
Bessel van der Kolk, MD
Pat Ogden, PhD
Stephen Porges, PhD
Belleruth Naparstek, LISW
Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD
Sue Johnson, EdD

New Treatments for Trauma 2011 teleseminar series http://www.nicabm.com/treating-trauma/?del=programspage
Peter Levine, PhD
Pat Ogden, PhD
Stephen Porges, PhD
Matthew Friedman, MD, PhD
Mary Jo Barrett, MSW
Allan Schore, PhD
Christine A. Courtois, PhD
Carol Look, LCSW

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Kathy’s blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Tags: Adult Attachment Disorder, Adult Attachment Theory, Neuroplasticity, Polyvagal Theory, Sensorimotor Therapy, Brain Science, Brain Stem, Limbic Brain, Fight-flight, Pat Ogden, Dan Siegel, Stephen Porges, Rick Hanson

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Stephen Porges: Social Engagement Heals

Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges explained in my Sept.19 blog that when a survival threat pushes humans back into the ancient reptilian mechanism of freeze, that’s how trauma happens.  The autonomic nervous system (ANS in diagram below) just does this automatically; we don’t have a say;  it’s not cognitive.  Porges says that for humans to be out of trauma, mammalian attachment must happen.

Polyvagal Autonomic Nervous System
For that, Dr. Porges says, we need what he calls “the social engagement system… in which we listen to intonation in voice and use facial engagement.  When a person has vocal intonation, an expressive face and eyes open when we talk to them, this expressive individual is also contracting middle ear muscles that facilitate the extraction of human voice from background sounds,” he says. [FN]

“When people are smiling and looking at us, they are better able to pull out human voice from back ground sounds.

“We also use ingestive behaviors; the baby nurses. Adults use the same systems. We go to lunch or we go for a drink, as a way of socializing. Ingestive behaviors use the same neural mechanisms we use for social behavior.  We use ingestive behaviors to calm and to develop social engagement. And when that is done, the physical distance between people can be modulated and we can come close…

“Safety modulates our ability to develop secure attachments. Whether an individual feels safe with people during early development might modulate individual differences in vulnerability to trauma.”

Dr. Porges’ 1994 “Polyvagal Theory” says the autonomic nervous system is not a balance of two circuits, but instead “a hierarchical system” of three circuits, “in which newer circuits inhibit older circuits. And when we get challenged, those systems  degrade to older and older circuits, in an attempt to survive.”  We mammals start out trying to use our “social engagement system” to look at each other and resolve things warmly; that’s our first, myelinated vagus parasympathtic circuit.

If that fails, we devolve into more primitive fight/flight animals, where our sympathetic circuits take over and juice up our adrenalin.

And if that fails, our ancient reptilian unmyelinated vagus circuit takes over and knocks us out into immobilization, called dissociation in humans.

Play and Mammalian Attachment

Mammal Play dogs2One way to get people back out of dissociation, aka freeze — aka trauma — says Porges, is to surround them with friendly mammals, and stimulate their mammalian social engagement systems to come back on line.  He gives the fascinating example of play.

“Real play, is not playing with a ‘Game Boy’ or computer; it is not solitary,” Porges says. “Play requires social interaction  using face-to-face. ”  Notice how the two dogs above are looking each other in the eye.

“Play requires an ability to mobilize with the sympathetic nervous system and then to down-regulate the sympathetic excitation, using face-to-face social interaction and the social engagement system.  I have two little dogs; they chase each other, and nip. Then one will turn around to look at the other, a face-to-face interaction to ensure that biting was play and not aggression.”

In play, he says, we practice using our fight/flight systems properly – but we also practice to “diffuse them with social engagement.  So play requires face-to-face interactions. We see this in virtually all mammals.”

“I use video clips of Dr. J. and Larry Bird, a clip in which they are friends.doing an advertisement for sneakers,” Porges notes. “Then I show them playing basketball, bumping and hitting each other. Dr. J. hits Larry Bird in the face, knocks him to the ground and walks away. By walking away, he didn’t diffuse the mobilization behaviors from fight/flight.  So Bird goes after him and they have a fight.

“When we play, we mobilize physiological state changes that support fight/flight behaviors, but then we down-regulate defensive reactions by looking at each other – so that we learn to repair  If we hit each other by mistake, we say ‘I’m sorry.’

“Other forms of adult play have similar features – such as dancing. Most forms of team sports involve face-to-face interactions that include communication via eye contact.

