I can do this, really, I can, I tell myself.
I feel already a bit uneasy, my body restless, thinking about all kind of solutions for the challenges that might be ahead if I go in.
So, there we go again. I have been here so many times.
I should be relaxed with it by now.
It will be oké, I tell myself. I can always say no if I really don’t want to.
I will manage.
I should be able to handle it by now.
It will be oké, really. I can do this. I can handle this.
So I go in.
I can feel a slight dissociation, I feel a little bit absent and disconnected, maybe even a little bit cold, I see no one that seems to want to interact with me or that feels approachable to me….
This has happened to me many times when going into a workshop space.
The story doesn’t always continue in the same way.
If I see a friendly face, someone who takes me by the hand or dances with me or makes me laugh, I feel I’m warming up again, as if life starts flowing through my body again. I can smile again, connect with people. It’s like someone pressed my ‘on’-button. My brain even starts to relax and function normal again. Pff... what a relief... I’m back.
But then other times when there is no one to help me shift, it is a huge struggle. I know my thoughts are not true, the way I see reality in this moment is blurred. I know I need to reach out, ask for help.
And sometimes I manage to do that. If there are people I feel safe enough with, or if the workshop is set up in a way that I know there is help and support that I feel welcomed by I sometimes manage to reach out. I try to because I’ve learned that helps.
And sometimes I just don’t manage. I know I should be reaching out.
But my body feels stiff, rigid, my throat swollen or clenched, unable to speak up, I feel like a failure, worth nothing, scared and alone. It feels impossible to reach out. My body just isn’t willing to do it. So I try to close my eyes, hold my body to feel safe again and connect to myself. But most often before I can relax the exercises already start and I’m supposed to choose a partner. And you know what, it feels like hell at that time, an impossible task.
In the last retreat I’ve got feedback on my pattern of going into distrust, negativity and anxiety and that it even could turn into a disease if I continued like that.
So I thought I would tackle this one and solve my issue around this once and for all.
I carry some family karma with mental issues and disease and I’ve always been afraid that I would end up with a mental disease/ disorder that would take over my life.
You can imagine I was horrified while hearing that feedback.
Some days later it also gave me the fuel to dive into what was going on in my system.
I’ve started an intense study to find out what it was about and how to heal it.
And that turned out to be quite an interesting journey.
I will tell you more about it in Part 2.
I’m curious if there are people who recognize this.
How is it for you to enter a workshop room?
I’d love to hear from you!
So what did I find out?
First I started reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book on trauma.
That was pretty hard and emotional to read as I felt it was about me, very personal.
I started doing Neuro-Feedback sessions as someone who had done them told me how well they have worked for him.
I also bought an online training on trauma with lots of interviews with people who have been investigating this area for years. I listened again to Stephen Porges about the Polyvagal Theory, Peter Levine and many others. I’ve read stuff from them before but now it seemed to click somewhere into the things I had already learned from Betty Martin, Matthias Schwenteck and Robyn Dalzen.
The puzzle seemed to fall into place more and more and the image was not what I was expecting to see.
First I will explain something about our Autonomic Nervous System.
Until somewhere in the nineties everyone thought there were 2 parts in the autonomic nervous system.
The first one was the sympathetic nervous system that mobilizes us for fight or flight and is harmful if you stay in that state for too long, as it makes you tense, anxious and prone to disease.
The second one, the parasympathetic system seemed to be the rest and restore part of the nervous system.
So it seemed obvious that it was beneficial to us to be as much in the parasympathetic state as possible and to avoid the sympathetic system if we could.
But the newest discoveries show us something different.
It divides the Autonomic Nervous system into 3 parts, connected to the Vagus Nerve.
The Vagus is a cranial nerve that exits from the brainstem and goes to many organs in the body. It tells our brain about the state of our body.
The 3 parts of the nervous system:
1. VVC: Ventral Vagal Complex: It signals motion, emotion and communication.
It is also called: Social Engagement system
2. SNS: Sympathetic Nervous System: Mobilization, fight and flight behaviours
3. DVC: Dorsal Vagal Complex: Immobilization system
The VVC (social engagement system) is the newest, mammalian part of the nervous system.
We use this to show others we are safe to come close to or to check if others are safe for us.
For example when we come into a room full of people, we will (often unconsciously) check the environment and the faces of the other people to see if we are safe there.
When we are challenged, we can mobilize thanks to our sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
This can happen if we perceive a real threat or even when we see someone we don’t want to talk to or be around.
If the mobilisation/ fight-flight doesn’t have the effect we want, we turn on our most primitive neural circuit, the Dorsal Vagal Complex. This is the old part of the Vagus nerve that we share with reptiles.
The system is hierarchical. The newer circuits are inhibitory over the older circuits.
When we are challenged, we use the social engagement system and when it doesn’t help us to feel safe, we use older and older systems (from 1 to 2 to 3).
The social engagement system (facial expression, tone of voice, gesture, creating safety) downregulates the sympathetic activity. It’s calming. We use the social engagement system to calm ourselves down.
The social engagement system is also the linkage between the muscles of the face and head and the vagal regulation of the heart.
It is interesting to observe how your heart and body react to different facial expressions around you. And even smiling at no one in particular can be very beneficial to your health as it relaxes your organs through the Vagus nerve and make them function more effectively.
