Polyvagal Observation – August 2nd, 2020

My partner and I enjoyed a movie over the weekend — an old favourite — Coach Carter. Coach Carter is based on a true story of high school basketball coach who suspends his team for breaking their academic contract. This movie provides a critical examination of the intersectionality of race, class and socioeconomic status. As well, there are many examples of less-than-adaquate attachment relationships, and trauma histories as the movie delves into the personal stories of the basketball players.

While I do not agree with all of the teaching and relationship strategies employed by Coach Carter in the movie, I believe several of his strategies were trauma-sensitive and likely quite progressive considering the movie premiered in 2005. Some examples of Coach Carter being trauma-sensitive included his not lowering expectations despite what he knows about his player’s histories, his restorative discipline approach, use of social stories for the purpose of respectful relationship building, reframing student narratives through the use of positive self-talk and affirmations, impartiality to student behaviour and his overall understanding of the systemic oppression faced by his students.

The other polyvagal observation assignments that I have completed were primarily centered around observations of people in sympathetic or dorsal vagal states. For this assignment, I wanted to focus on a trauma response that also resulted in activation of the social engagement system. The character in the scene, Timo, has a family history of involvement with drugs and violence. His behaviour in the school by way of angry outbursts, threats, and intimidation leads me to believe that he is frequently in a state of hyperarousal. His trauma issues are clearly unresolved and he is lacking attachment figures that would assist him in co-regulating. It is likely that he is rarely, if ever, in a vental vagal state. His autonomic nervous system is in high gear as it searches for cues of danger in his dysfunctional life.

When Coach Carter arrives two important things happen. First, Coach Carter and Timo begin to form a positive relationship. In Coach Carter, Timo is able to find consistency, predictability and ultimately, safety. Second, some of the trauma-sensitive strategies used by Coach Carter which I listed previously, make way for Timo, and the other players on the team to be socially-engaged, forming positive connections with each other; increase their self-agency and self-advocacy, learn about repairing relationships and second chances, increase self-esteem and overall positive life narrative.

In the following scene, Timo’s cousin, is killed in a drive-by shooting directly across the street from where Timo is talking with a group of friends.

Timo goes into a “panic flares” (Wallace & Lewis, 2020, p. 84) state. Immediately after witnessing his cousin being killed, his adrenaline is high and he is in a high state of sympathetic arousal. In his panicked state, he runs towards his cousin and the scene cuts away as he calls out “Somebody help me!”.

The next scene shows Coach Carter opening the door to a panting Timo who has just run from the scene of the shooting. Timo begins to speak immediately in attempt to rationalize what has happened but stops short as he breaks down. At this point he continues to be in a sympathetic state. Coach Carter hugs him and Timo’s body goes limp inside the hug as he continues to break down further.

This scene illustrates how adults can be a regulating body for young people who are struggling and that the primary goal of the autonomic nervous system is to seek safety and connection. Though I wouldn’t consider Timo to be in a vental vagal state at this point, he is attempting to seek connection with someone he associates with vental vagal attributes and it is clear that his brain and body have down shifted.


Gale, D., Robbins, B. & Tollin, M. (Producer), & Carter, T. (Director). (2005) Coach Carter [Motion picture]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

Wallace & Lewis (2020). Trauma informed teaching through play art narrative (PAN). Brill Sense.

Polyvagal Observations – July 30th, 2020

A recent news article is reflecting on the impact to the people of Gillam, MB which was the RCMP hub during the ground search for two teen murder suspects. Last summer, the town made headlines as the RCMP conducted the largest manhunt in Canadian history. The quiet town was quickly flooded by heavily armed officers and residents were immediately on high alert. The article discusses how resident’s continue to deal with the traumatic event: “there are a few people that are still negatively affected and will always be affected by this” (Grabish, 2020). The portion of the article that I found relevant to the polyvagal observation task is the following:

Even after the teens’ bodies were found last August less than an hour’s drive from the town, he [mayor of Gillam] said, some in the community were still scared. As an example, he pointed to a father who had never slept apart from his wife for 20 years. But once the manhunt began and the military was called in, he started sleeping in the living room with a gun.

Forman said when he talked to the man about six months after the ordeal, he was still sleeping in the living room.

