Tuesday 12th April 2011, I wake fatigued and hung over after being up till 4am, so I’m paying the price now of with physiological state.
I fell into an old habitual work pattern yesterday and now those primitive neural networks in my brain have me in autonomic conservation/withdrawal mode, which I would have worried into a depressive mood in times gone by. That was before I educated myself in the latest neuroscience on brain and nervous system activity, and now I know how much physical state can stimulate my bipolar thoughts.
I now see how lifelong behavior patterns were stimulated by my autonomic nervous system (ANS). Instinct rather than intellect has been the primary source of my motivations, with repeating patterns definitely more reactive than intelligently reasoned. Today though, instead of older habits of harsh self judgment, I breath deeply, focus on relaxing the muscles in my face and chest and let go the majority of thinking. I’m aware that I burnt myself out yesterday, using an old compulsive and tense posture of driven determination, which has evoked a bi-phasic reaction into this opposite state.
The Polyvagal Theory describes an autonomic nervous system which stimulates three modes of unconscious behavior, its insights have allowed me to understand my bipolar pattern of bi-phasic motivation. Like today’s low physiological state which is being stimulated by a predominance of dorsal vagal complex (DVC) nervous system activity. In evolutionary terms I’m in a conservation/withdrawal mode, a natural compensation for the high metabolic cost involved in mobilizing my brain/body energies yesterday. This phasic swing from yesterdays predominantly sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity to today’s predominantly parasympathetic nervous system activity, is neural motivation my mind can only rationalize.
dorsal vagal tone (DVC) is more related with energy conservation: many corporal
functions decrease, facilitating a relative diminution in heart rate and in breathing
accompanied by a “numbing” sensation ","enclosing in the mind" and a separation of self.
Talks with Dr. Stephen W. Porges
Years ago this hard wired nervous system response would have me acting out surges of shaming damnation towards myself , angry thoughts would circle a theme of weakness. For decades I have not rested in easy contact with my body, due to years of trauma stimulated dissociation. Hyper-vigilant energies have always stimulated excessive thinking and tense muscular postures which had been an escape from feeling. Dragged into this world with steel forceps after a three day labor, I retained that fearful shock deep within my autonomic nervous system.
Born in terror with its intense nervous system activity not soothed to a calm state, its feels like I was on guard from then on. How could I know I was operating with this bi-phasic pattern of engagement and withdrawal, more suited to our mammalian ancestors than a socialized human. I would use up so much metabolic energy with my tense engagement, an exhausted retreat was the unconsciously stimulated opposite. Don’t get me wrong though, the reality of such a trauma conditioned nervous system is well disguised by mimicking others in the social world, yet it lies dormant waiting for an appropriate stress to trigger its true expression.
Yet today I have more awareness of my triune nervous system and its autonomic stimulation of physiological states with associated thinking. Associated thinking like the self shaming thoughts that are reflective of a primitive (DVC) conservation/withdrawal stimulation. Today though, I can relax the muscular tensions left over from yesterday, allowing habitual vigilance to dissolve more than I have ever done before. Today I can allow myself to sink into restful calm states beyond that high toned anxious defense left over from a traumatic birth.
Lunch has brought some restitution of metabolic energy and a dissolving of any negative thinking, as I allowed waves of relaxation to wash through my body. Then a need to get some work done brought a surge of (SNS) sympathetic nervous system activity as I slipped into old muscle tensions and accelerating thoughts.
I managed to catch myself though and practiced a little mind-less relaxation to let go my old vigilant orientation. I focused on feeling of the hard set jaw and the flight/fight tension in my chest, felt the sensation cut-off below my diaphragm, particularly my feet and legs. After re-toning my overactive posture I decided a need for some third branch stimulation was in order, clicking to life the laptop's play list of my favorite songs.
As the amazingly wonderful Oliver Sacks explains in musicophilia, ‘there is just something about the rhythms in music, that brings a spontaneous exchange of movement.’ Perhaps it fires activity in the ventral vagal complex (VVC), the newest evolved branch of the autonomic nervous system, allowing a more comfortable flow of metabolic energies for active engagement.
This newest branch of the autonomic nervous system which regulates the older (DVC), (SNS) branches to allow for social engagement without the tone of more primitive motivations. It is this third branch of the (ANS) that we see in the obvious healthy vitality states stimulated by laughter and smiling. Right down at the molecular level we are indeed evolved for group survival and a social world.
And so with the music for company my writing effort cruises along with more ease and less of the old tense determination. A sigh escapes me as I think of all those years I spent lost in my head, distancing from sensations by using objective thinking to avoid discharging trapped trauma energies through the body, and their overwhelming sensations. If only I had known how stuck I was in a primitive behavior pattern, with the experience dependant neural networks in my brain restricted by an early life negative experience.
The Polyvagal Theory is helping me to address that early developmental issue as I continue to limit negative experiences by letting old stimulus patterns go, and seek positive experience. Having come to accept the notion of systemic feedback, I now sense when habitual muscle tensions fire a predominance of (SNS) stimulation when I rouse myself to mental or physical action. Equally I can now sense when (DVC) stimulation is firing old patterns of negative thinking, understanding its often fired by a poor physiological state.
As I’ve written and re-written this article I have tried to sense my old pattern of intellectualization, its discharging of high strung energies that are part of the trauma trap for human beings. My mammalian ancestors would simply shake of trauma with a vigorous trembling of the body, yet such overt displays of raw energy are discouraged in a civilized society. Perhaps the crazy thoughts of mania are such a discharge of these powerful survival energies and perhaps a defeated withdrawal into depression is the result of them being thwarted.
Traumatic responses like dissociation seem to be bound by the need to escape were there is no escape, such as when the threat of anhilation comes from within in conditions like Asthma. How do we escape the sensations of our own body if not by the altered states of dissociation. Certainly during flights of manic excitement, I have felt a sense of trying to escape something unknown, some dread that would be overcome by taking up residence in a new territory. Perhaps that new territory is neural, perhaps it is the stimulation of a (VVC) ventral vagal system that was never fired by positive experience in infancy, restricted from growing its neural networks of positive expectation?
During the early days of mania there certainly is a new experience, more vital, more social and on reflection perhaps a stimulation of Polyvagal Theory’s “social engagement system," the (VVC) ventral vagal complex? Having gained insight into the hidden nature of my motivations, I now feel far less helpless than at any time in my life, no longer trapped by ignorance. I continue to practice my ability to sense this hidden nervous system activity, and thereby re-conditioning my autonomic nervous system, with new experience and expectation.
Perhaps the real secret of the brain, lies in its super fast pattern matches of sensation and expectation, hence tense muscular posture triggers expectation of threat. Expectation of threat triggers tense muscle contractions and the stimulation of certain modes of behavior, just as muscular relaxation will stimulate less defensive expectations.
With my new found insights evoking better awareness of nervous system activity and the old patterns of defensive behavior it stimulated, I’m slowly but surely leaving those bi-phasic energy states behind me. Finally understanding the reason for my all or nothing attitude as a primitive mammalian response to a neuroception of threatening environments, both internal and external.
Even after the highest and longest manic episode of my life, just on six months ago now, I’m very happy to report that for me, there is No Bipolar Depression Now.
Neuroception?-An Unconscious Perception?