Thursday, February 24, 2011

How do you do! - You?

I wrote the piece below some 8 months ago in my first attempt at writing down what I'd learned in the past 5 years, notions of a self help book informed my mind then. Looking back I realize the writing was part a process of approaching myself after years of self-hatred, somehow allowing an integration to take place. Shortly after the completion of the 5th chapter of this work I had to travel for a week or so and found evidence of this integration in real life as I interacted with other people, somehow I seemed to have a better internal dynamic going on.

I found myself being less defensive, less reactive, a lot more approachable and importantly I felt far less flighty when standing or sitting face to face, even managing some sense of what Stephen Porges calls the "Social Engagement System," a third branch of the autonomic (animal) nervous system, incorporating the feedback to the brain from the more than 2 hundred muscles of the head.

Porges "Polyvagal Theory" and Allan Schore's work on "affect regulation" have informed my present state of vastly improved self esteem, with a drastic reduction in feelings of shame, an emotion which Terri Cheney in her book "Manic" describes as the fuel that bipolar thrives on.

What follows is that 1st attempt to write about the nature of 'affect' and what the neuroscientist's call 'affective states,' how immersion in an ongoing affective state, is the stuff of life and how we need each other to think & feel human. Porges recent formalizing of his concept of 'neuroception' is radically changing the way body therapist's in particular deal with such issues as trauma which I believe underpins bipolar disorder.

Peter Levine's "In an Unspoken Voice" is perhaps the finest example of approaching the 'self' through slowly experiencing sensations that have been 'trapped' in trauma, with no completion possible, because we literally think too much and have lost a deeper sense of the body, that our mammalian cousins thrive on. Animals in the wild do not become traumatized even after being malled by other animals and yet in humans it can be said to be an all to common experience. Why?


Exert from Sasiprapha Smiles:

“I really want to write, that’s why I came here, dam it!,” I shout at myself in that private, for my ears alone voice that is symptomatic of my self defeating patterns.

Now that I’m here though, needing to perform the writing action I inexplicably hold back, I seem to freeze as the words just won’t come, with my mind feeling like it’s stuffed with cotton wool. I just can’t think what this state is, it’s so frustrating that I can‘t willfully control this hesitation. I begin to ponder exactly how this state could be my instinctual nature, my inner biological processes which so easily defy my conscious intent, my wants and how I can‘t think an awareness of sensations rooted so deep?

Do you ever have the feeling that something holds you back; something beyond the power of your mind prevents you from getting what you want? Do you sometimes acknowledge a cycle of self defeating behavior, annoying bad habits that you sort of understand but can’t quite find the why for?

Try to picture my situation here, I’m sitting at my desk holding a pen, thinking that I want to write the opening paragraphs of a book, yet for some reason I can‘t or won’t begin. In rational, objective terms it’s simple enough, I’ve read and re-read dozens and dozens of books and have been bringing myself to this point for half my life now. I’ve given myself time and the space to concentrate on writing, yet each effort to start, meets with kind of resistance that I can‘t get my mind around.

I get stuck in the very processes that I want to write about, such as how my evolutionary layered brain and nervous system stimulates this unconscious response. The autonomic nervous system could easily be described as the mind below the mind, the hidden motivator of all those bad habits and patterns of behavior we find so hard to change. Our autonomic nervous system is responsible for the famous fight/flight response that we’re all aware of, although less well known are the freeze/fright instinctual reactions to threat.

In evolutionary terms, our human freeze/fright responses such as surprise and embarrassment, shock and fainting are inherited from our mammalian ancestors who can automatically feign death as a last resort when faced with inescapable mortal threat. Ancient survival patterns of behavior in freeze/fight/flight/fright which are controlled by small neural networks firing deep within the ancient reptilian layer of our triune brain, and stimulating innate survival reflexes through the autonomic nervous system.

