My Visit to the Dentist

Warning: this post may contain graphic depictions of bodily fluids.

I’ve been slowly working through all the things that I put off because I’ve been sick, to reduce my sense of overwhelm. One of the things that I’ve been putting off for a long time, is going to the dentist to have a regular checkup and clean.

Three things prompted this: the first was simply that I haven’t been to the dentist in many years even before I became ill almost seven years ago, and I certainly haven’t been since.

Secondly, my gums of started to bleed during brushing lately and that bothers me.

Thirdly, the tension headache that I have most of the time tends to move around and often settles in my teeth, either on my upper jaw, my lower jaw or both at the same time. It occurred to me that the symptoms that I have in my head could be related to toothache or gum disease, and I have also heard theories relating migraines and even CFS to dental or orthodontic work; so I thought I should probably check that out.

Going to the dentist has never felt like much fun for me, so I was feeling pretty anxious. My previous experience of dentists had always been pretty painful, and they keep reminding me that the evil guy in The Little Shop of Horrors who chose to be a dentist so he could inflict pain on other people.

I felt like this guy

I felt like this guy

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How To Learn Tai Chi For Free

I’ve been learning Tai Chi lately, because I find the gentle movement more engaging than sitting meditation. It’s relaxing, and since it’s a very light form of exercise, I find that I don’t overdo it. I did some local classes early in the year, which was good in terms of getting out and meeting other like-minded people, but I found the teacher frustrating and nights still aren’t great for me.

So I decided to learn at home using this YouTube video:

At four hours long, it’s an epic undertaking; but remember that learning Tai Chi is a life-long process, and it’s not like something you just master first time. I suspect that my old attitude that life was about pushing through to the next accomplishment is part of what made me sick, so now it’s more about enjoying the learning process.

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Merry Christmas Everyone!

Just wanted to get in early on the bandwagon and wish you all a very Merry Christmas. I hope you get to spend the day having fun with people you love, in a low-stress symptom-free way.


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Polyvagel Theory, Stress, Anxiety and Social Engagement

Unfortunately the article mentioned below is no longer available, but check out this one with  neuroscientist Dr. Michael Van ElZakker linking Chronic Fatigue with Vagus Nerve Infection, which covers similar territory.

One of my clients recently put me onto Stephen Porges’ Polyvagel theory, which suggests that a lot of our mental, emotional and social problems stem from automatic actions of the vagal nerve. I just read the article linked above, and found some really interesting points relevant to my own life before and during CFS:

One thing that lept out at me is that the nerves controlling facial expression also play a key role in relaxing us. I have noticed for a long time that my face would freeze involuntarily whenever anyone looked at me. Several years ago my acting teacher picked me up on this during an exercise where a girl was trying to connect with me, but I wasn’t showing her my appreciation because my face was just frozen.

He asked “How do you feel about her wanting to connect with you?”

“Happy”, I answered.

“Well, are you going to show her that?” was his response.

I could feel that I wasn’t smiling, yet I wanted to. I just didn’t happen automatically for me, and I put this down to growing up in an environment where expressing emotions felt so unsafe that I learned not to even show mine on my face. Knowing what I know now about attachment theory, early childhood development and the way my parents manage their feelings, I suspect I picked this fear up when I was an infant because it felt unsafe when I had eye contact with my mother.

This sounds remarkably similar to the children with autism who Dr Porges describes, for whom eye contact feels unsafe; and the typical adult response of punishing them for behavior that leaves the adult feeling unappreciated, just makes the dynamic between them worse.

Over the last few years as I’ve learned to express my emotions in safe environments, I’ve felt my facial muscles relax; almost like they’ve been defrosting. The article points out that our facial responses not only provide social cues to other people about how threatening we are, but they also help calm our own nervous system. All of this makes a lot of sense in explaining why I found social interactions so frightening as a kid, and developed a strong social phobia: my frozen face both triggered other people’s fear, and stopped my own nervous system from relaxing.

