I recently wrote about stress and what happens to the body in a very broad strokes sort of way. We all encounter stress and for the most part we can deal with it, and we don’t have any major reactions to it. However, for some people their bodies react in a very strong way that is really not helpful for their normal life.
Our body has two sides of the self regulation nervous system (known as the Autonomic Nervous System or ANS) which are the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The Sympathetic side puts us onto alert and triggers the Fight/Flight mechanism, whereas the Parasympathetic moves us to a Rest/Digest mechanism once the danger has passed. This is a massive simplification and we use the two sides throughout the day: when we first get up in the morning the SNS is moving towards dominance to get us up and about, it triggers an increase in blood pressure so we don’t get dizzy on moving from lying down to standing up. Towards the end of the day, or after a meal, the PNS becomes more dominant as we move towards a quieter place. So both play an important part in our lives and we don’t want one to become more dominant than the other.
The PNS is mostly controlled by the Vagus nerve. This is one of the cranial nerves (the tenth if you want to know), and it controls all of the organs of the body from the neck down. Vagus is latin for wandering, and this nerve seems to travel all over the body as it reaches to the organs. It also connects into the back of the throat and is helps to control speech and has elements that have an impact on the ears (the muscles of the middle ear particularly that control the pitch of sound we are trying to focus on).
It has two branches, one which helps to regulate the heart; the other descends below the diaphragm to the stomach, and digestive system. Most of the time the vagus nerve puts a useful break on the heart rate so that we feel calm and able to cope. However, sometimes the vagus nerve puts too strong a break on and our heart rate can drop to problematic levels, which can lead to us fainting (technically called vasovagal syncope). This response can get triggered at times when we are facing a life-threatening event (or one that the body perceives to be life-threatening) and we lose consciousness and “play dead”.
The idea that we can respond to threat in this way, the reasoning behind it and the role of the Vagus nerve is discussed Stephen W Porges’ book: “The Pocket Guide to The PolyVagal Theory: The transformative power of feeling safe” (2017) which I’ve been reading. Stephen Porges, PhD, is a scientist who has researched the effects of the Vagus nerve on the physiological state of the human. This book is a collection of transcripts of interviews that he gave to a number of interviers for their podcasts on this subject.
The book suggests that the two elements of the Vagus nerve are part of the evolutionary journey, in that the older Reptilian aspect is the one that causes us to freeze and play dead. The mammalian brain’s use of the vagus nerve is the fight/flight response and this generally overrides the reptilian response. It is suggested that the fight/flight & rest/digest elements help mammals work together as social creatures. So that when we are playing together we can see when someone is being aggressive in a playful way (think of kittens or puppies mock fighting) as we develop, but with a way to respond if there is a true threat. The completely stopping process of the vagus nerve is OK for lizards as they can slow their heart rate down for long periods and not be adversly affected, but this isn’t so good for mammals.
Stephen Porges suggests that we need to find safety in which to heal ourselves, and his idea of safety is at a level that our body feels safe on a physiological level. He describes a situation where he found himself having an MRI and his mind was completely understanding of the process, but he started to have a panic attack as soon as he was in the machine and it was something he had no mental control of. He also describes a situation where people respond very differently to the same situation: there was a plane that landed in very stormy conditions, and a TV crew interviewed the passengers afterwards. One said that they were screaming and shouting and absolutely petrified, whereas the next person said that they just passed out.
Our nervous system is constantly on alert to assess whether we are being threatened or not. This is a subconscious system that we have very little (or rather no) control over. A person’s individual history will colour the way that they respond to a situation, and if someone suffers a traumatic incident where they were unable to escape then their vagus nerve might trigger the faint/play dead response as a way to attempt to preserve life.
The nervous system is apparently acutely aware of sounds in the lower registers (e.g. the hum of an airconditioning unit) and in crowded rooms this is the frequencies that the brain in trying to pay attention to, at the expense of hearing what others are saying. So being in crowded situations becomes even more unbearable for someone who’s nervous system is on high alert.
What this means is that we need to try to find a place of safety that is right for our body’s physiology and not just the one that our minds think is safe. When I am working with people the body work I do needs to have skin to skin contact, and for people to remove their clothing to allow this. If someone has been through a lot of surgery or clinical testing they can become mentally blase or uncaring about their state of undress saying “I’ve had so many people looking at me I don’t care…”. I will always try to do my best to respect their body and their privacy and give them and their body the respect they deserve, rather than exposing them unnecessarily. I will also say that as a massage student you do also get more comfortable about removing your clothes. I will always ask permission to place my hands in personal areas (e.g. top of the chest, or across the front of the groin) or to undo a woman’s bra strap. I will also respect a person if they tell me that the amount of pressure I am applying is too much, or if the technique is making them uncomfortable or if they have then become uncomfortable with the positioning of my hands.
My aim is to help to remove unhelpful tension and pain from a person’s body, and I try to minimise any discomfort that is introduced to the system. I try to do this in so many ways, and I honestly have no problem with someone helping me understand them and their body better.
This is a massive subject and I am sure I will be returning to it in the future. We all have to deal with stress in our lives, and most people who see me need assistance with coping with it.
If this has made you aware that there might be issues you need to address, then getting the support of a counsellor, psychotherapist, hypnotherapist or a practitioner of another talking therapy might be very helpful.
Thanks for reading this, my lovely Interonauts (and hopefully you understand a bit more about why I call us that)