“Play is actually a neural exercise of using the social engagement system, a uniquely mammalian system, to regulate our fight/flight behaviors, to be able to down-regulate this older defensive system.  Note that individuals with a variety of clinical pathologies often have difficulty playing.”

Heal Trauma by Acceptance – Not Stigma

Radical Acceptance Tara BrachSo when we don’t receive attachment — which allows us to use our mammalian myelinated vagus parasympathetic — then, we feel endangered. Then our bodies are triggered to devolve into our second, more primitive fight/flight response (mobilizing our sympathetic system).

Further, if we are overwhelmed and fight/flight doesn’t get us to safety, our neurological system hijacks us and forces us back into our third, most primitive response: freeze, aka immobilization or dissociation (using the reptilian unmyelinated vagal system).

Almost all trauma occurs when we are overpowered just like that, by dangerous environments or people.

Polyvagal Theory also shows that our nervous system just does these things – trauma is simply not a voluntary decision.  “Outside the realm of our conscious awareness, our nervous system is continuously evaluating risk in the environment,” and shoving us into bodily actions that are just not subject to thought, Porges shows.

So Dr. Porges is asking doctors and therapists to realize that tramatized people can best be healed if everyone accepts and respects what their bodies have done – instead of stigmatizing them for it.

“Try something different with clients,” Porges tells clinicians. “Tell clients who were traumatized that they should celebrate their body’s responses, even if the profound physiological and behavioral states they experienced in past, are now limiting their ability to function in current social situations. Those bodily responses enable them to survive under the trauma, often as children. It reduced some of the injury. If they were oppositional during an aggressive traumatic event such as rape, they could have been killed.

“So tell them to celebrate how their body responded — instead of making them feel guilty that their body is failing them when they want to be social –and see what happens.

“Therapies often convey to the client that their body is not behaving adequately. The clients are told they need to be different. They need to change.  That kind of therapy in itself is too judging of these individuals. And once we are evaluated, we are in defensive states. We are not in safe states.

“Mindfulness requires feeling safe because if we don’t feel safe, we are, in a sense, neuro-physiologically evaluative of our setting which means we can’t be safe, and we can’t engage.  We can’t recruit the wonderful neural circuits that enable us to express the wonderful aspects of being human.  So if we are able to create safe environments,” starting with clinicians who make us feel respected and safe, “we have access to neural circuits that enable us to be social, to learn, and to feel good.”

Once the professionals accept reality, next traumatees can start to respect themselves, and stop judging and evaluating themselves negatively – usually for the first time since the trauma hit them.

That creates a “mammal to mammal” social engagement state inside the traumatized person, where their internal voices are kind and compassionate to them, rather than self-condemning as is the norm in traumatees.

“There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ response; there are only adaptive responses,” says Porges. “The primary point is that our nervous system is trying to do the right thing — and we need to respect what it has done. And when we respect its responses, then we move out of this evaluative state and we become more respectful to ourselves — and we functionally do a lot of self-healing.”

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Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Footnotes

FN Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011, http://stephenporges.com/images/stephen%20porges%20interview%20nicabm.pdf
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/NICABM%202013.pdf
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/nicabm2.pdf
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago, www.wisebrain.org/Polyvagal_Theory.pdf

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Stephen Porges on Treating Trauma and Compassion

Stephen Porges magesDr. Stephen Porges discovered in 1994 that trauma in humans comes from our most ancient “reptilian” freeze reflex. He calls it the Polyvagal Theory, as I wrote last week. But Porges also says we can use our mammalian attachment system to heal this.

This week I have a few short (and two long) Porges
videos to share with you, which since Polyvagal is
pretty darn complex, are really wonderful to have.

I really like “The Science of Compassion,” his talk
at the Stanford University conference of the same
name.  Here they are:

“Polyvagal Theory: Trauma from a New Perspective” — Stephen Porges, PhD, inventor of the Polyvagal Theory, shares his insights with Dr. Ruth Buczynski of NICABM on the treatment of trauma. He explains how treating trauma or treating PTSD is not always straightforward;  4 minutes at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKkDAOW2yd4

“The Science of Compassion,” by Stephen Porges, PhD,  at the Stanford University conference “Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures, and Interventions.” This was the first large-scale international conference of its kind dedicated to scientific inquiry into compassion; 25 minutes at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYXa_BX2cE8

William Stranger interview Dr. Stephen Porges.
The Polyvagal Theory introduced a new perspective relating autonomic function to behavior that included an appreciation of autonomic nervous system as a “system,” the identification of neural circuits involved in the regulation of autonomic state, and an interpretation of autonomic reactivity as adaptive within the context of the phylogeny of the vertebrate autonomic nervous system; 40 minutes at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tz146HQotY