“Obviously it’s still in his mind and he’s still under the protection mode.” (Grabish, 2020)

In this article, many townspeople remark on the small-town nature of Gillam where everybody-knows-everybody, doors are left unlocked and there is a feeling of safety and community. With this in mind, it is safe to assume that the man in this anecdote was in a vental vagal state prior to hearing the news of the manhunt. Upon hearing the news and seeing the RCMP quickly take over the town, this man would have quickly gone from vental vagal to a sympathetic, hyper-aroused state. His fight response takes over, placing him in a level 5 or 6, defensive or panic flares state (Wallace & Lewis, 2020). Setting himself up in the living room with a gun signals his hyper alert state. He is waiting for attack as he is fearful of the teens entering his home. His adrenaline is likely high as he is in a state of high sympathetic arousal.

The effects of this traumatic event are clear as six months later, the man continues to sleep in the living room, still in protection mode. This behaviour signifies a dissociated state. He could be in a trance-like state with reduced awareness to his surroundings; not able to realize that the threat has now gone away. It is possible that flashbacks prompt him to continue his hyper vigilant behaviour of sleeping in the living room on alert. It seems to me that he has become, as Menakem (2020) describes, stuck in a state of activation. This man reenacts his trauma as he is unable to escape the trauma response of his subcortical, reptilian brain which forces him into a trauma loop where he repeats the same behaviours on a daily basis despite the fact that the danger is no longer present.


Grabish, A. (2020, July). A year after manhunt for teen murder suspects, some in Manitoba town are forever changed. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/gillam-manhunt-murder-suspects-1.5658395

Menakem, R. (2020). Free racialized trauma course. Cultural Somatics Training & Institute. Retrieved from https://culturalsomaticsuniversity.thinkific.com/courses/cultural-somatics-free-5-session-ecourse

Wallace, K. & Lewis, P. (2020) Trauma informed teaching through play art narrative (PAN). Brill Sense.

Daily Blog / PAN – July 29th, 2020

Blog Prompt: How do the structures and institutions of society create, maintain, and perpetuate white supremacy? How does the intersectionality of poverty, race, gender, class, ability and ethnicity help create oppression for BIPOC? How does your own privilege contribute to the oppression of BIPOC and how can you use your privilege to alleviate that oppression?

The discourse of inclusivity and exclusivity is foundational to the creation, maintenance, and perpetuation of white supremacy in the structures and institutions of Western society. White supremacist discourse correlates directly with the history and legacy of colonialism. White supremacy is based on a discourse that normalizes and neutralizes whiteness, making it the standard against which everything else in society is measured.

White supremacist discourse is fictional; a social creation. But “it is real, in the sense that societies and rights and goods and resources and privileges have been built on its foundation” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. x). Graham & Slee (2008) discuss the white supremacist discourse of inclusion/exclusion and argue that “in naturalising a particular mode of existence, we construct a universalized space free from interrogation, a ghostly center which eludes critical analysis and thus recognition of the power relations embodied within notions of normalcy which exert influence over other ways of being” (p. 287). The ghostly center that Graham & Slee (2008) propose continues to exist because a sense of “normalcy is established through an unsaying; an absence of descriptions” (p. 287) of what it means to be white and to hold privilege in our society. DiAngelo (2018) takes this concept one step further. She suggests that through racist socialization, white people actively deny their privilege, and become defensive at the suggestion of racism, or the racist systems that serve them; a concept she coins “white fragility”. The power of white discourse, coupled with the defense mechanisms of white fragility allow the notions of white supremacy to be a nearly impossible force to dismantle.

When considering the blog prompt for today’s assignment, I find it interesting to compare Graham & Slee’s 2008 article to DiAngelo’s 2018 book as I think it demonstrates a shift in the conceptualization of white discourse. Graham & Slee (2008) argue that the ghostly center of white discourse is impenetrable and that it holds power by not naming or defining what it means to be white. Meanwhile, in 2018, DiAngelo (and many other anti-racist literary leaders) are writing literature that names, defines, and calls out this “ghostly” white discourse. I am not however, suggesting that in the decade between these two works that racism has lessened. The United States is in the middle of a civil rights movement which proves the axiomatic presence of racism in Western culture. But I am hopeful that perhaps voices that aim to deconstruct white supremacy are being amplified in ways that would not have taken place a decade ago.

