In my pretty much relentless pursuit of what will relieve some of the stress and strain of the effects of multiple concussions/TBIs, I’ve been told a lot of things, and I’ve also read a lot of things. I’ve also been routinely “diagnosed” by strangers and friends alike (none of whom have been willing to factor TBI into my equation), as one or more of the following:
- mildly autistic (Asperger’s syndrome)
- heavy-duty trauma survivor
- “Peter Pan” syndrome (unwilling to grow up)
- arrested development (unable to grow up)
- tortured genius
The eagerness of others to diagnose me, sometimes on the spot, is a little irksome, I must say. But now that I’m reading up on the Polyvagal Theory (which explains how the autonomic nervous system is actually comprised of more than one vagus nerve, and is much more varied than many have thought/learned), I’m seeing some common threads between these perceptions.
Stephen Porges, who has been refining the Polyvagal Theory since the mid 1990’s, proposes that there are two distinct branches of the vagus nerve
- one which is primordial and closely related to how prehistoric tortoises react to threats (e.g. freezing), and
- one which is more recently evolved, which has the ability to override the sympathetic (fight-flight) response and regulate our internal systems in more subtle and immediate ways
Both of these systems interact with the fight-flight sympathetic nervous system reponse, and when the whole is “out of whack”, you end up with things like neuroses… and/or the inability to control your autonomic nervous system. Porges has proposed that much mental illness can actually be traced back to difficulties with autonomic self-regulation. When you’re unable to get out of perpetual fight-flight mode, and your system is fried from way too much sympathetic stress or way too little “tone”, you can end up with real problems — both in your head and in your life in general.
So, being able to control your inner state is essential to good health — both physical and mental. The beauty of the Polyvagal Theory is that it identifies some core characteristics of issues that are usually considered separate and different from one another, and it provides a way to approach those underlying core issues that is common-sense and also highly practical. What’s more, a lot that you can do to help your vagal tone is actually free and you can do it yourself. Not to say that serious issues can be fixed with a “home remedy” of mindfulness meditation, intentional breathing, and self-talk… but a little of that, done on a regular basis, can go a long way.
At least, that’s how I understand it. And frankly, I have the distinct impression that doing so could dramatically improve the quality of life for a whole lot of folks who suffer with serious self-regulation issues.
And in more ways than one. Because the vagus nerve (the “wanderer” nerve) is the longest nerve in the body, and it reaches into all our viscera — our heart, lungs, digestive system… the whole works. And it both carries information back to the brain and sends information to the organs, so that it’s this constant feedback system that both tells us where we’re at and how we’re doing, and also lets us direct our internal systems, through our thought process, our self-talk, our attitudes, the meanings we ascribe to things, our gut reactions — all of it — in one continuous full circuit.
When the circuit is communicating well and has useful and constructive direction to give to our organs, then we get health. When the circuit is whacked with too much stress and strain, then we get… something else. It’s oversimplified, I know, but the bottom line is, what happens to the vagus happens to our whole body — and it also happens to the rest of the world around us, as it influences how we experience and react to life around us.
Seriously, the vagus is one bad-ass nerve. It’s my favorite nerve, in fact, just after the trigeminal, which is actually interrelated with the vagus.
Anyway, I’m just starting to learn more about this, and I have a long way to go. But it is very interesting, and I intend to learn — and use — more.