After the above musing I make a tentative start, writing a few paragraphs before reaching a point where I’m facing the inner sensations that I tell myself I want to write about. In an instant I become mindlessly numb again, I put down my pen and stand up, I feel an urge to walk, some sense that movement might allow this funk to pass and inspiration to flow. After minutes of walking and useless rumination on how I’ve torn up so many pages already with such angered disgust, I’d tossed them aside as over rationalized dribble, intellectual words with no guts. “At least disgust is a innate instinctual reaction,” I say to myself, suddenly drawing a deep breath as a realization dawns.

Expectation! Is what I fear, I fear being seen, being judged, even by readers I will never meet and my rationalizations are the way my nervous system deals with fear on an unconscious level, instinctively avoiding it, I avoid feeling it. “It’s a shame reaction,” I say to myself, visualizing the numbness of mind and the vacant stare at the blank page as an unconscious protective urge.

Seeing it as a kind of mind below the mind, and picturing it as the deeper reptilian layer of my triune brain implementing a passive immobilization reaction, an avoidance of the slightest possibility of those dreaded sensations of shame that had cut me to the core as a child.

I see myself holding an unconscious expectation towards engaging with people, a deep fear that they will always shame me, always try to dominate me, an unconscious transference of the incidents of childhood into every social here and now ocassion. I laugh, thinking, “here I am in the 21st century and an evolutionary ancient part of me is acting like I’m stuck in the primal forest.” For me, the innate survival reactions, the instinct for life in those ancient rain forests has been replaced by a forest of human faces.

‘I have nothing to fear,’ I shout out loud, angry that I should struggle so much to get over this lifelong fear of people. All my plans, all my preparations, the study, the training, the endless reading, all the self development work and I’m still getting bogged down in the same old mire.

I think about all the theories and concepts I’ve read, how the autonomic nervous system matures along with the developing brain in the first three years of life. How early experience affects the neural development of the brain and sets up an habitual level of autonomic nervous system reactivity, determining our unconscious approach or avoidance reactions towards both the external and the internal environment.

I accept how early experience becomes an unconscious reactive expectation to both environments and how an organism will habitually respond. My own childhood Asthma illustrates such unconscious responses to an internal environment as I habitually constrict chest muscles and the depth of my breath as a defense organized by the expectation of coughing spasms. I walk on feeling lost and defeated, telling myself that at my age it’s utterly hard wired in my brain and nervous system, I feel like abandoning the whole project. ‘You don’t have the talent to write a book anyway.’ I shout towards cloudy sky’s.

I continue walking trying to get a feel for this protective urge inside me, remembering a weekend workshop on Hakomi Therapy, how the therapist acknowledged the protective power of a persons resistance to talking about his feelings. He asked the man to find the area inside that he sensed his resistance was coming from and to try to visualize it, then he encouraged him to accept this sensation, this feeling as his protector. The man continued his mindful state, tracking internal sensation, and waiting for an image of this force within him to come into mind. With a broad grin he told the therapist an image of an old fashioned ogre had come up.

After a period of respectful acknowledgement of his protective ogre there was a very visible shift in the man’s posture and attitude, we all watched as his resistive defense dropped away and he began to speak freely about a deeply personal issue. That was two years ago now and even though I saw the process and acknowledged it at that time, perhaps I hadn’t really felt it back then, paying only intellectual lip service to awareness of it.

How are you doing - You! Was the name of the workshop.

‘It’s your instinctual protector,’ I say out loud, then shake my head, unable to think what I‘m protecting myself from, unable to see in my minds eye, some object of threat.

‘Come on David,’ I hear myself say, ‘don’t stay in your head - feel it!’ Suddenly I drop to my knees as an old familiar shudder sends waves of unpleasant sensation down my spine.

‘My God!’ I shout out, feeling like I’m shrinking, like I’m dissolving into a pool of dirty water. I try to stay with the feelings, I want to know what this is once and for all, as an awful freeze sensation seizes my shoulders and runs down my spine.

‘How can this be protective,’ I shout out with an image of dirty water flooding my mind.

I had thought I was over this stuff, it hasn’t happened for years now. A scene from my childhood came to mind, a scene of physical and emotional abuse that I could not escape from. I’m not sure about the affect of the physical abuse, but the emotional abuse, the rage in his voice and the hate in his eyes; somehow they threatened me with annihilation more than his blows did. My innate animal instinct would have been to run back then, or to show my own anger and rage, yet that would have only enraged him even more. No flight, no fight and no escape, so hence the first of my lifelong shudder reactions and the torture of dissociation.

