I am so excited by the research and discoveries of Dr. Stephen Porges, about which which he himself says, "but didn't you already know this?"
Dr. Porges is the author of the Polyvagal Theory. This Theory describes the vagus nerve, a key component of our autonomic nervous system (the ANS), a large nerve pathway that extends from our lower viscera to the brain (and back again). This nerve bundle contains nerves from our evolutionary reptilian past, as well as our current mammalian existence. In the face of danger we hierarchically move backwards in evolutionary states as governed by the vagus. The first autonomic response is fight or flight; if these can't be accessed because the danger is too great, we move another step back to the reptilian reaction of "freeze." The freeze state is one of dissociation, inability to act, and can be ultimately quite dangerous.
Our mammalian response to danger is unique from the reptilian's, Porges says, because unlike in the freeze state of the nervous system, the fight or flight state can be down-regulated through contact with another mammal who is in a calm state themselves (thereby preventing further descent into the high-risk state of freeze). Examples of this: a mother calming an upset infant through touch, rocking and cooing sounds; the non-judgemental companionship and physical contact of a cat or dog; a friend who listens and understands; an intimate partner who is present with your deepest vulnerabilities; the compassionate and skillful witnessing of a therapist.
Porges concludes: "mammals need other mammals." He says, "the major role of an interaction is to co-regulate a bio-behavioral state." The key qualities of healthy mammalian interaction are nurturance and reciprocity.
And the worst, and most feared states for mammals, due to how our nervous systems are literally wired? Isolation and restraint.
I love this research-based, intuitively-true understanding of our mammalian humanity: Babies are not meant to cry it out alone, we are not meant to be isolated (although we may relish alone time), and we need each other in order to feel safe and fully ourselves. And this experience is not one-directional: a mother feels better when her baby is calm, and vise versa (ad infinitim!).
This speaks to the very message of the season, doesn't it? Gathering with friends and loved ones to share beautiful food, reciprocating a feeling the safety, warmth and love. This is what we can do for each other in this season of giving.
It is also why Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy is such a powerful modality. There is a deep listening and presence formed between two people, with the BCST practitioner holding compassionate and attentive space for her client. This impacts the client on a psychological and emotional level for sure, but also on the neurological level as well, allowing the client's system to move into the healthy state of the parasympathetic nervous system of calm, recover, and return to inherent health.
The inspiration for this post, and the quotes came from this interview with Dr. Porges.