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.

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: http://www.bulknutrients.com.au

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!

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. "Gray793" by Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body. Gray's Anatomy, Plate 793. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray793.png#/media/File:Gray793.png
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 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray793.png#/media/File:Gray793.png

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.