‘Is this the seat of my defensive over reactivity towards people?’ I say out loud.
This thought has come to mind before, although perhaps I have never allowed myself to feel the depth of its stimulating sensation before, and right now I can’t believe how strong this shudder reaction is and the awful sensation of dissolving into water is quite frightening.

“Feigning death,” I whisper to myself, remembering the evolution of the autonomic nervous system. This urge, this pulse of electrochemical energy, as neurons fire in my brain should follow it’s evolutionary path as my nervous impulse is stimulated to produce freezing to the point of fainting. A vestige of millions of years old mammalian survival reflex. A last resort when faced with overwhelming mortal threat as mammals feign sudden death as the last resort to survival.

We humans inherited the same nervous system capacities in the dual sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our autonomic nervous system, also known as the stress response system. Human responses like fainting are vestiges of this earlier mammalian reaction of feigning death, through a sudden and massive surge in the parasympathetic branch, acting as a brake on the heart after high sympathetic activity. It is the hyperactivity of both branches that stimulates the state we now call dissociation.

The parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is known as the rest/digest or conservation/withdrawal branch compared to the sympathetic fight/flight aggression branch, and in situations of threat it plays a part in a freeze/fight/flight/fright sequence of possible survival reactions. Being scared stiff is actually an unconscious parasympathetic mediated “fright” response, probably designed by evolution to present your body as a non threat or as dead meat.

There is footage on the internet of a guy who has fallen into a large hole in the ground, a hole he helped dig to trap a bear. We see him flailing away with a bamboo stick trying to fend of a curious bear and of coarse the bear just bats the stick away with effortless ease. Suddenly the guy drops to the bottom of the pit and lies there motionless, leaving the bear with no active object to attract innate interest, and in a short while the bear turns and walks away. How did the guy know what to do to save himself? Perhaps his conscious mind didn’t but his body certainly did and as Jake Sully tells us in the movie Avatar “you have to trust your body to know what to do.”

Perhaps I should have fainted that day, at the height of my fathers predatory behavior, I should have allowed the impulse to conclude it’s biological intent? Instead my response was the first of a lifetime of shameful freeze sensations. Musing about that day I suddenly think of the movie “Sliding Doors” and wonder what affect my fainting would have had on my father back then, and would I have been spared this freeze reaction that has haunted my life. Was that really the foundation stone of my prey like responses to other people, unconsciously sensing them as larger more powerful animals? I sit back on my heels in a prayer like posture, closing my eyes to feel the shudder with all it’s emotional associations to the sensation of shame.

As it inevitably returns I shrug my shoulders violently to the left, impulsively shaking it off as I rise to my knees saying a silent thank you to this protective urge. For several minutes I sit there muttering silent tributes to this freezing animal instinct, with it’s clear intention to save me from a sense of overwhelming threat. I accept the unwanted freeze reaction as biology, an unconscious instinctual reaction to an unconsciously perceived threat, while looking around at the same time, physically showing my senses there is no threat here now.
I feel a calm start to return as my hyperactive nervous system slows, and I begin a deep breathing routine by deliberately tilting of my head upwards to overcome the wind pipe constriction of a head unconsciously lowered in shame.

As always with this deep breath work I feel an unfamiliar calm and increased sensation in my limbs, in my fingers and toes, my skin tingles as I sense an expanded awareness of the surrounding environment. I’m surprised to the point of mild shock at how tense my muscles have been, I let out a deep sigh realizing anew that I need to constantly remind myself to relax this conditioned autonomic state. "Is this what they mean by affective states," I wonder, and is a my conditioned autonomic nervous system the cause of affective disorder.

With my equilibrium returning I walk back home contemplating the experience and hopefully a deeper acceptance of my shame freeze as a biologically protective urge, one I should stop beating myself up about. Back at my desk though the blank look at the mostly empty page resumes with my head lost in a reverie about mammals feigning death and innate affects.

How do you do! - You?