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.

Author: Graham

I’m a guy in his late 40’s, recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since May 2009. I now offer coaching and support to other people with CFS/ME.

5 thoughts on “Polyvagel Theory, Stress, Anxiety and Social Engagement”

  1. Graham,
    So many theories on the cause of CFS it makes my head spin , I wonder what Ashok Gupta would say in regards to the vagus nerve virus. I have come across the Vagus nerve many times in my research over the years so there could be something to it, certain breathing technique especially those which focus on long exhalations stimulate the vagus nerve as well, check out the Frolov breathing device, I’m getting into that and it has many benefits as well, most importantly body oxygenation..

    Glad to see you back blogging..

  2. So glad you found Polyvagal Theory interesting. It seems to be an important part of the Attachment Process we learn in the earliest part of our lives. When a small child is faced with a parent who isn’t doing the “dance of development” with the child, isn’t connecting — maybe through illness, substance abuse, stress or rage — the child’s brain doesn’t lay down the neuronal patterns of Secure Attachment. And it is SO hard to learn Secure Attachment as an adult. But they say meditation helps calm the reactivity of an adult treated this way as a child. I hope it works! Ommmmm.

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