What Happens in Vagus…

Evolution is a precarious process. Within every species, minor variations are constantly introduced and tested for ‘fitness’: If they help the creature survive, they are passed on to the next generation, and if they hamper survival, they will not be passed on. Many attributes won’t apparently affect survival one way or the other, so it’s a toss-up whether they’ll be passed on or not. Gaia keeps rolling the dice and trying new things.

Accidents happen in this process. Feathers apparently evolved in birds as a means of low-weight heat management; it turned out that they also enabled flight, which wasn’t necessary (the first birds and their feathered dinosaur forebears were ground-nesters with few natural predators) but which turned out to be a great evolutionary success.

Another early evolutionary trick was the emergence in the mammalian autonomous nervous system of neuroception, the autonomic fight/flight/freeze response when danger is sensed by the nervous system. This response is (for evolutionary reasons) vastly faster than the brain’s complex thought processing system. It’s regulated in part by a piece of the vagus nerve, which constantly assesses sensory data and helps ‘decide’ whether any given situation is (a) safe, (b) dangerous (and hence whether to fight or flight), or (c) inescapable (in which case the creature shuts down, plays dead and ‘hides’ in the hopes the predator won’t notice it).

I’ve seen this neuroception response change instantly — I watched three dogs playing together when suddenly one of them noticed a squirrel and barked. The three dogs (brilliantly, using body language signals that no human language could ever match) chased and cornered the squirrel, which at first fled, and then, knowing it was lost, lay down and played dead. The dogs lost interest, and soon after, the squirrel slowly arose, shook itself furiously, and scampered away.

The process in humans isn’t all that different (our form of playing dead is called fainting). The problem is that, for us, potentially dangerous situations aren’t as simple as predators, status challenges and falling objects. We are constantly facing worrisome situations, many of them chronic, and our autonomous nervous system is in a state of constant stimulation and overwork (ie chronic stress). And because fight, flight and freeze are rarely optimal solutions to the situations we now face, we’ve had to evolve a coping mechanism to deal with the disconnect between what the ‘hardware’ of our bodies and the ‘software’ of our enculturated brains thinks is good for us.

One of the leading theories is that, in social creatures (those, like humans, whose evolutionary fitness depends on group cooperation), the chronic stress response can be mediated by “safety cues”, starting with the mother’s soothing voice and touch, and including laughter, high-pitched songs and expressions of joy (as opposed to threatening low-pitched growls), sympathetic attention, reassuring facial expressions, tones of voice and postures, and (in bonobos at least) brief pleasurable sexual stimulation.

So now, each time a stressful occurrence happens, we first look for social reassurances from our tribe-mates, and if we receive (and reciprocate) such safety cues, our vagal nerve sends a ‘stand down’ notice to our autonomic nervous system (and the various body organs like lungs, heart and digestive organs that are involved in stress response), appropriate hormones kick in or cease, and we return to a peaceful state (what some call a ‘now time‘ state). In the absence of these safety cues, the body next goes into fight-or-flight mode. This is an autonomic ‘decision’ based on the body’s subconscious assessment of which strategy has the greater chance of success (for its own survival and that of the tribe and the balance of life in the community as a whole). We will probably never understand how that decision is ‘made’, but it is consistent with Gaia theory. However, if the assessment is that neither fight nor flight is a successful strategy, then the neuroceptors send out shut-down signals, for us, just as they do for a cornered squirrel.

When that happens, both the body and the mind shut down. The problem is that, in today’s complex modern civilized society, ‘freezing’ is almost never an effective strategy. Meanwhile we have lost the sense of community in which there is enough cohesion and trust to enable the clear, consistent, broadly-shared communication of safety cues (largely because this doesn’t scale beyond groups of 50-150 individuals). And very few of the things that cause modern humans stress are amenable to either fight or flight responses. So we’re chronically dealing with our body’s propensity to shut down, at the same time we’re told, and believe intellectually, we need to “buck up”.