This decade of comparison is even more relevant to me because 2008 is the year I began my work towards anti-racism. In 2008, I started my B.Ed at the University of Regina and was confronted for the first time with how I was socialized through a system of white supremacy as I read Peggy McIntosh’s article “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” for my first ECS course. Each year since then has brought with it more and more learning about myself, my privilege, and how I contribute to an oppressive society for BIPOC. It’s been a decade of learning and I still have far to go. Discussions with other white people have occurred in courses I have taken over the past several years and more recently, these conversations have started occurring in my social circles. While many conversations with family and friends leave me feeling hopeful that the white supremacist discourse is being challenged, there are equally as many conversations where I am confronted with responses of white fragility. There is much work to be done. As Trepczynski (2020) suggests, “black and brown people have been resisting, uprising, and protesting in this country for centuries. If that were enough, it would have worked already. The missing link is white people doing deep, honest, and ongoing inventories (and clean-up) of their own relationship to white supremacy”. I take full responsibly for doing the deep and honest work related to my white supremacy.

Daily PAN


DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.

Graham, L.J. & Slee, R. (2008). An illusory interiority: Interrogating the discourse/s of inclusion. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40 (2), 277-293. DOI:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2007.00331.x

Sleeter, C. (1993). How white teachers construct race. In C. McCarthy & W. Crichlow (Eds.), Race, identity, and representation in education. (pp. 157-168). Routledge.

Trepczynski, S. (2020, June). Black and brown people have been protesting for centuries. It’s white people who are responsible for what happens next. Retrieved from https://time.com/5846072/black-people-protesting-white-people-responsible-what-happens-next/.

Don’t Get Derailed: 4 Tips on How to Stay Focused and Motivated

You can google this topic and find 1 million different strategies, some are great, and some aren’t. I’m going to share my 4 top tips for this, because brevity is key. I could be checking Twitter or Instagram instead of reading a dissertation on motivation ? Here we go: 

1) Clearly Outline Your Goal and Specify for How Long

This is a two parter, but they go hand in hand, so here we go: In goal creation, you need to be precise and manageable. Give it a measurable amount of TIME or some other unit of measurement you can do each day.

Write a book by next month? Maybe not! Now, write 250 words everyday towards your book? Yes! Write for 5 minutes everyday? Now you’re onto something! How long will it take? Doesn't matter--you are going to do 250 words or 5 minutes every day. Don't stress about completion timelines.

I’m a runner, so I’ll use another example. When I started running, I could run for about 60 seconds before I felt like I had to die. An experienced runner told me to just increase how far I run every day, by 1% to 10%. Yes, a gain as small as 1% is still a gain. So, the next time I ran, I literally ran for 62 seconds (it was hard!), then next time 68, etc… it didn’t take long before I could run for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc… After 9 months I ran my first half marathon, finishing 50th place. I couldn’t believe it. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “run away returns”… If you are always gaining, at some point, you will have come so far you won’t ever believe it. 

The main idea is we often underestimate the power of defining a large task clearly and then doing it bit by bit consistently. We also underestimate the power of giving the task a time unit value, like 5 minutes per day, 0.5% more per day, or some other quantity.

Not only this, but we are what we do. This means that you build a 
habit by doing it everyday—doesn’t matter whether you spend 1 minute doing the task or 1 hour. Build good habits by doing small, manageable tasks each day. In time you’ll find yourself doing them for longer and longer once the habit is formed. Rome wasn’t built in a day! 

2) Flip the Way You Think

Phrase your goal in a way that makes you realize the loss of not doing what you are doing.

Using the book example above, instead of making your goal: “I’d like to write a book because I think I have something valuable to share with the world”, try “The world has a lot to lose if I don’t write my book, because it’s a great story/is a unique perspective”.

This works because research shows that humans are loss averse… meaning we’d rather keep what we have versus gaining a new thing. It’s a subtle shift in your thinking that is part of your toolkit of keeping yourself motivated and accountable to yourself. ​

3) Do It No Matter What. Even If You Do It Badly

I am attributing this idea to Dr. Jordan Peterson, who is the first person I learned the concept from in his book 12 Rules for Life. This is one concept that has changed my life in ways I can’t even begin to say, but I’ll try. 

