Saturday, June 15, 2019


Working my way through "The Pocket Guide to The Polyvagal Theory: the Transformative Power of Feeling Safe" is becoming transformative. Cousins tell me they have never felt really safe and I accepted that and looked for some reason in their history.  Pretty easy to find in every background.  But I turned away fear with belligerence and obstinacy, as did my mother.  Then again, sometimes laughter or just being elsewhere, maybe a locked bedroom.

The third chapter is called "Self-Regulation and Social Engagement."  When I deal with these issues, I use writing for the first and withdrawal for the second.  Both work in the moment, but not long-term.  This is what disables me as a minister.  One more committee meeting that takes my blood pressure up, one more pot luck where I must praise things I don't much like, and I'm outta there.  But there is always someone trailing me and grasping my coat tail to make me stay and take care of them, which I don't want to do.  Mess.

The rules here, based on scientific inquiry, are as follows:

Safety must be achieved before there can be learning, healing or growth.

Safety comes from interaction with others through the neural pathways of social support.

The presenting locus of taking in safety from others is the social frame of the face, voice, and upper body (heart and breath). Understanding is returned the same way.

This process is key to being human and those who can't do it will be in distress, malfunctioning and afraid.

Because this is not understood by the medical profession, their work is often done in settings that prevent success: noisy, chilly, unexplained, rushed and yet imposing long waits, sometimes painful.  Dr. Porges explains by telling us his experience in a first MRI contact when he panicked though he understood what was happening and had human support.  Many people have a similar experience with the close quarters and pounding noise. In addition, reacting cognition in the body is sub-conscious and uncontrollable.  Finally he had to have medication to keep from running out of the room.  At parties many of us need to be a little drunk, because our very tissue senses potential danger, even among friends.

Another very bad consequence of not understanding this is the nature of vital clinics for things like HIV.  Events tend to be brisk, inconvenient, hostile, and dirty.  Mostly the fault is the shortage of money due to continuing social stigma trying to punish, but learning to provide safety through one's social engagement abilities doesn't cost anything.  If we are trying to convince people who are already terrified to come in for treatment, this is driving them away instead.  In a culture that considers compassion to be "pussy", the staff in such a place feels justified in their cold behavior.  In fact, they feel aggrieved at doing the work, taking on and reinforcing the stigma.

For a long time I've understood that eyes are focussed by tiny muscles pulling on the lens in order to change its shape which controls focus but gets more resistant in middle age, requiring bifocals and reading glasses.  I did not understand that the ear drum is also changed in its tenseness by tiny muscles.  The result is again a change in focus, increasing or reducing intelligibility.  Since so much of human relationship is delivered by voice, blurred hearing interferes with reassuring words and what Dr. Porgas calls "prosody," the melody and enunciation of words.  It's possible that hearing aid vendors are encouraging the idea of deafness without taking this aspect into consideration.  It may also be that this young generation's attachment to music is an unconscious self-management with instrumental or singing prosody.

As I write, a PBS story about countering school shootings came on.  It is plainly working on the older idea that the autonomic system focuses on fight or flight. There is no acknowledgement of near-unconscious paralysis.  Nor did they speak of team spirit, though that was in the background.  The story explodes the discussion about violence and fear far beyond a setting of deliberate attention to one-on-one work.  But the latter is still an entry point, for survivors if no one else and with those stuck in PTSD even after competence and effectiveness has made them safe.  Even those deadly shooters insane with emotion and countering fear with deadly aggression can possibly be led to safety.

These are cultural factors, but culture can respond to research.  I should make a note here that every time one of these blogs expresses distress of my own, people write to reassure/suppress me.  It hooks concern and makes it personal, thereby diminishing it.  I should make it clear that this post is about the SOLUTION, not the PROBLEM.  This line of thought works.

There are two common displacements that will ask for more work for people who are hurting.  One is the solution of techies and engineers who let objects with no emotions and no response take the place of real people who can interact.  The other is the bureaucratic response of slapping on a label, dumping the case in a bucket, and considering that the victims have been dealt with, though it's not even a beginning of a relationship.  My own blogging so much could be challenged, except for the many conversations in my head, memories of interaction.  Still, if I were helping someone, I'd encourage them otherwise.

Nearing eighty, print is more real to me than people.  Growing up, no one explained anything.  They just gave me a book to read.  So I knew how to use this book -- had to learn this polyvagal theory.  Porges says, "For these people, social behavior is disruptive and not supportive."  But he worries that when the two things are taken together, labeling combined with relating to objects instead of people, the result is damaging to children at a minimum, everyone to some degree.  

When people need and ask for help from others, the first step is achieving safety in the place and together with the helpers. A complication is that "help" implies to many people that they have failed, done something wrong, so that idea has to be dealt with and removed.  This is not easy.  Terror of other people interfering, guards put up to distract and block them, all of it unconscious and not where it can be reasoned away, is like Porges fearing the MRI -- it took drugs to get him in there.  Likewise, it takes drugs to get some people into relationship.  But it would be better without them.

Luckily, people generate internal drugs through experience. One of the most effective molecules is oxytocin, originally welcomed into the DNA because it kept women from rejecting their infant, a foreign object.  This is part of the evolution from reptiles, who lay eggs, to mammals, who grow babies in their guts.  I want to use another whole post to talk about Dr. Porges' wife's research on that molecule allowing human attachment, the key to trust and safety.  Sue Carter is brilliant.  Her understanding of what protects gestation, is also the key to humans around the campfire reassuring each other enough to work together.  Otherwise we might just kill and eat each other, as though we were all mass shooters.

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