The chart at the top of this article (using the methodology in Joe Shirley’s book The Feeling Path) shows my personal triggers and the underlying anxieties and fears behind them. I ‘know’ (from experience and enculturation) that both my body’s and my mind’s reactions to these triggers are exaggerated, unwarranted and unhelpful. But tell that to my autonomous nervous system! And to my imaginative “worst-case-scenario” mind! Our response is based on a million years of genetic programming and we cannot help responding the way we do. It is how the body, and the mind, evolved to deal with stressful situations. This is why the idea that using cognitive processes like CBT and ‘flooding’ and ‘mindfulness’ we can somehow ‘reprogram’ ourselves to respond differently is simply ludicrous.

Although we may seem to modify our reactions over time, I would argue that there is something else at work. Here’s an example: I used to suffer (and make others travelling with me suffer) from what is called road rage. Reckless and careless driving in my immediate vicinity would produce almost hysterical fury in me, to the point I was tempted to confront the ‘guilty’ driver and was quite possibly only held back by fear that they would hurt me in a confrontation more than I would hurt them.

These days I still get that brief visceral reaction to dangerous, aggressive and incompetent drivers, but it passes much more quickly and doesn’t get reinforced by the stories in my head about what horrors it might have led to (such stories can in turn incite more anger, producing what Eckhart Tolle calls the self-reinforcing “pain-body/egoic-mind” cycle).

Does that mean that ‘I’ have changed, and that ‘reprogramming’ oneself is possible? I don’t think so. Three things have contributed, I think, to this apparent behaviour change, none of which ‘I’ had or have any control over:

  1. Enculturation: The people in my life who have witnessed road rage in me (and other fortunately rare displays of excessive and useless anger) have told me they find it frightening and inappropriate, and made me feel shameful about it. Hence I have gradually become enculturated by the relatively sensitive people around me to sublimate my anger.
  2. New safety cues: When these situations have arisen lately, the people in the car with me have given me verbal and body-language “it’s OK” safety cues that, over time, have dampened the ‘fight’ response. Now, even when driving alone, the memory of receiving these cues in similar situations calms my response.
  3. Shifting worldview: I have learned that we have no free will, and that everyone is struggling, so the stories I tell myself about dangerous driving behaviour are more sympathetic and less likely to fuel and sustain the anger.

My reaction in these situations continues to be subconscious, unaffected by any rational thought processes I may use or any practices I may follow. I had no choice over the people I hang out with, or our collective enculturation of each other, or over what I’ve learned. I’m blessed to have been attracted to sensitive people and to have had the time and curiosity to learn more about inherent human nature. These are all in increasingly short supply as our modern stress-riven culture is making us more and more dissociated (just look at our ‘leaders’), and leaving us with less and less time to learn and explore what’s important.

My example above was about the ‘fight’ response, and how it has been dampened through no control of my own in recent years. How about the ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ responses?

Anger is most often a mask for fear (my road rage was mostly about fear of their poor driving getting me and my loved ones hurt). That’s a typical ‘fight’ response. A typical ‘flight’ response for me occurred this winter when my house was overrun with mice. I think mice are cute and don’t want to hurt them, but I mean overrun. They were everywhere. Life for a while involved hourly checking of the humane traps, and releasing them was complicated by a second consecutive near-record cold, icy, snowy winter that made my driveway impassable, and psychologically trapped me in the house. And finding all their entrance-points seemed endless and impossible.

For months, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I became hyper-vigilant, seeing and hearing things constantly everywhere I went. I became obsessed with bad weather reports and the risk of storms (which often also bring power failures where I live, leaving me without heat or light). I lost 15 pounds and had my first colitis attack in 10 years.

The fear, the anxiety, the shame, the grief of having ‘lost’ my safe home — all my reactions were ridiculous, wildly excessive, and seriously unhealthy. But all I could think about was getting away from this months-long nightmare. I live alone, so the sense of isolation (and the absence of regular safety clues from others) exacerbated my reaction. Actually ‘facing the fear’ (the individual mice) wasn’t an answer — it wasn’t the cute, scared mice I was afraid of. What was it?

