The answer to a question, that I didn’t know I had, came within the first thirty pages. ‘For an authoritarian or would-be strongman, convincing a large number of people that they are under threat is basically required to maintain power.’ This concept set the scene for my further reading, put it in context or described how important polyvagal theory is and can be.

Stephen Porges tells us that social interaction unlocks our body’s ability to heal and build resilience. It is a biological imperative. It allows us to express concern and be altruistic. He asks us to think about how Covid 19 forced us to isolate and the wide-spread mental health issues that caused. How it changed people and caused us to re-tune as a society.

I had already understood some of Stephen Porges key insights.

  1. Trauma is the response to an event, not the event itself. It is being stuck in a defensive state. Events can be one-time for example a car accident or a sexual assault. Or ongoing and relentless states like battling a life-threatening illness or being bullied along with events such as surgery, the death of a loved one or a humiliating experience. If our body reads it as danger, it responds accordingly.
  2. If one of the three neural circuits that regulate the body’s activities – behaviour, feeling, internal sensation, impulses, emotions, cognitions – neurocept an event as dangerous we are likely to go into a survival mode – flight/fight, shutdown or a mixed state such as freeze, play or stillness. These responses are biologically hardwired into our DNA.
  3. Chronic pain and addictions are often correlated with a trauma history. These are coping mechanisms ‘driven by a body that is desperate to shift its physiological state, to regulate, and to simply feel different than it does’. However, it is not possible to heal what can’t be felt.
  4. To climb back up the polyvagal ladder we need to ‘emerge slowly, as the sympathetic energy can be overwhelming, or we can turn to behavioural adaptations.’ We all require a level of safety – to be held and heard – to process our emotive experiences. As such, co-regulation or the ability to help someone move up their polyvagal ladder through cues of safety, face to face interaction, vocal prosity… is hugely important to humans as social beings.
  5. A heart rate variability in the wider range means a larger window of tolerance and more resilience against stress and trauma. Its ‘an adaptive feature and physiological system that stretches throughout our entire bodies, allowing us to respond to and recover from challenges.’

Other enlightening answers, to questions I didn’t know I had, were ‘we don’t always run’. Our bodies have multiple ways of dealing with stress and danger which include freeze, dissociation or shut down. Along with, our body cannot tell ‘the difference between past and present moments’ or remembering and imagining as opposed to doing. And, if we leave homeostasis through an event or series of events pushing us past our window of tolerance ‘we could lose access to these abilities indefinitely.’

Stephen Porges says the design of our work, education and imprisonment systems (and by implication our homes) is important. For example, at work, he maintains, we are rarely away from the workplace with many under the expectation they should be available at any time. This makes it impossible to plan or have a routine. The brain doesn’t turn off.

He tells us that traumatised individuals, or those more likely to be traumatised, may simply be better tuned to pick out predators and dangers. Their ‘symptoms’ – ‘auditory hypersensitivity, difficulty extracting a human voice from background activity, flat facial affect, difficulty regulating behavioural state, a lack of prosody in the voice, and a baseline autonomic state that tends to have a higher heart rate and less vagal regulation of the heart’ – are the filter through which they experience the world when a violation of their bodies need for safety has occurred.

I found it concerning that trauma is contagious and ‘transgenerational trauma is very real’. He says there is an intense correlation between fear and attachments or in other words we tend to hang out with people who are similar to ourselves. Our bodies retune and adapt to who we live with, we mirror the autonomic state of others or pass trauma on via learned behaviours. This way, fear can become ‘an omnipresent feature in our lives.’

As Stephen Porges says the first step in breaking a vicious cycle is to acknowledge it. His theory addresses personal and society ills such as lack of integration, skewed perception and lack of reciprocity in a system or no ‘give and take in’ the equation. What he is telling us is of huge importance.

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