We are wired for tribe.
It’s the way we derive pleasure and meaning in life – through connection with others. Even if you are working on something purposeful, quietly by yourself, likely you will notice an element of how “other” will experience it, benefit from it or assist you through it. And when the right kind of connection isn’t available, we will turn towards animals and the natural world or even a spiritual connection, in order to experience ourselves in relation to another and find our sense of place and belonging in relation to something beyond ourselves.
So, we turn to the tribe for connection, purpose and pleasure. We also turn to the tribe for solace, help when we are not coping, assistance in the face of threat or danger.
This is a very healthy first response and it is driven by the evolutionarily new and uniquely mammalian part of the vagus nerve. More on that in a moment.
Those of us who didn’t benefit from enough healthy attachment with care givers as children may struggle to reach out to the tribe or may reach out in ways that are judged or misunderstood and ultimately don’t bring the necessary help. If we do reach out and help isn’t there, we will then default to our lower order systems for managing threat – initially mobilization systems (fight or flight) and if that is not possible, the autonomic response of the immobilization system will kick in (freeze).
[insert diagram for response 1,2,3, or 4.]
This is an autonomic response that many who have suffered trauma blame themselves for afterwards. It can become a generalized mode of responding to stressors in life and it is often still an autonomic response, not something a person can easily “think themselves out of”. There are however, many ways we can practice to improve our “vagal tone” and default more easily to states of calm and wellbeing.
Western culture in particular, tends to exhalt the individual over the collective and has lots of self helps books and courses on how to be the one that gets ahead, over the other guy. How to do it for yourself, be strong within yourself.
And while I’m all for developing a healthy sense of self and capacity for growth, and have lived much of my life from this place, I have come to realise that this is only part of the story. Eastern cultures in turn support the survival and wellbeing of the group, community or family unit as primary over any individual within it.
Whole within ourselves and indelibly connected
Ideally, we are able to zoom our focus in and out and see ourselves as a small drop in a big ocean in one moment, flowing with a larger current moving through humanity, influencing and being influenced … and then to be the whole within ourselves, to see how we are a microcosm of humanity and at the same time true to our individual experience, able to individuate and honour the unique story and experiences that are ours.
The one feeds the other, without a sense of self, we can’t surrender it, we are naïve and at the effect of life. Without a sense of common humanity, of how the themes in our own life are played also in those who have come before us and will come after us, how we all breathe the same air and weave into the same tapestry, without that there is alienation and loss of vital life force.
We are wired for tribe, for our survival, purpose and pleasure. And so that you can understand this is as much biology as it is philosophy, I want to introduce you to the vagus nerve.
In the old days we would talk about someone having a “nervous breakdown” when they reached a point of becoming highly anxious and not coping well with life. While this expression has fallen out of favour, the concept that too much stress impacts the functioning of the nervous system is a vital one to understand. Over, under or inappropriate responding of the nervous system affects our physical, emotional and mental wellbeing and we all need to understand it better. It’s my belief that too often people are blamed or blame themselves for a way of responding to life that is simply biology in action, not a character defect.
The Wanderer (our Vagus nerve)
So today we are focused on the Vagus nerve.
Vagus is Latin for “wandering” and this nerve system wanders through our whole body. It is the largest single nerve system in the body, running from the brain, through the lungs, heart and stomach to the intestines. It tells the brain what’s happening in the periphery of our body.
There are two parts to the Vagus nerve.
Dorsal vagal complex (shut down)
This runs from the diaphragm down and is a carry-over from the ancient reptilian part of our brain that controls basic functions we need for survival, like hunger, thirst and sex. This part of the vagus nerve picks up through our senses when our environment is unsafe and fight or flight is not possible. It causes the body to shut down and become immobile (adaptive response in certain conditions).
stomach, kidneys and intestines, reduces metabolism, heart rate plunges, can’t breathe, gut stops working, freeze. (Reptilian). Diarrhea, nausea, slowed heart, shallow breathing, people cease to matter. Collapse. Dissociate, lose touch with self and surroundings.
Then it drops down into the spleen and liver and controls a lot of digestive processes; there used to be certain surgeries for digestive disorders that would sever the Vagus Nerve, because it regulates digestive process.
Ventral Vagus system (social)
In terms of our evolution as a species, this is the newest part of the vagus nerve and runs from the diaphragm up. It is unique to mammals and facilitates social engagement – this is necessary as mammals can’t survive on their own, especially as new borns.
vagus nerve in brain and adjoining nerves that activate muscles of face, throat, middle ear, voice box. Calming. (Mammilian) people band together to mate, nurture young, defend against enemies, co-ordinate hunting and food acquisition. The more efficiently the VVC synchronises the activity of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, the better the physiology of each individual will be attuned to that of other members of the tribe. Being in tune via VVC is enourmously rewarding.