Another interesting point is that the higher level behaviors of the vagus nerve evolved specifically for social interaction and explains why being around familiar people we trust feels safe physically.

The article also highlights the importance of listening to what my body is telling me about whether I feel safe or not, rather than what my mind wants. The mechanisms involved are hard-wired and aren’t going away any time soon; the only way to moderate their effects is to start by listening to what is going and and find ways to feel safe. In a social context, this means spending time with friends who I already trust on a deep level, rather than with strangers who feel more unpredictable.

All of this makes the theory that CFS is caused by an infection of the vagus nerve even more compelling. Imagine that the infection just amplifies all the effects of the vagus nerve. We get sick and socially isolate ourselves because we have such limited energy, and it feels safer to withdraw; but this means we lose the essential friendly social contact that we need in order to relax. For me, this is an even more compelling reason to reach out to friends when I’m feeling like crap.

It also explains why playing a musical instrument and singing feel really good for me; provided I’m not doing it front of people who I don’t trust!

All this isn’t exactly new to me, but polyvagal theory describes an underlying mechanism for it that sounds more credible to me than anything I’ve come across before, and is backed by some serious research.

In terms of the coaching that I’m now doing, it also makes sense that having a really empathic coach creates a social context that activates the relaxation response via the vagus nerve, allowing our immune system to fight the infection. It probably doesn’t matter much what style of coaching or therapy you get, as long as you feel safe talking to your coach, and that respond in ways that indicate unconsciously they love and care about you.

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Supplements to Boost Acetylcholine

I had a question via email about the supplements that the friend I mentioned in my previous post is taking to boost his acetylcholine (the vagus nerve neurotransmitter).

Here’s what my friend sent me:

As you know, I’m taking a whole bunch of supplements (e.g. I’m still taking the calcium I mentioned to you previously), so I may be experiencing some synergistic effects. But the formulation I worked out for myself specifically to boost acetylcholine is the following:

1. Alpha-GPC (acetylcholine precursor).

2. Tyrosine (to keep dopamine & norepinephrine in balance with acetylcholine).

3. Cup of tea (for the stimulant effect of caffeine).

4. Acetyl-carnitine (to facilitate energy metabolism in the brain).

5. Flax seed oil (needed by brain & also acts as transport for some important nutrients to the brain).

6. Gingko-brahmi (for its known positive effects on memory & focus).

7. Aniracetam (fat soluble nootropic).

8. Noopept (a Soviet nootropic peptide).

You can get a lot of the less common of these from:

I haven’t tried these supplements myself, although I am now taking Caltrate (Calcium, Vitamin D3, Magnesium, Zinc, Copper & Manganese) since I no longer drink milk, can only stomach so many green leafy vegetables, and don’t want to end up with osteoporosis.

PS: Remember to do something kind and compassionate for someone else today too!

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Vagus Nerve Infection?

A relatively new friend who I told that I’m now coaching people with CFS just pointed me to this interview with Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Michael Van Elzakker, who hypothesises that CFS might be caused by an infection of the vagus nerve.

Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this.

Wikipedia reckons it looks something like this. “Gray793” by Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray’s Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Listening to the interview, it sounds like a pretty compelling theory. On the same day, another friend of mine who has suffered depression and fatigue for a long time messaged me to say that supplements he was taking to boost his acetylcholine, which happens to be the principal vagal neurotransmitter, are working wonders for him.

This article suggests that acetylcholine can also be boosted by being kind and compassionate to others, which could explain why I feel better physically when I’m putting my attention on helping other people. It also mentions chanting; I joined a chanting/kirtan group a few months ago, and find that singing just plain feels good. Perhaps the reason it feels good is because it stimulates the vagus nerve.

