My heart pounded, sweat dripped into my already sticky palms, my face felt on fire. I watched as the door opened and the huge man approached. Now feeling faint, I could feel the blood drain from my face, my body was paralyzed, frozen in my chair. He towered over me, sat down and asked me my name. My voice let out a little squeak, I couldn’t even say my name! Not a good start to the job interview!
Does this sound familiar? We are in a stressful situation, but our body thinks it is life threatening, so it moves from a fight or flight response to feigning death by immobilizing itself. When the body thinks it’s unsafe it has great survival strategies, but sometimes these are not appropriate to the present moment situation, such as being immobilized and losing our voice when in an interview.
What is going on in the physiology and how to do we work with this therapeutically?
Stephen Porges (2011) Polyvagal Theory gives us insights into the neurophysiology of what he terms our Social Engagement System. Our social engagement system is our route to creating safety for ourselves. Porges explores the neurophysiology of our body during the stress response, offering strategies to regulate the autonomic nervous system (ANS). He demonstrates that our body needs to feel safe in order to bond in healthy relationship. Becoming aware of the felt sense of our body, as we do in biodynamic craniosacral therapy, is one of the best long term strategies to develop internal safety and therefore a healthy social engagement system.
Underpinning the Polyvagal theory is the principle that evolution is the organizing code for the neural regulation of the ANS, a facilitator of social behavior. Three neural circuits form a phyolgenetically ordered response hierarchy that regulate behavioral and physiological adaptation to safe, dangerous and life threatening environments. The neuroception of danger, safety or life threat trigger these adaptive neural circuits. When we are safe the ventral vagal complex triggers the social engagement cranial nerves (which we look at below), when we are in danger the sympathetic nervous system takes over and when we are under life threat the dorsal vagal complex rules. The dorsal vagal response is the one involved in making us ‘freeze’.
Significantly, at birth the human nervous system needs a caregiver to survive so it signals to the caregiver via the muscles of the face and head. This involves five cranial nerves: trigeminal (V), facial (VII), glossopharyngeal (XI), vagus (X), accessory (XI). As we did in infancy, by stimulating these cranial nerves we are feeding the pathways to tell us we are safe and therefore helping the whole ANS to regulate.
Porges’s model proposes that therapeutic strategies should turn off defenses which involves stimulating the cranial nerves of the social engagement system. Being a relational touch therapy, biodynamic craniosacral therapy is ideal to support the regulation of the social engagement system. Whether through a disruption in attachment during the pre/perinatal period or through an overwhelm in later life, relational social engagement repair can be supported.
Some physiology for practitioners to consider is the tone of the cranial nerves and their ease of path through the various cranial foramen. BCST is ideal for supporting autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulation. By increasing the tone of cranial nerves, the ANS is reminded how to respond in a healthy and more appropriate way; moving into the freeze response only in life threatening situations, not in a job interview!
Mindfulness practices, close listening, for example to the birds or to certain types of melodic music, breathing and pranayama exercises all stimulate the cranial nerves mentioned above and hence feed a healthy social engagement system. Critically, a healthy social engagement system helps us to have more choices over what we say, what we think and how we move.
Here are 5 top tips for moving out of the freeze response when outside the clinic.
- Push your feet into the floor, push your back against the chair if you’re sitting or stand against a wall and lean into it if you can. (turns on the vagus (X) nerve and reduces the area that your body has to scan for danger)
- Turn your head slowly and orient yourself to the room (engages the accessory (XI) nerve, this helps your body to orient in time and space. It brings you back to the present, to safety in this moment)
- Look at someone and if you can, speak to them in a slow voice (engages the glossopharyngeal (IX) and facial (VII) nerves).
- Take a long exhale (stimulates the ventral vagal complex (X)).
- Sing, listen to the birds outside or some gentle music (this stimulates the middle ear muscles and the larynx (VII, X)).
Porges, S, (2011). The Polyvagal Theory, Neurophysiological foundations of emotion, attachment, communication and self-regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.