#090: Adam Carolla and Dr. Stephen Porges September 30, 2013  Podcast – Dr. Stephen Porges returns to The Dr. Drew Podcast and this time we are also joined by special guest Adam Carolla.  Dr. Porges and Dr. Drew attempt to investigate Adam’s behavior and identify some patterns; 57 minutes at http://drdrew.com/090-adam-carolla-and-dr-stephen-porges/

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Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Footnotes

FN  Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011, http://stephenporges.com/images/stephen%20porges%20interview%20nicabm.pdf
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/NICABM%202013.pdf
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/nicabm2.pdf
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago, www.wisebrain.org/Polyvagal_Theory.pdf

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Polyvagal Theory: Trauma as Reptilian Freeze

Polyvagal Theory Book Amazon1Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges appeared in my last few blogs; let’s explore his 1994 discovery of the Polyvagal Theory.  Dr. Porges runs brain-body research at top psychiatry departments (University of Chicago and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill).

And he always says he wasn’t looking for a polyvagal theory. He was just researching ways to measure the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve running between the brain stem and most of the body.

Until 1994, textbooks said there are two parts to the autonomous nervous system (ANS).  First, the sympathetic system mobilizes us for fight and flight, but is harmful if it stays on too long, making us tense, anxious and prone to disease. Second, the parasympathetic inhibits mobilization, so it was believed to be calming and healthy. Textbooks taught that “the net result was a balance between a pair of two antagonistic systems,” Porges says. The vagus nerve makes up a chunk of the parasympathetic; “it functions like a brake on the heart’s pacemaker.” [FN]

This two-part model broke down “as I was conducting research with human newborns to measure heart rate, assuming vagal activity was protective,” Porges says. “If newborns had good clinical outcomes, they had a lot of vagal heart rate going up and down with breathing. Babies with flat heart rates were at risk.  So I wrote a paper in the journal Pediatrics to educate neonatologists.

“Following publication, I received a letter from a neonatologist who noted that… the vagus could kill you, and that perhaps too much of a good thing was bad. His comments startled and motivated me to challenge our understanding of the nervous system.

“I immediately understood what the neonatologist meant. From his perspective, the vagus can kill, since it is capable of life threatening bradycardia and apnea — massive slowing of heart rate and cessation of breathing. For many pre-term infants, bradycardia and apnea are life threatening.  I now framed the ‘vagal paradox.’  How could the vagus be both protective and lethal? For months I carried the neonatologist’s letter in my briefcase.”

Poly Faces of Vagus

Polyvagal Anatomy Diagram

Porges went back to the evolution of anatomy, and saw that in fact there are two different vagus circuits — a total of three ANS circuits, not just a pair.  The two circuits “come from two different areas of the brain stem, and they evolved sequentially,” one far earlier.

“This motivated me to develop the polyvagal theory, which uncovered the anatomy and function of two vagal systems, one potentially lethal, and the other protective,” he says.

“Immobilization, bradycardia, and apnea are components of a very old, reptilian defense system, ” Porges says. “If you look at reptiles, you don’t see much behavior — because immobilization is the primary defense system for reptiles… it’s an ancient vagus nerve.”  This pre-historic nerve has no myelin, a nerve coating of  protective protein and fat.

Porges found mammals have this unmyelinated vagus, on the dorsal (top) side of the nerve, which immobilizes us, too —  “and that immobilization reaction, adaptive for reptiles, is potentially lethal for mammals.”

Porges also saw that among the “firsts” which began with mammals, a new vagus with myelin develops on the ventral underside of the nerve.  “So mammals have two vagal circuits,” he found. ” The myelinated circuits provide more rapid and tightly organized responses. The new mammalian vagus is linked to brain stem areas that regulates the muscles of the face and head. Every intuitive clinician knows that if they look at people’s faces and listen to voices,  controlled by muscles of the face and head, they know the physiological state of their client.”

Neuroception:  It’s Just Not Cognitive

Porges adds that our more primitive neural circuits operate by “neuroception” — totally involuntarily.  “Neuroception is not perception,” he says. “Neuroception does not require an awareness of things going on.  It is detection without awareness. It is a neural circuit that evaluates risk in the environment… When confronted in certain situations, some people experience autonomic responses such as an increase in heart rate and sweating hands. These responses are involuntary. It is not like they want to do this.”