Your face becomes the window to your autonomic state.
Social support helps us to regulate our nervous system. It helps us to navigate ourselves out of danger, risk or fear and into safety and relaxation. If our social engagement system is functioning, the other two older systems are in balance.
So we need each other when we are not feeling safe. It is a smart thing to do to reach out to friends or loved ones when your nervous system is stressed. Because you can navigate yourself out of the freeze, fight or flight state by using your social engagement system that is placed higher in the hierarchy.
Next month I will dive deeper into the functions and consequences of the 3 parts of the nervous system.
I hope you have enjoyed it until here and feel free to share or ask questions on my Facebook page.
As I promised in part 2 I will tell you a bit more about the consequences for your body when your nervous system shuts down.
Do you remember this picture?
It shows the 3 parts of the nervous system as it is mentioned by Stephen Porges in his Polyvagal theory. It shows you the routes the nervous system takes when the Social Engagement systems gives a safe or unsafe signal.
In the circles you can also see which part of the brain is connected to this part of the nervous system.
The newest part of the nervous system and brain is the circle at the top (Social Engagement System). The oldest part is the circle at the bottom of the picture.
Before we go into the effects we must realize that our body -our nervous system- is making the decision which part of it gets activated. It is not allowing us to argue and make our point to choose the route we prefer.
If our body goes into a freeze state the blood flow, especially to the brain, gets reduced and that will cause dissociative features. People often describe it to me as being in their heads, not being aware of what happens in the body, feeling cold and distant.
You might have expected that the immobilization behaviour causes passing out or dissociating, but what you might not have thought about is that it also shuts down our organs and creates problems in our body for instance heart issues, bowel problems and problems with the guts like irritable bowel syndrome and obesity that seem to be so common now.
This was a huge eye opener for me and it gave me finally a lot of understanding about why I had so many gut issues and kidney infections after years with little sleep because of my baby crying, a divorce, money issues, having to move a few times, my mother dying, a very challenging tantric school and more stressful events.
My nervous system was constantly shutting down and with that my organs as well. Due to the shutting down the organs lacked nourishment and started to malfunction.
How to get out of that?
The question to me is how to move out of this state into the part of the nervous system that has more beneficial effects for our bodies: The part where the nervous system feels safe and the body will rest and restore.
The route back may be through play, which would enable mobilization. (as Stephen Porges suggests)
Play gives us a chance to mobilize and feel safe with each other at the same time.
Our culture often confuses play with electronic games, which are not mobilization, and it confuses exercise with play.
So by play I mean play which includes mobilization and face to face contact, like we do in Ritual Play (Marina Kronkvist) and in the 3-minute game (Betty Martin).
The path to bliss
A lot of people are longing to experience that feeling of bliss and unity, where our bodies can rest and restore. That place in our bodies is only available if we can immobilize without fear.
Stephen Porges explains that immobilization without fear is a very complex situation for a mammal. The difficulty is that our nervous system is calling the shots. We are not making voluntary decisions.
So if we’d like our nervous system to take the route into the state of rest/restore and bliss/ unity, we should be taking good care of ourselves, our boundaries and keeping ourselves as safe as possible as often as possible.
The route to bliss starts with our Social Engagement System giving “Safe” signals. Without these signals from our nervous system we cannot experience bliss.
The next step is to be able to move your body while feeling socially safe (mobilisation).
Play helps us to develop state-regulation skills. It’s a neural exercise that helps us to immobilize without fear near each other later.
I choose for example to not stay in a situation that doesn’t feel safe or comfortable to me. If my body gives me a fight/flight or freeze response, I will get myself out of the situation into safety as quickly as I can. Because only if I feel safe enough the road to pleasure, play, sensuality, sexuality, positive experiences and eventually bliss is open to me.
I notice that if I spend more time in the safe areas, for example by playing more (yes, yes, I hear you, amazing sex also works ;-) ), it seems to broaden the path to bliss in my nervous system. It becomes easier to go there. My nervous system seems to know the way and chooses that path more often.
A lot of women tell me it is hard for them to surrender. Surrender happens in the rest/ Restore and bliss/unity part of our nervous system. Surrender can only happen if you can immobilize without fear. For me that takes practice and discipline.
By practicing mobilizing while feeling safe (play, sensuality, sexuality) the path to bliss and surrender becomes more open and available. It asks for awareness and discipline to take really good care of ourselves and not putting ourselves in or staying in situations where we don’t feel safe.
By doing so we can open the route to surrender and bliss in our body and nervous system.
This is why I teach the Touch Academy (Wheel of consent) and Ritual Play.
As they give you exactly the tools you need to open this route to bliss and unity where your body can rest and restore.
You will learn to feel when your body goes into the unsafe route and it gives you the tools and experience to move out of it and direct yourself into safety. It gives you tools and games to practice mobilisation while feeling safe and with that opening the path to unity.
P.S. Some of the literature I've used:
* "Beyond the brain: How the vagal holds the secret to treating trauma" with Ruth Buczynski and Stephan Porges, NICABM
* "Polyvagal Theory: Trauma as reptilian Freeze", attachmentdisorderhealing.com/porges-polyvagal/