It was the feeling of being trapped and being out of control (of myself and the situation), and the suffering that goes along with that. This is a primeval, ancient fear. I have witnesses animals in pain, and animals trapped or caged, and the latter are obviously far more stressed and suffering than the former. This is the reason, I am told, many indigenous people sleep in the open, not under trees that could fall and trap or seriously injure them. It’s the reason prisons are inherently inhumane and solitary confinement even more so. It’s the reason caged, factory farmed chickens peck themselves and others to death. From an evolutionary perspective, fear of being trapped is very sensible.

The fact that I wasn’t really trapped is irrelevant — my autonomous nervous system, without any safety cues to dampen it, was firing the ‘flight’ response as surely as if I were locked in a burning building or cornered by a tiger. And as soon as it became apparent there was no ready ‘flight’ path — boom — the ‘freeze’ response kicked in. My brain became mush and gave up its valiant arguments that “it’s really not that bad”. I felt paralyzed. My body, tired of the chronic stress without action to relieve it, said no. I started losing weight, and my colitis flared.

It had been 10 years since my previous colitis attack, and 10 1/2 since my severest, and first, attack. That one was triggered by horrible financial news that resulted in me having to pay a six-figure amount in taxes because of a management accounting error — with one month’s notice. I had saved up just enough money to allow me to write my book, and this news was devastating. I was outraged, grief-stricken. I felt victimized, and helpless. But mostly I was terrified. What suffering would this loss inflict on me and on my loved ones? What would this mean for my suddenly-unknown future, a future that I had planned out so carefully? The world suddenly felt unsafe, insecure, and I was filled with dread, and my mind filled with stories of deprivation, failure and struggle. That first colitis attack was severe — almost life-threatening — and for weeks I was so exhausted, terrified and in such agonizing pain I just wanted to die.

All because an autonomous nervous system reaction that had long outlived its evolutionary value led my body to say no, to say “enough, I give up”. (Paradoxically, my previous life-long coping-by-shutting-down mechanism in the face of chronic anxiety — depression — didn’t happen, and hasn’t really been a factor in my life since.)

The ‘flight’ and ‘freeze’ vagus nerve reactions don’t seem to lend themselves to the three factors that have helped mitigate my ‘fight response’ feelings of anger. Gabor Maté has written about how many human diseases (including colitis, addiction and depression) are the body’s way of saying no to our culture’s maladaptive ways of coping with chronic mental stresses. In his early work he prescribes seven recommended coping mechanisms, including self-acceptance, self-awareness, healthy forms of anger, healthy social attachments (so you get the social cues and support) and setting appropriate boundaries (learning to say no so your body doesn’t have to). But these mechanisms presume a degree of free will that even Gabor’s later books suggest we might not have (he has recently asserted that by far the best way to address the many diseases rooted in childhood trauma and neglect is to prevent such trauma and neglect from happening in the first place).

So what are those who struggle with chronic fears and anxieties to do? The Feeling Path approach that the chart above used, suggests that we can be sufficiently self-aware to recognize where we are on the ‘feeling path’ between the anxious/fearful state and the equanimous/empowered/self-accepting peaceful state, and therefore see the autonomous nervous system’s overreaction for what it is.

I’m not so sure. Recently, I checked into a hotel room and found the internet unplugged. Not a big deal; I’m sure it would have been fixed within 24 hours. But something in me was triggered (same thing that gets triggered when any of the hundreds of bugs in MS Office programs turn up). For an hour I tried to fix it, fussing and fuming. Insane behaviour. I just don’t like unpleasant surprises. But I couldn’t help myself. The feelings of loss of control and agency trumped my self-awareness that this was an overreaction. In the moment, I couldn’t even get myself to acknowledge that. I didn’t even get to the worst-case story-telling that might have ramped up and sustained my anxiety — this was just pure emotion. I could probably find some seminal event in my past in which some technology failure or other implicit promise let-down had caused great suffering, but I’m not sure what good that would do. Apparently, this character, hapless as it is with technologies, just can’t handle things that don’t work reliably (especially when it can’t easily ‘fix’ them so they do).

Stephen Porges, who is probably the leading theorist about the vagus nerve, recently recommended “becoming aware of what our autonomic nervous system is doing, picking up on the cues and honouring them, and seeking safety with those who care”, a process he calls “feeling oneself”. But that presumes we have the agency and ‘peace of mind’ to do so, and I’m not at all sure we do. Singing, breathing and meditation practices are recommended to mimic aspects of the safety cues we get from others which calm the autonomous nervous system by stimulating the vagal nerve. I do all of these, but I don’t have the sense that they’ve helped my reactivity, comforting as they can be for a while in the right circumstances.