The polyvagal theory emphasizes that our nervous system has more than one defense strategy – and whether we use mobilized flight/flight or  immobilization shutdown, is not a voluntary decision.  Outside the realm of our conscious awareness, our nervous system is continuously evaluating risk in the environment, making judgments, and prioritizing behaviors that are not cognitive.

Next, he says, “humans and other mammals, as fight/flight machines, only work if they can move and do things. But if we are confined, if we are placed into isolation, or if we are strapped down, our nervous system reads those cues and functionally wants to immobilize.  I can give you two interesting examples: one is a news clip I saw on CNN and the second  from my own personal experience.

“I saw a CNN news broadcast with a video clip of a plane whose wings were tipping up and down as the plane was tossed by the wind. The plane did land safely and the reporter went to interview the people. He asked one of the passengers how it felt to be in a plane that looked like it would crash. Her response left the reporter speechless. She said, “Feel? I passed out.” For this woman, the cues of a life threat triggered the ancient vagal circuit. We don’t have control over this circuit.

“Many people who report abuse especially sexual abuse, experience being held down or physically abused. These abused clients often describe a psychological experience of not being there. They dissociate or pass out. The abusive event  triggered an adaptive response, to enable them not to experience the traumatic event.”

Porges’ second example, noted in my Aug. 22 blog, was his own attempt to have an MRI – in which his body flat out overruled his powerful thinking brain. “I wanted the MRI.  But something happened to my body when I entered the MRI that triggered my nervous system into…wanting me to mobilize to get out of there.” So the nurses let him out.

Porges was asked by one interviewer, “What would have happened if you called to be let out — but no one came?”

“Now we’re talking!,” said Dr. P. “So now I am stuck in there, I can’t get out; I am in this confined area. That would be totally like being physically abused, being held down, going through all these same things.” Like the plane passenger who defaulted back in evolution to her most primitive system, he might have dissociated or passed out.

“The problem, of course, is how do you get people back out of that?” Porges asks. ” If a life threat puts a human into this state, it may be very difficult to reorganize to become ‘normal’ again.”

Friday Sept. 26:  Videos and audios on Polyvagal Theory

Friday Oct. 3: Dr. Porges on how to “get people back out of” the reptilian freeze of trauma.

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Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Footnotes

FN Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011, http://stephenporges.com/images/stephen%20porges%20interview%20nicabm.pdf
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/NICABM%202013.pdf
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/nicabm2.pdf
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago, www.wisebrain.org/Polyvagal_Theory.pdf

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Mammalian Attachment System Heals Trauma

Stephen Porges magesDr. Stephen Porges writes in his groundbreaking “Polyvagal Theory” that mammals like us aren’t made for trauma.  We’re made primarily to attach to other mammals, which makes us feel safe, secure and good.  When that fails, we’re also made to go into a secondary fall-back option of fight/flight; we get aggressive or at least defensive. And it feels bad; we know something’s wrong.

But we’re not made to be in fight/flight for a long time, so when we’re caught in fight/flight and can’t get out, mammals are forced back into a third, even more primitive system: reptilian freeze, aka immobilization or dissociation.

“If you go to a pet store and look at the reptiles, you don’t see much behavior, because immobilization is the primary defense system for reptiles,” says Porges. “But if you look at the small mammals, hamsters and mice, they are running around. They are socializing.”

“Some reptiles can shut down and go underwater for several hours and be fine. The shut-down system works well if you are a reptile, because reptiles don’t need much oxygen and don’t need to support a big brain…

“But this immobilization reaction… is potentially lethal for mammals. If a life threat triggers a biobehavioral response that puts a human into this state, it may be very difficult to reorganize to become ‘normal’ again,”  he warns. [FN]

I talked about that kind of trauma last blog.  I was suddenly thrust into a medical system that ignored all these mammalian basics.  No matter to whom I turned for communication and  information, nobody saw me, nobody heard my questions, nobody seemed to care what happened. No mammalian response.

So instead of being about to simply sit and be “Present” with the sudden survival threat of a surgical knife coming at me, I had to take all the perfectly normal fight/flight feelings which that causes, and “stuff  it.”  Because I had to push myself into hunting and gathering all that info alone. Which threw me into reptilian freeze, just as my body was designed by the Manufacturer to do.  That’s trauma.

Mammals Should Be Seen – And Heard

Cats Bad Day, I fix itBut, good news: I got out of that trauma in under a week, thanks to Dr. Porges’ primary state: mammalian attachment.