Regulates heart and bronchi (part of lungs), linked to facial muscles that become part of social engagement systems.
In order to play, mate or nurture our brain needs to shut off its natural vigilance.
Link between striated muscles of face and head with vagal regulation of the heart. Our newest uniquely mammalian circuit is that face-heart connection, and we use this to literally convey to others that we’re safe to come close to.
To mobilize we need our parasympathetic nervous system and we have to turn off the vagus because the vagus is a calming circuit.
uniquely mammalian vagal pathway, and that vagal pathway is myelinated and goes to the heart and bronchi .. linked to the nerves that regulate the striated muscles of the face and head.
goes to muscles in your neck; that help you nod your head and orient your gaze towards other people and vocalize. It then goes down and drops down and helps coordinate the interaction between your breathing and your heart rate. Every time you take a deep breath, your heart rate slows down…The Vagus Nerve controls that relationship between those two patterns. (Heart Rate Variability)
The vagus nerve and the social context of trauma
Knowing how the brain and body is organized around orienting towards the tribe, we can start to understand the full impact of developmental trauma, which often sets the stage for later life trauma, abuse or isolation.
XX has stated that “being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health.” Martin Seligman and his crew would tell us how central healthy relating is to a meaningful and satisfied life.
Social support can go a long way towards ameliorating the impacts of trauma. Sadly, those impacted by development trauma in particular are often unable to attract and maintain the quality relationships necessary for this cushioning of life’s blows and soothing impact on our nervous system. A nervous system that is over-stretched can respond in fight mode when stressed, may shut down and “go through the motions of relating” whilst not being fully present, or may see the person dissociated when triggered and unable to engage with others in meaningful and authentic ways.
Unstable or fractured boundaries might see you engaging with others who are unhealthy in their own relating, simply to have some kind of human connection.
If a person feels unsafe in their relating with others in the tribe, they will likely avoid contact or try and overly control the contact. (Chronically out of sync with others …) All of this makes it difficult to access the relational soothing so central to calming the vagus nerve.
How our vagus nerve brings soothing and safety
(Mirror neurons, focused attunement and feeling better around a calm person).
The vagus nerve picks up information from the people around us, to let us know how safe the interaction is likely to be. It picks up information from facial expression and tone of voice. An open, kind and relaxed face and soothing tone will signal that this person is safe to interact with. The vagus nerve will switch our nervous system into a calm state where we can benefit from an experience of reciprocity with another.
The critical thing here, as Bessel Van Der Kolk states is being truly seen and heard by the people around us, having a sense that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.
I have long felt that friends are keepers of each other’s stories and that we need another to hold them with care, with respect, sometimes with humour but always with kindness. Trauma is such an isolating experience. When someone emerges who can do this with you and for you, it is a way your nervous system can access the safety and acceptance of the larger tribe, even though there may be this one person only who truly gets it. We are all connected.
Relatively short periods of focused attunement from another can trigger the vagus nerve to shift into a calm state. From this calm state we can better access clear thinking and implement strategies that will make an improvement in our experience. I hope that in some way these words and also the video excerpts can play this role and be a regular place to come to for some sense of safe connecting with someone who gets it, even though we may not be connecting in real time.
Stephen Porges, research on vagus nerve, coined the term neuroception to describe the way we take in cues from another’s tone, face and gestures to determine if they are safe or not. If they are, we stay in relationship and, assuming our assessment was accurate, largely benefit from it.
If not, the vagal calming system drops and our mobilization systems activate (fight or flight) so we can do something to keep ourselves safe. If we are not able to do something to keep ourselves safe, the reptilian immobilization response system kicks in.
Trauma impact on vagus operations – why soothing can be hard to get
Those who have experienced trauma are left with a nervous system that picks up on very subtle cues, often over sensing danger from others and dropping quickly down the response hierarchy. You may be oversensitive to sound, crowds and other visceral vibrations. Your nervous system is tuned to detect danger, which is adaptive in dangerous settings, but no good for social engagement – the place all our pleasure and life satisfaction comes from and the place where soothing can come from. When the social engagement system is shut off, as Stephen points out, we are left only with the defensive strategies of fight, flight or freeze.
What this means is we need to find a way to keep our social engagement system functioning even while we are mobilized for action. We need our sympathetic nervous system to get our heart pumping and blood flowing and to be able to move to achieve things in life. We also need our social engagement system to be able to keep our sympathetic (activating) and parasympathetic (calming) responses in balance.
When the social engagement system can’t do this, we are in trouble.
In a threatening situation, when we cannot maintain our social engagement system or mobilise a fight/flight response, the older, reptilian branch of the nervous system kicks in and puts the body in the kind of response that would preserve life at any cost, in a severely life threatening situation. Again, it’s adaptive in the right situation, but not helpful as a day to day response to stress. Shut down, reduced blood flow, especially to the brain, potentially dissociated.