Peterson attests to the idea that a task, done badly, is still a task complete. Not only will you feel good about having the task done—rarely is anything worthwhile completed in one go. Now you have a rough copy that you can edit and work on—make it better. Think of it like a first prototype in a line of prototypes, eventually culminating in a final product or idea.  But if you aim for perfection right from the get-go, you’ll get burned out or just plain never finish.
This has changed the way I handle all my work—in combination with doing tasks bit by bit every day, and becoming comfortable with having a messy, sloppy, poorly formulated version of something, it gives you something to build on, and the final product has always been better in my experience as a result of this process. 

4) Don't Break the Chain

We can thank Jerry Seinfeld for this one, and Brad Isaac for passing along the story. The short of it is, the great comedian Jerry Seinfeld swears by the following the strategy:

Get a big calendar and put it somewhere visible. Every day you complete the task you have set out for yourself, put a big X on that day. Do this every day. Over time, you’ll have a “chain” of X’s…

Usually seeing your progress like this gives you another reason to not put off your task for the day, you won’t want to break your streak of X’s… keep the chain going! 

That said, don’t sweat it if you don’t manage it one day. The point is to try your best to build up a long chain of X’s as motivation to continue. 

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Daily PAN – July 23rd, 2020

Below is a collection of nature photographs from my backyard for the eco art assignment. As a Covid-19 hobby, I decided to dig a bit deeper into gardening. This year I started several varieties of flowers from seed. This process require beginning the seeds indoors in February, March and April under grow lights. I plan to take some of these photos and replicate them using water colour. For today’s assignment I was able to combine two passions — gardening and photography!

Polyvagal Observations – July 23rd

I recently viewed the Netflix documentary on convicted sex offender, Jeffery Epstein which investigates an elite network of white, extremely rich, people (primarily men) whose privilege, wealth, corruption, secrecy allow for the abuse and exploitation of many young women over a significant period of time.

Although this documentary was very difficult to watch, I chose this example after reading an interview with Stephen Porges about trauma responses for survivors of abuse. In this article, Porges discusses that survivors of trauma express feelings and sensations characteristic of dorsal-vagal shutdown states or dissociation. Porges argues that many therapists and society in general consider fight or flight to be the only trauma responses. When he presented polyvagal theory and described dorsal vagal sensations as “inability to move, the numbness of the body and functionally disappearing” (Porges, 2019), survivors of abuse felt they were finally being understood. The response survivors typically received was in the form of questioning why they didn’t fight back or flee the situation.

The following quotes are from several women interviewed in the first episode of the docuseries. Their comments illustrate the sensations they had at the time(s) of encountering their abuser. These expressions correlate with the descriptions of dorsal vagal states or dissociation.

– I was “checking out a bit” (depersonalization)

– “I had escaped my body…I wasn’t in that moment at all” (depersonalization)

– I was “very hesitant, so scared” (hesitation = freeze response)

– “I wanted to leave” (wants to flee but doesn’t, immobilization)

– “I thought I was gonna die”

– “This is so unreal. This is not happening” (derealization)

Sympathetic responses were also noted in the interviews. After describing “freeze” sensations, one woman states that her brain switched to a flight response and she recalls hiding in the bathroom. Similarly, the same woman who stated “I had escaped my body…” goes on to say “I was able to catapult my body” out of that situation and locked herself in another room. Other women talk about flashbacks as a result of the traumatic experience as well as avoiding coming forward about the incidence(s) due to feelings of guilt, blame and shame.

This docuseries is an extreme example of the functions of white supremacy, and the exploitation of wealth, power and privilege which resulted in traumatizing experiences for many survivors.


Anthony, A. (2019, June). Interview: Stephen Porges: ‘Survivors are blamed because they don’t fight’. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/02/stephen-porges-interview-survivors-are-blamed-polyvagal-theory-fight-flight-psychiatry-ace

Bryant, L. (Director). (2020). Jeffery Epstein: Filthy Rich. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.netflix.com/ca/title/80224905