Month: December 2015

Good basic info on vagus nerve: Becoming calm

This is a very nice article that summarizes the biomechanics of being calm. I think it has a lot of good, useful information, making it a worthwhile read. 

The article also addresses why the mind calms when the body is calm: It’s because the body sends these nice, “everything’s OK” signals from body to mind, along the vagus nerve.  (Note that non-somatic therapies that limit their focus on calming the mind would inadvertently neglect this major innate mechanism.)

I might add that I can’t personally vouch for all the methods the author lists for activating the vagus nerve.  I haven’t tried all of them; but I do know that some of the methods she lists, don’t work for some of my clients, or for some other folks who have considerable traumatic residue in their systems.

There’s no need to despair if someone doesn’t find the list at the end of the article helpful for them, in activating their own, individual bio-calming response. There are many more methods for increasing vagal tone (and calming) that the author hasn’t listed–including a good somatic therapy session!

In somatic therapy, we put a lot of attention onto supporting the development of the vagal brake, that is, the vagus nerve’s ability to slooooooowwww dowwwwnnn the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response. Which is what becomes revved up too quickly and too chronically, at the wrong times, in post-traumatic conditions. This is essentially the same thing as downregulation, which my clients hear me talk about all the time.

Vagal braking capacity isn’t really present in babies, and it takes a lot of caregiver soothing over a long time, to get it going.  This is why babies and children tend to be fussy or needy for quite a while. A major task of childhood is to develop the vagus’, and the person’s, ability to stop that fight or flight response and bring oneself back into calm.

The bad news is, many kids grow up without ever having really developed this capacity. For whatever reason, their parents weren’t able to pass it along to them, although most of the parents certainly would have if they had been able to.  This results in the now-grown-up person, walking around every day without the core ability to self-soothe. (Which explains a lot of problematic behaviors,  but that’s another blog entry in itself. Think about substance abuse, overeating, other compulsions. Or just plain old chronic somatic bracing, in which the muscles and fascia stiffen up, to try to contain the charge the body is holding, since it can’t discharge.) The good news is that this calming capacity is just waiting to be developed! See also neuroplasticity.

Again, patience and compassion with oneself is so important in this work. So is consistency.  Don’t give up! Our bodies are just waiting to help us, if we can only find some ways to get their innate support needs met.

Happy Holidays….or, You Are Not A Lizard!!

So the holiday season is in full swing now, with all of its colors, parties, mandated commercialism, and admonitions to spend time with family (among other features).  

Some people love the trappings of the holidays: sentimental songs, dreidels and Christmas wreaths, a frenzy of gift-giving, and much overeating.  It’s a well-known fact that for people with depression, anxiety, grief and/or loss, the holidays can be a time of great misery. Some people know exactly why they (or others) react poorly; whereas some are mystified by this reliable effect of “Bah, humbug”.  I wanted to look a little deeper at some reasons behind holiday-induced depression, as well as what we can do to help ourselves and each other get through it.

Part of the issue is that we are not reptiles.  Reptiles, as I wrote in an earlier blog, don’t cruise down the street in herds or gangs.  They don’t hang out with their best buddies.  Because they don’t really have best buddies! Despite the enthusiastic owner who gets super attached to their python or iguana, reptiles pretty much couldn’t care less about other creatures around them. Unless it’s time to (a) run away, (b) eat that other creature or (c) mate with it.  

Let’s look at biology for a moment. This lack of reptile socializing is because reptile survival strategies are generally solo.  Now, I’m sure that somewhere in the fantastic diversity that is biology on this planet, there are species of reptiles that do group together for survival. But on average, reptiles tend to run solo. They are not warm and cuddly, and they don’t depend on each other for survival.

People are mammals. It was a great shift in evolution when warm blooded creatures discovered they could be more effective in groups.  For one thing, this strategy of interdependence allows for the more gradual development of bigger, more complex brains. An extended childhood, where the child is dependent on caretaker(s) for a looooong time, makes us smarter. 

Do you see where I’m going with this? 