I’d really like you to understand that so much about recovering from trauma is about understanding and managing autonomic body responses.
The vagal nerve and our path to safety
When something new, a novel event, happens in our environment, as mammals we will tend to communicate about it (social engagement system). In fact, we actively seek novelty, as long as we are feeling safe.
This combination of novelty and some arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, in combination with eye contact, sounding and a sense of trust in the other is at the heart of play. Play is central to spontaneity, creativity and wellbeing.
Those who trust their personal pathway to safety and have an efficient pathway to safety, are more likely to take risks that result in pleasure and connection. For these people, it is likely they have a solid social network that guarantees most day to day risks are not actually life threatening. Those with an intensified lower vagal response (reptilian system) are likely to isolate sooner in order to guarantee their personal safety, rather than tolerate the risk involved in a novel environment that may in fact lead to greater connection and wellbeing.
“A mammalian environment (rather than reptilian) will be empowering of others, more of a shared environment, and have more empathy and care for others.”
“If we can change the physiological state to be incompatible with shutting down, then I think we can move the person out of it. The window of tolerance to Pat is keeping that person within that autonomic state in which social engagement still works.” Say more about window of tolerance. Exercise.
The vagal nerve and dissociation
When the older lower part of the vagal nerve kicks in, because you are in a situation your nervous system has rendered social support impossible or unavailable and fight or flight not possible, blood flow to heart and brain slows down and becomes less oxygenated. It is likely this explains in part the dissociation response – there is not enough blood flow available to frontal cortex and hippocampus (?) where you can have a sense of context and perspective.
The vagal nerve and the digestive tract
Many people with a trauma history develop health issues related to the digestive system – obesity, diabetes, irritable bowel, adrenal fatigue. When the vagus nerve is surging in the below the diaphragm (reptilian) system, it can create problems with the bowel and gut (reference Stephen Porges). Neurophysicological health problems. More here.
Improving vagal tone
What we are talking about here is improving the effectiveness of the social engagement system to keep us in a calm, open and receptive state.
Good vagal tone – better recovery from stress, better sleep, more positive emotion. Oxytocin?
Regulates inflammation response to disease
If you have strong profile: you have more positive emotion on a daily basis, stronger relationships with peers, better social support networks. in that state of having a strong Vagus Nerve Response: I feel common Humanity with many different groups.
According to the Harvard Medical School’s Health Publication, ‘Yoga for Anxiety and Depression,’ there are many benefits to self-stimulation of the Vagus Nerve through various activities such as deep breathing exercises, mediation and Yoga.nic origins…
Reprinted courtesy of Bessel Van Der Kolk from “The Body Keeps the Score”
What is your basic orientation toward “tribe”?
What is your first response when faced with a stressful situation that feels overwhelming and that your usual self support approaches aren’t helping with?
- Talk it through with another or reach out to a counselor or some other social connection
- Become irritable or aggressive and take it out on the cat
- Shut down, go into denial, distract yourself with other things, use “unhelpful” coping mechanisms
- Become mentally, emotionally or physically paralysed or inert, unable to function, in distress, but unable to act to change it
Read up on attachment here to discover how your childhood attachment style may have impacted the way your autonomic nervous system responds to stress.
Do you have people you can turn to when you are struggling? Do you turn to them early or only right at the end when things are out of control? How does it feel to ask for help? What concerns do you have about asking for help?
What are some encouraging or helpful ways others have responded in the past?
What are some unhelpful ways others responded that ultimately made things worse? How do you make sense of this? What feelings does this generate for you now?
What behaviours are you doing to increase your circle of quality friendships and relationships?
(Some ideas – joining groups, saying “yes’ to invitations, being the one to initiate coffee or the next step, understanding that everyone is imperfect and while some friendships may not operate exactly as you need, you may be able to participate in ways that are authentic and bring something important into your life, investing in small ways, offering small kindnesses when you feel able or noticing of another, learning and practicing assertive communication basics).
Helpful things to do:
[Video notes – the purpose of this is to notice and to notice with curiousity and compassion. No judgement. This is about noticing and deeply accepting what is.]
Strengthening vagal tone:
Yoga ( How does yoga work? Yoga research”By reducing perceived stress and anxiety, yoga appears to modulate stress response systems. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal — for example, reducing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, and easing respiration. There is also evidence that yoga practices help increase heart rate variability, an indicator of the body’s ability to respond to stress more flexibly…}
Train friends and family in empathic listening.
Rhythmic back and forth.
Meditaion – modulated voice
Go to a class and do something practical same time every week.
Theatre – be part of a group
Yoga – calm physical tensions in body