I hope this finds you well and are you are all getting used to the long, dark nights ahead.
I’ve been spending the last few weeks super charging my practice by studying the ‘Polyvagal Theory’ of Stephen Porges. I am now a Trauma Savvy Massage Practitioner! Read my article below,‘Understanding Trauma – Part 2 and the Impact of Faulty Neuroception’.
If you’re starting to feel the chill, my hot stones are ready for you and sizzling away on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Find me in Room 2 at St. Augustine’s Arts and Events Centre, Stanford Avenue, Brighton BN1 6EA.
Sometimes our bodies respond to situations in fear, even if we do not consciously register that we are afraid or in the presence of a threat. Dr. Stephen Porges has coined the term neuroception, which describes how our neural circuits distinguish whether stimuli are safe or dangerous. This often happens unbeknownst to us. According to Dr. Stephen Porges,“Because of our heritage as a species, neuroception takes place in the primitive parts of the brain, without our conscious awareness”. This post explores the connections between polyvagal theory, stress responses, neuroception, & post-traumatic growth.
To understand neuroception, it is important to comprehend polyvagal theory, also coined by Dr. Stephen Porges. The polyvagal theory asserts that our nervous system responses are comprised of three parts:
1) *Ventral vagal:-
Safe/social, Curiosity, Regulating and resourcing, Re-Connecting, Openess
Pressed for time, Feeling ignored, Feeling confused, Feeling pushed to make a choice, Feeling responsible for too many people or things
3) Dorsal Vagal:-
Perceiveing that there are no options, Feeling Trapped, Feeling unimportant, Criticised, Lacking a sense of belonging, immobilised, Isolated
THE TRUE POWER OF NEUROCEPTION
Our brains are innately primed to assess all new situations for risk, danger, and safety. Our sensory organs, meaning our eyes (sense of sight), ears (sense of hearing), skin (sense of touch), nose (sense of smell), and tongue (sense of taste), immediately send messages to our brain upon the presence of new stimuli. According to Craig Weiner, “this process is initiated by our sense organs, which then communicates with lightning speed to our brain, a central and peripheral nervous system which then informs the rest of our body through electrical signals and chemical messengers, directing us towards the next action required to keep us safe.”
Neuroception can be observed in people of all ages, from infancy through late adulthood. According to Dr. Stephen Porges, “neuroception explains why a baby coos at a caregiver but cries at a stranger, or why a toddler enjoys a parent’s embrace but views a hug from a stranger as an assault.”
Imagine enjoying a brisk walk through a wooded pathway by yourself. Your senses are providing you with bountiful information, most of which you will not consciously access. As you continue to progress down the path, you hear rustling in the bushes beside you. Before you can even think about the potential of an ominous threat shielded by the leaves, your sympathetic nervous system has already kicked into activation mode. You may notice that your heart rate has become elevated, along with your blood pressure. Your breath may become more rapid and your pupils begin to dilate. Your muscles become ready for action. Will you need to outrun a coyote, or perhaps fight off a masked stranger?
Moments later, a harmless deer trots out from behind the bushes. Even though the perception of threat has been rationally eliminated, you might notice continued indicators that your sympathetic nervous system is still in action. You may notice that your heart is still beating rapidly and heavily inside your chest. After some time, however, your parasympathetic nervous system will enable your body to return to homeostasis. Your heart rate and blood pressure will begin to drop. Digestion will commence again. Tension will fade.
For some individuals, especially those who have experienced trauma, neuroception seems to be triggered more often, even during times when threats are not present. According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, this is because “trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust”. Additionally, Dr. Stephen Porges asserts that “faulty neuroception might lie at the root of several [diagnosable conditions] including autism, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, and reactive attachment disorder.”