Of course others recommend telling ourselves a different story from the ‘should’ stories (which are all about expectation and moral judgement) and the ‘could’ and ‘could have been’ stories (which are all about the past that never was and the future that never will be). Tell a different story, we’re told, and it will change the trajectory of your life. But what about the stories that some of us must carry all our lives of horrors that were absolutely true? The body remembers, and reminds us.

While stories are fiction, it may be helpful to tell our ‘true’ story for a different reason — to recognize that it, the story, while true, is a story, something separate from us, and perhaps then to be able to put some distance between us and it, and not identify with it as much.

So, no simple answers here. My thesis on dealing with the consequences of our autonomous nervous system’s maladaptation to modern civilized life, for now, is:

  1. We can’t be, think or feel other than as we are and do. We have no agency or free will over what and how we think or feel, or over how our body will react accordingly, including reacting in ways that seem illogical, unhealthy, and exaggerated.
  2. If we’re fortunate enough to live in a healthy cohesive community, we will probably receive and reciprocate safety cues and enculturation that will mitigate some of the damage our reactivity inflicts on our bodies, our psyches, and others.
  3. Singing, meditation, and breathing practices may make us feel better about all of this, but won’t change it. Getting lots of exercise and eating well (neither of which is easy to do any more) will likely increase our resilience to the effects of our reactivity, but won’t change our reactivity.
  4. Telling ourselves a different story from the one that is triggered by, and further triggers, an autonomic emotional/physiological reaction, won’t change anything, since all stories are fiction. But understanding our own apparently ‘true’ story could help us see it for what it is — that it is a story, and that it is not us.
  5. If the apparent self that underlies our triggers and the stories they reciprocally reinforce, falls away, and is seen to be illusory, then it’s likely the triggers, which are embodied, not just in our minds, will continue for a while. But with no ‘self’ to validate them and identify with them, they will eventually dissipate. Unfortunately, there is no path to rid ourselves of our ‘selves’; it’s a “useless piece of software” that co-evolved with big brains, and as maladaptive in the complex modern world as many of the autonomous nervous system’s responses.

This assessment may be unduly pessimistic. I’m going to try some unusual exercises, and a unique (non-CBT) form of therapy, to see if they can at least curtail some of the nastier effects of my autonomous nervous system’s excessive reactivity. Stay tuned.

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3 Responses to What Happens in Vagus…

  1. Poor Richard says:

    Dave, what about the desensitization techniques used in phobia treatment, PTSD and OCD treatments, etc.? Also ways people get over stage fright?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Hey Richard: I think some of them can work for a while for some people. When I lived in the snowier parts of the continent, I got quite comfortable with navigating icy and snowy roads (I commuted to work there for 30 years). It was only when I got out of practice with poor road conditions that the fear returned.

    I’m tentatively a believer in the Dodo Bird Conjecture (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dodo_bird_verdict). That’s not a sleight against therapy — on top of the placebo effect (and I don’t use that term disparagingly since if you believe it helps, it probably does), there is almost certainly a benefit to any form of being listened to sympathetically and having the chance to talk through whatever you think is causing you anxiety or distress. I would argue that it is impossible to design any objective test of any particular therapy’s efficacy across a whole population, however, because the placebo and dodo bird effects cannot be separated out, and hence improvement cannot be measured in any scientifically rigorous way. The argument that some therapies are more ‘evidence-based’ and hence ‘better’ than others is therefore IMO unsupportable.

    I am concerned that some therapies (the more invasive ones, and some of the ‘flooding’/exposure-type therapies) might actually do more harm than good for some people.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    For what it is worth.

    I used to commute to work on a busy highway. The trip home was the most stressful, because I and everyone else wanted to get home quickly. I taught myself to tell a little story when some driver cut me off:

    His girlfriend just called and told him her husband was leaving the house for a couple of hours.

    Try it….Don Stewart

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