The first thing that happened was I took a step myself, to get myself “seen” and “heard” – I wrote that blog.  It went out to almost a thousand readers, and the response was terrific.  In particular, lots of nice warm mammals in my Life Team support system started to call and write to me, and wow did that feel good.

“Dearest Kathy,” wrote one reader, “I just read your latest blog post, and it sounds rough.  I hope things are calming down and straightening out, and I wish I could be there to help. Do call if you want. – A big, warm, long hug….”

Now this gal and I go way back decades, though she’s on the east coast where I haven’t seen her since 2009. But we were attached mammals for so long, that in 2011 I woke up one morning dreaming I’d been singing Handel’s  Messiah, things went terribly wrong – but suddenly there at the foot of the stage, she appeared – to give me a big hug. “Oh!  It’s her!  She knows me. She sees me — the real me, the me who really is.”

And about three hours later that same day in 2011, my cell phone rang and…. it was her.  Across 3,000 miles.

“The evolution of the nervous system starts with the un-myelinated vagus nerve, which does immobilization. Reptiles have this oldest defensive system,“ says Porges.

“With mammals, a newer circuit, a uniquely mammalian vagus which is myelinated, comes online.  So mammals have two vagal circuits, which originate in different areas of the brain stem. The new mammalian vagus is linked in the brain stem to areas that regulates the muscles of the face and head.  Every clinician knows that if they look at people’s faces and listen to their voices, which are controlled by muscles of the face and head, they will know the physiological state of their client.

“If we are protected with the newer mammalian vagal circuit, we do fine. When our mammalian social engagement system is working, we feel calm, we hug people, we look at them and we feel good.

“These mammalian part of our  nervous system  enables social interactions to calm our physiology and to support health, growth, and restoration.  When a person is facially expressive, has vocal intonation, has an expressive face and whose eyes are open when we talk to them,”  then we feel seen, heard, and connected.

“Thank you for actually ‘seeing’ me and knowing me,” I wrote back to my gal pal last week after she saw my blog. “It’s got everything to do with plain old simple mammalian attachment, in which we  just ‘be with’ each other, and feel safe.

“And just this morning, it hit me: Oh, Mom again. I was under survival threat as an infant because I was raised in a glass box, which is interpreted by the infant brain stem as a survival threat. Google ‘Still Face Experiment’  – it shows how infants go nuts when nobody sees them, nobody hears them – nobody responds.

“So today, survival threat  (surgical knife) will cause me to over-react.  ‘Of course’ says my wonderful attachment-based psychotherapist,  ‘it’s baked into your brain stem.  Give yourself some grace, have your reaction, and then do the reality check.’   So when the doctors exhibit the same reptilian behavior as Mom: nobody hears me, nobody sees me, nobody responds?   ‘Of course’ — bam, it  triggers the whole infant deep neurological experience.

“The minute I put that together, I had a good cry, then started to feel absolutely fantastic.  Because suddenly I knew: it’s not about the doctors or the surgery — it’s about my mammalian attachment system.  No matter what happens with the surgery or the doctors, it won’t matter – as long as I get with mammals.  And what a relief.

“Because now I do have mammalian attachment to my friends, my therapist, and a few other important people – like God – now I do have “Safe People.”

“So suddenly now the surgery is no big deal because the doctors will do a great technical job like well-trained reptiles, and back to what really counts, my mammalian support system is taking care of my mammal needs big time.  Which brought me an enormous relief of tension, and feeling of support.”

And no sooner did I figure this out, than my email dings –  and it’s her again.

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Kathy’s news blogs expand on her book “DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME: The Silent Epidemic of Attachment Disorder—How I accidentally regressed myself back to infancy and healed it all.” Watch for the continuing series each Friday, as she explores her journey of recovery by learning the hard way about Attachment Disorder in adults, adult Attachment Theory, and the Adult Attachment Interview.

Footnotes

FN  Porges, Stephen, PhD, “The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,” 2011, http://stephenporges.com/images/stephen%20porges%20interview%20nicabm.pdf
—“Body, Brain, Behavior: How Polyvagal Theory Expands Our Healing Paradigm,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/NICABM%202013.pdf
“Beyond the Brain: Vagal System Holds the Secret to Treating Trauma,” 2013, http://stephenporges.com/images/nicabm2.pdf
—”Polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system,” International Journal of Psycho-physiology 42, 2001,  Dept. of Psychiatry, Univ. Illinois Chicago, www.wisebrain.org/Polyvagal_Theory.pdf

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