Category Archives: Polyvagal Observations

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.

References

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.

References

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.

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.

References

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

Polyvagal Observations – July 18th, 2020

Recent news articles have indicated a higher-than-normal bear population in the Western and Prairie provinces due to decreased spring hunting as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. This increased population makes it more likely for people to come into contact with bears, a scenario that has been reported more frequently in the news. In this polyvagal observation, I would like to combine information from two incidents that occurred this past week to make my observations.

Stories of bear encounters always catch my attention as this is one of my own fears. In this news article a bear had entered a home in the area that same day, which put the subject of this news report, Alison, on alert. She states,

“I was kind of on edge because it was just the street over from me. I heard some banging outside and I peeked out and my garbage bin was flipped over…I was really paranoid”.

Alison is already in a state of hyper arousal and her sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Because she had been notified of a bear being close by, her autonomic nervous system was searching for cues of danger and it was found in the noises coming from outside. As Dr. Peter Levine states in Nature’s Lessons on Healing Trauma, “whenever we experience novelty in our environment, such as the snapping of a twig, our biological response is to orient towards locating the source of that novelty and to discern what is the relationship it has to us. For example, is it a source of safety…or a source of danger”. I predict at this point in her experience, Alison is state 4, according to Wallace & Lewis (2020) Autonomic Nervous System: Behaviour States scale in which she is “watch guarded: could be too alert, fine edge into overly aroused, flags of flight or fight up” (p. 84).

“I looked outside and that’s when I got a glimpse of it walking right towards my front doorstep…I was like ‘oh my gosh, oh my gosh’ and I was so scared because I thought that the bear was going to try to come into my house.”

This ‘oh my gosh’ moment is perhaps a momentary lapse into the trauma response, freeze, where her brain is trying to sort out what she should do due to the proximity of the bear and her threatened safety. However, her merely glimpsing the bear walking up to her doorstep leads me to infer that she is hiding in her home and in which case, her flight response has already been engaged.

While this bear did injure another person earlier in the day, Alison and her family were able to stay safe inside their home but the close encounter with the bear was certainly an emotionally overwhelming experience for her family. Later in the article, the author writes of Alison:

She and her daughter are getting out of town to their cabin because her daughter is too scared to sleep at home.

Their cabin environment is currently a source of anxiety causing them to be unable to sleep for fear of reoccurence so their response is to leave (flee) to a safer environment.

Another incident occurred this past week where a runner was attacked by a bear. Although is it unclear how she was able to escape, her initial experience and escape are captured in the following quotes from the news interview:

“I’ve never been so scared in my life…When it happened I kind of went into shock a bit”

“I needed to calm down because I was starting to hyperventilate”

“I called my mom and stayed on the phone with her for about 40 minutes as I made my way back down to the car”

The runner describes extreme fear and shock. This momentary shock is perhaps her lapse into the dorsal vagal response where her brain, and likely her body, freeze up before being able to prioritize the next move (flight/fight). Following the attack she articulates her brain’s response to high stress via hyperventilation. I wonder if her response is similar to the response of the polar bear in the video Polar Bear Not Getting Traumatized where the bear involuntarily begins deep breathing as the brain’s response to a high stress event. Further, the runner describes calling her brother, mom and boyfriend as she makes her way back to her vehicle and her brain moves from the sympathetic to vental vagal. Her movement into social engagement biology symbolizes her attempt to further down regulate from the traumatic event.

Finally, in understanding some key differences between human and animal brains, the primal parts of the both brains evoke a similar trauma response (fight, flight or freeze). While one tends to empathize with humans upon hearing of animal “attacks”, it is important to remember that in these two instances, the human proximity to the bear’s environment is foundational to the reason behind the occurrences. Like the humans, the bear’s brain is responding in the only way it knows how once it feels it’s safety has been jeopardized.

References

Wallace & Lewis (2020). Trauma Informed Teaching through Play Art Narrative (PAN). Koninklijke Brill NV.