If doing this reduces the stimulation/inflamation/whatever-mechanism-makes-us-feel-bad then the symptoms lessen because the brain no longer believes that the body is under attack. I’ve noticed for a while that we get symptoms when we’re under stress, like people with HSV-1 get cold sores when under stress. Most of our stress is interpersonal (I heard someone once say “all stress is social”), which could explain why the assertiveness keys of Mickel Therapy seem to work.

I also really liked Dr Van Elzakker’s compassionate attitude to people with CFS. Researchers seem to come in for a lot of criticism online, and it’s awesome to hear him saying things like: “If your doctor believes that your condition is psychological, fire them.” He also had some good practical advice for dealing with symptoms while waiting for the magic cure. I found just listening to the interview gave me a greater sense of inner peace about the whole thing.

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Friendship, Hope, Grief and The Shawshank Redemption

I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately on the theme of “The Hero’s Journey” that every person must take in order to grow from being a child into being an adult. I’ve been particularly drawn to movies that talk about masculine empowerment, such as The Shawshank Redemption which is currently rated number one on the IMDB list of the top 250 movies.Obviously the reason why this particular movie is so highly rated is that it strikes a chord deep in the soul of everyone who watches it. I’ve seen it several times before, but this time it’s struck some nerves with me that hadn’t quite been hit before.

Wisdom from The Shawshank Redemption

Wisdom from The Shawshank Redemption

There is a great conversation in the movie on the topic of hope between Red (Morgan Freeman’s character) and Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), and how Hope can be a double sided coin: on the one hand, hope can help us get through difficult times like having CFS. In fact, it’s one of the factors that Daniel Neuffer suggests is most important in our recovery. On the other hand, hope can also give us a painful reminder of everything that we are missing out on so much.

Whether hope is a painful or positive thing ultimately depends on our attitude to it. I have certainly felt many times in the past, especially when I was more ill than I am now, that hope was completely elusive. The suggestion that I needed it in order to recover left me feeling even more frightened. But as Dufresne remarks in another conversation: “You’re either busy living, or you’re busy dying”.

Another quote from the movie that really resonates with me is when Dufresne remarks, in a moment of despair: “Bad luck I guess. It floats around. Gotta land on somebody. It was my turn, that’s all. I was in the path of the tornado; just didn’t expect that the storm would last as long as it has.”

Well that’s just CFS in a nutshell, isn’t it?

But the thing that really hit me most deeply after watching the movie this time around wasn’t so much an event or character as a theme: friendship, and particularly the importance of friendship in enduring hard times.

On one level, it raises the question for me: “Where were my friends during my long dark night of the soul?”

You can expand the sphere of “friends” in this context to include family too.

Did I somehow fail to communicate to them just how much I was suffering? Did they just not care enough to call or visit? Did I simply forget the times that they did call and only remember the lonely days in bed when they did not? Did I miss out on more support because my rugged sense of self-reliance meant that I failed to ask for it? Where was my Red when I needed to get stuff, or my Dufresne when I needed some hope?

It’s still a painful question that brings tears to my eyes even as I write this.

One of my clients asked me recently much the same question: “How can they be so indifferent to my suffering?” And my answer was something like: “It’s not that they were in different, it’s just that they were probably overwhelmed with it themselves. Unfortunately that’s not particularly helpful for us though.”

The sense of lost friendship struck an even deeper chord with me too. At one point I found myself sobbing deeply as I felt the grief over my own struggles and losses around friendship. Although I’ve always been able to make friends in every environment and situation that I found myself, I’ve often felt a sense that real friendship was difficult or allusive to attain. The pain and sadness that I feel around this isn’t attached to any particular person, place, event or time; it feels much broader and deeper than that. Perhaps it goes back to an event that first happened when I was so young that I can’t remember any of the specific details of it.

The emotional centre of our brain develops much earlier than our rational memory does, so very early life events can leave a painful emotional charge with negative beliefs about ourselves very strongly attached, but not connected to any event we can remember. Maybe I had some traumatic experience in my very early interactions with other people that left me feeling that friendship is fraught with danger. That would make sense given that I am a highly sensitive person and I grew up in an emotionally avoidant family, and my resulting choice to withhold my feelings and keep them to myself would have made establishing friendships all the more difficult.