We are wired to be together.

It’s deep in our bones  and nervous systems as a survival strategy, and we don’t feel or function right without it. 

In fact, togetherness is so deep in our evolution, our bodies need pleasant social time in order to be well-regulated. Therapists use this fact in the office. By being pleasant, interested, engaged, supportive and having a well-regulated nervous system ourselves, we support our client’s system coming into regulation. The same thing happens, albeit less consciously, at most any pleasant, fun social gathering.  See Porges’ polyvagal theory for more information.  

Simply put, in a social group which feels good, not threatening, people’s nervous systems are basically going zap! zap! zap! off of each other, and that zapping feels good. It supports the body’s sense of safety and well-being. 

Many people find they can pretty much adapt to being alone for long periods of time.  This does not mean it’s good for you.  I just googled “loneliness and mortality” and picked one of the first articles that comes up.  Notice that it doesn’t just refer to the subjective sensation of feeling “lonely”, it implicates social isolation as a risk factor for mortality.  

Unfortunately, people tend to do things first, and then many years later ask whether or not what we’re doing is good for us.  We have created a society in which it’s easier than ever to be alone, even when we’re physically surrounded by people.  

We drive around isolated in metal boxes (cars), fear speaking with strangers on the subway, in the grocery store.  “Bedroom communities” cut drastically down on opportunities to get to know our neighbors, even–gasp–hang out with them.  It used to take an entire community to raise a child, with uncles and aunts and neighbors and grandparents and kids’ friends’ parents.  Now, it’s often left to two (or one) overworked parent(s) and a really overworked, underpaid teacher.  All of this creates aloneness. We look to smartphones and the Internet for disembodied companionship. In so doing, our entire younger generation is, in my opinion, gradually losing the capacity to be face to face, human-to-human with another person.

For those who aren’t entirely alone, who still have family around, the season’s expecations of loving together time may serve as a painful reminder of difficult or even toxic family dynamics.  As in, we’re supposed to feel good and loving together as a family, but it just brings up old hurts. Or there might be the internal battle between “do I go to this awful family celebration and gut it out, to fulfill my obligation? Or do I put myself first and spend it alone or with friends? If the latter, what will be my cost in guilt?”

Also, I have no evidence to support this, nor have I bothered to look it up. But it seems to me that there are an awful lot of death anniversaries in the last quarter of the calendar year.  Perhaps people who are losing their physical or mental health just can’t make it through the long winter. At any rate, grief tends to really complicate the holiday season for survivors.

Lest this blog entry seem unrelentingly grim, there are solutions. We can use our knowledge of mammalian biology and SE to create a better situation for oursevles. Patterns can be reworked and replaced.  

I’m not going to wrap up this blog entry with one of those prescriptive lists, because I find those terribly annoying. “Do this and do that, and you’ll feel better.” Uh-uh.

What if we held in our hearts, this knowledge of how people need each other, along with the awareness of how it’s gone terribly wrong for so many?  

Given that, what do you feel moved to do, to increase our sense of community? For yourself, for others?

It could be as tiny as holding a door open for someone whose arms are full of holiday shopping bags.  Or as large as organizing a holiday dinner for those in need–of food, or of simple companionship.  

It could be something, anything during the rest of the year.  Smiling at someone and saying hello.  Attending a PTA meeting at your kid’s school. Going to the monthly beach cleanups here in Long Beach.  Anything. Sometimes, just simply being present, fully present, with another person is enough. 

The thing about taking even a tiny step to create community is, it tends to help us as much as it helps the other person.  

At the very least, I suggest that we recognize how particularly difficult the holidays can be for many people, and hold them–ourselves–in our awareness with compassion. And watch for opportunities for constructively and non-intrusively being with other people.  If you’re struggling over the holidays, there is hope, and there are people out there to help. Call someone. Orienting towards resources (lovely, pleasant things or activities) can often be very helpful. 

Happy Holidays everyone. I wish everyone the very best, the most lively and enjoyable holiday season.  

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