A most important sign of health for any living organism is its ability to flexibly adapt to the changes and chances that it encounters within its internal and external environment. Now as I find myself forced by the nature of my learning-growing process to take an extended break of unknown length from my book writing efforts I realize that I need to adapt myself to the overall ‘plan’ of what I wish to accomplish. I am choosing to now read an important book I preordered a few months ago even before its publication but decided to leave alone until my first book was completed.
I THOUGHT I had more than enough background information from my studies about how infant and child abuse changes early body-brain development. Given the massive amount of proof that exists about how early infant-caregiver attachment relationships (conception to age two) determine the ‘kind of body-brain’ everyone ends up spending their lifetime living in/with, I been hoping that there wasn’t anything new I had to understand before I could form my own conclusions about how the attachment and developmental neuroscience information applied to what happened to me as a terribly abused child during the first 18 years of my life.
I realized yesterday that I was wrong. I AM missing what is probably the most important information I can access about the WHOLE picture of the subjects I seek to understand and to write about.
So I am now reading this important book:
The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) by Stephen W. Porges (Apr 25, 2011)
This is anything but an easy read, but as I work my way through its pages this first time around without taking notes or trying to write any deciphering comments about its contents I am noticing IN MY BODY how different I feel reading this book than how I felt when I read all the other important complex scientific literature that describes what trauma – especially the trauma of early abuse, neglect and overall maltreatment caused by a breakdown of attachment relationships for infants and children – does to change how a body-brain develops. Yet I also know I could not possibly understand what I am reading now if I had not done my homework prior to reading this book.
In looking through the bibliography of Porges’ book I see all the researchers’ names I am familiar with – plus a whole lot more. Yet unlike the pages of books I have read before now, the pages of Porges’ book are filled with his OWN words! Very little of the ink of this book is devoted to referencing the (yes, important) work of author scientists. Porges’ book is filled with his own critically important theory that he has spent his professional lifetime developing.
What I FEEL as I begin to read this book is excited, hopeful anticipation. I FEEL that this man has ‘found it’. Found what? The truth about the whole picture of what makes humans tick in good health and what makes humans sick in bad health. All of this is tied to how our earliest caregiver interactions directly affected how our physiology had to change or not change in order to adapt to the degrees of benevolence or malevolence that existed in our early universe.
I have no confidence in my competence at this early stage in my study of Porges’ ideas to even begin to explain them to myself let alone to anyone else. The simplest mental picture I have gleaned so far from this book is that Porges’ is completely RIGHT as he describes that humans do not have a ‘simple stress response system’. We have complex interrelated and bidirectional interactive systems that each accomplish a special part of the task of keeping us alive and healthy.
I am beginning to suspect that what Porges is saying is that the vagal nerve ‘bundles’ in our body are ‘divided’ into three parts. The original part of our vagal nerve system exists in reptiles. The rest of the bundles evolved as mammals found ways to exist in a world run by reptiles, with the pinnacle reaches of our vagal nerve systems lying within the special and very highly evolved capacity humans have to SOCIALLY ENGAGE.
The other two bundles (my word, mind you) are part of our ‘stop and go’ Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is our GO branch leading to fight and flight responses when needed. The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) is our STOP branch that is geared to a freeze response to danger. (I remember ‘para-‘ ‘like a ‘pair of brakes’.)
Homeostasis, or the state of actively and harmoniously maintaining comfortable balance between the SNS and the PNS then allows our Social Engagement System (my capitalization) to operate with optimal interactions between ourselves and other members of our species.
If a person DOES NOT FEEL safe and secure within their body in the world the Social Engagement System does not engage optimally. Something else will be going on – IN THE BODY – as attempts to cope with threat to life OR actual terrible danger consume the attention and energy of the individual.
Porges is explaining in detail how the BODY on an ancient, unconscious (primitive) level automatically and VERY QUICKLY receives and processes information from the environment about what is safe and what is not — and then responds. Porges’ began his book by clearly stating that when a little person starts life in unsafe and insecure attachment-relationship environments the process of development in these malevolent conditions will CHANGE how the body perceives danger versus safety.
The body will very often chronically ‘miscue’ so that what is dangerous is perceived as safe – and what is safe is perceived as dangerous! The BODY will react accordingly – in spite of these mix-ups in automatic and extremely fast ways!
(NOTE: I ‘think’ Porges is saying that we have three interacting ‘systems’ that operate through their own vagal nerve bundle networks. (1) the SNS that kicks in when we perceive risk-threat and then fight or flee, (2) the PNS that kicks in when actual, very real present DANGER leaves us no option but to freeze-feign death, and then (3) social engagement system in which we can only fully participate during times we are not perceiving threat or experiencing very real danger.)
Porges is also describing how we can more clearly define what stress even is by finding ways to assess the physiological state of a person’s body on an ongoing basis BEFORE any new stressing event happens. He is talking, then, about risk and resiliency factors as they exist in a person’s body that was made in direct interaction with either an early safe or unsafe human world.
I have a long way to go before I will feel at all assured that I understand what Porges is saying, but my sense of his work is that he is COMPLETELY RIGHT. Porges has answers that no other researcher has discovered about how social engagement patterns form in humans through the quality of our early attachments and about how they work – optimally or ‘pathologically’. I cannot ignore what is within these pages if I wish to come to my own accurate/truthful conclusions about the significance of my own story of severe early trauma.
I also have high hopes that Porges’ work will suggest solutions for healing!