While I can only really speculate about where the pain surrounding friendship for me comes from, fortunately I do know what to do about it: let the sadness and grief flow when it gets triggered. That’s how you heal past trauma in the present moment. So there were several points while watching the movie where I hit the pause button and just sobbed and let my whole body convulse as the grief flowed out of me.

Maybe that’s why The Shawshank Redemption became such a big hit on video after failing at the cinemas: because in the privacy of your own home you can hit the pause button whenever you need to.

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A friend of mine with CFS put me onto FasterEFT a few years ago, and I’ve recently recommended it to several clients who have a history of bottling up their emotions and eventually became ill with CFS/ME.

I had already done a lot of emotional healing work before coming across FasterEFT, but I still found some of the HealingMagic videos on YouTube helpful. I think they would be really powerful for anyone new to healing emotional trauma. I never felt a great benefit from the tapping, but then I didn’t persist with it; it seems to work magic for some people.

Here’s an interesting video with a woman who had typical CFS symptoms and found that FasterEFT helped her recovery. It turns into a bit of an infomercial half-way through, but Maja’s story is still interesting:

I recommend checking out all the FasterEFT videos on YouTube and noticing the ones that put you in touch with your feelings. Try tapping along too; you have nothing to lose!

If you love it, check out the FasterEFT products too.

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I’m Starting A Real World Offline Recovery Group

I’ve decided it’s time for me to take my coaching to a wider audience, by running a recovery group here in Bondi. Obviously that’s not much help to people living outside Sydney, but I’ve got to start somewhere!

I Swear It's Not The Blind Leading The Blind

I Swear It’s Not The Blind Leading The Blind

If you happen to live in Sydney, I’d love you to come along to the inaugural meeitng and support the group next Wednesday 4th November at 2pm in The Ocean Room at Bondi Pavilion. Here’s the Facebook event for it to help you RSVP. Wherever you live, please help spread the word!


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My 30 Year High School Reunion

2015 is turning out to be the year of completions for me. I went to my 30 year high school reunion on Saturday night. My experience of other boys at high school was challenging for me and on the way to the reunion I felt a bit triggered and reached out for support to a friend who had been tormented at her school by bullies.

“Strive To Survive” Was More Like My Experience

The very first guy who spoke to me was one of the guys I remember bullying me in high school: He bought me a drink and we had a fun conversation.

Later on I was flirting with a girl from our sister school, and she goes “You’re really cool. Where were you in high school?” I thought: “I just wasn’t myself back then; I never felt safe to just be me”.

Then later another guy said “I told one of the other guys a few days ago that I’m going to apologise to Graham Stoney at the reunion for laying shit on him at school.” He was clearly embarrassed about it. We’d both been carrying that for 30 years. I said I was open to hearing his apology, and he said he was really sorry. I felt that he meant it too, and was getting complete himself. We shook hands and I thanked him. Then he told me that he had hated school and wasn’t dealing with things, and we talked about how isolated we all had felt and how nobody was really coping. But as boys we all just had to suck it up, pretend we weren’t hurting and fend for ourselves by beating up on the smaller kids, just like the bigger kids beat up on us.

One of my last conversations was a bit unnerving, with a guy who said I had ignored him at school, and that he didn’t mind putting shit on people weaker than him. He still had that bully energy and I didn’t hang around him long.

A lot of the guys remarked that I’m now taller than them, and I had grown. They hadn’t mentioned that at the 20 year reunion and I doubt I’ve grown much physically since then; but I have grown a lot spiritually/psychologically.

I came home thinking that completes the chapter of my life about being bullied at high school and the story that other men aren’t safe for me to be around and aren’t interested in connecting with me.

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