EXPLORING THE IMPACTS OF FAULTY NEUROCEPTION
While the physiological symptoms caused by the sympathetic nervous system may be momentarily distressing, there are additional implications of having the stress response triggered. According to Dr. Stephen Porges, “to switch effectively from defensive to social engagement strategies, the nervous system must do two things: (1) assess risk, and (2) if the environment looks safe, inhibit the primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee, or freeze”. This means that we are unable to bond and establish relationships with others when our defense responses to perceived threats are active.
This shows up in everyday social interactions. Think about how you feel while you’re being introduced to a new co-worker or acquaintance. Do you instantly engage with them? Or do you hold back? What do your verbal and non-verbal cues signify? Small, often overlooked factors, such as the positioning of your feet towards or away from another person can hint at the level of alignment and security being experienced.
These seemingly individual social interactions can add up. Individuals who experience faulty neuroception may have trouble connecting with others, struggle to maintain meaningful relationships, and experience overall loneliness. Humans are social creatures. Just as we are innately wired to perceive threats, we are also innately wired for connection. Therefore, the consequences of loneliness and isolation are severe, as they contribute to a higher allostatic load, which can lead to both mental and physical health problems such as major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, obesity, heart disease and organ failure.
As a massage therapist, the first task in working with a traumatised client, is to establish safety, then proceed slowly, very mindfully, responsively and offer gentle, well paced, regular sessions which are called for so as to not trigger the trauma, as the defences are softening. It might also help the client if they have talking therapy in place but not to revisit the pastwith the client as such, rather to hold them in the present.
Aftercare: Help create, what Dr Ruth Lanius calls a ‘grounding kit’ using the five senses especially body ie mindful movement, walking in nature, 5 rhythms, qi gong, aerobics (according to BVDK, for some people can use hard exercises to dissociate) but also listening to music. Drumming can also be a very effective way to release trauma. It’s important to establish an activity which spikes appeal and interest.
Take in the good feelings in present moment = mindful moments. BOOK: Just One Thing, developing a buddha brain one simple practice at a time – Rick Hanson
Dissociation, which is a survival strategy – taking self off until it’s safe to come back.
Congratulate yourself when you have developed that survival strategy. To a greater all lesser extent we can all dissociate when needed. Make it a resource which can be called up, but when the trauma is over, you can return to your body when it’s safe, this is called ‘integration of the traumatic experience’.
Frame it as a growth opportunity in some way…. – Health is not the absence of illness. Real health is the will to overcome every form of adversity and use even the worst circumstances as a springboard for new growth and development. Simply put, the essence of health is the constant renewal and rejuvenation of life •what happened shaped you in a way they can use to grow, i.e. I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did, and you responded in a way that saved your life, you did the right thing to keep you safe and your distress now might hold you back or you could move into a space where you can move forward.
Massage therapy, I believe, can help someone suffering from trauma move forward. •Bessel van der Kolk says- Demons from the past can arise. None of this has to do with understanding and understanding why you’re messed up does not stop you being messed up. And saying to someone they shouldn’t feel this way because it was a long time ago doesn’t help.. Trauma is not a problem you can rationally solve, the rational brain has nothing to do with trauma. It’s to do with your animal nervous system.
Regular massage can help a traumatised person tolerate their present life. Understanding what happens in the body when we encounter a traumatic event comes down to physiology….
…..‘It starts off as feeling safe in your body…do something that allows you to feel your sensations without being freaked out by them…the experience of trauma…relived in the form of heartache and gut wrenching physical sensations, a bodily experience of ‘o my god I’m in danger and it’s intolerable…the reason people take drugs is because they have intolerable physical sensations and they cannot stand the way their body feels…and so the core issue is to help people feel safe in their bodies…breathing, moving, chanting yoga, qigong, dancing, massages…they have to discover first how can I make my body feel safe? Once the body feels safe you can go to the past that has been too horrifying to encounter. BVDK
Trauma is experienced in the body. But what is meant by that? Well it’s a physiological process and the systems involved are specifically the nervous system & the endocrine system and how they effect a persons body. Massage is a great form of support for these systems. A well informed practitioner will be able to integrate this level of support in their bodywork sessions