Respect your vagus nerve and get more personal power in recognizing and dealing with abuse
- Category: Psychotherapy and Recovery Work
Welcome to more personal power in recognizing and dealing with abuse. The November 28, 1019 New York Times article, “The Wisdom Your Body Knows, You are not just thinking with your brain,” brings together information that can clear your fuzzy manipulated thinking when you are confronted with an abuser of any kind.
Information on the workings of the vagus nerve is new to me. I’ve seen brief articles that recommend sleeping on your right side, meditating, doing deep breathing exercises and more to nurture your vagus nerve. But I didn’t comprehend the significance of vagus nerve activity until I read David Brooks’ New York Times article.
The bit that opened my eyes related to the vagus nerve influence on hearing. Now I know so called hearing deficits may be survival techniques. This is so useful to include in my listening to patients!
It’s so useful to patients and anyone who believes they have hearing deficits that occur sporadically.
Maryanne, (name and identification changed for confidentiality) a 66 year old mother and grandmother, was told by family members that she must be going deaf. She admits that she often can’t hear well when her members of her family speak to her. She thinks this is strange because her hearing is fine with other people. This article explains her vagus nerve situation.
OMG. When a person is threatened or is prepared to enter an environment where she is usually threatened, put down, bullied, criticized or attacked her vagus nerve prepares her to cope.
"Your body instantly changes. Your ear, for example, adjusts to hear high and low frequencies — a scream or a growl — rather than midrange frequencies, human speech."
Maryanne admits that her family wants a great deal of her time, energy, money and talents yet are critical of not their getting enough and have little or no appreciation for what is valuable to her. She believes or believed putting up with the criticisms was part of a grandmother's job.
She also tried to be patient with their impatience with her hearing deficit. She thought their impatience was the normal impatience younger people gave to aging family members. She became grateful to their putting up with her hearing issues. She acepted kindnesses that addressed her weaknesses, not realizing her competence was being undermned. Maryanne participated less in conversation, accepting their ignoring her as one of the consequences of aging and hearing loss. She was sinking into a real belief that she was deteriorating because of old age.
She didn't realize she was suffering from abuse. Her vagus nerve attempted to protect her, even when she was cognitively oblivious to attacks on her self-esteem and wellbeing.
Clinicians have been saying for years, "Listen to your body." "Your body never lies."
As a depth psychotherapist, I may add, "I wonder what they are saying that you don't want to hear?"
Another intervention I use is, “If someone is saying something nice to you, and you feel bad as they speak, you might want to question what’s happening in the relationship.”
In other words, “If these words sounds so good and the smile is so pretty, why do I feel so bad or weak, or sad or clumsy or incompetent or…….used?
“Why do I need to say thank you to someone who is giving me a gift that hurts my feelings and makes me feel wrong in some way?"
The ramifications of these questions that press you to listen to what your body is saying go much deeper and are more profound than I realized.
Today, armed with new respect for her body signals, Maryanne is learning to recognize and withdraw from abusive situations. It's a challenge to her because she thought these relationships were loving. And maybe they are. But, in their present form, they are destructive to her. Perhaps, if the family is willing and capable, she can develop a different kind of communication pattern with them.
Her condition reached a point where she felt terribly afriad at the unexpected sound of someone at her door or a light in her driveway because she thought it was a family member. Ignoring the messages of her body reinforced her feelings of being in danger. Now, as we work through the details of her experience and as she sets boundaries she is creating a safe place to live physically and emotionally. Her creativity is returning. Her physical grace is returning. And her hearing is just fine.
Brooks gave us a gift with his great article. We all need to know more about Porges’s “Polyvagal Theory,” to understand ourselves and others. Here's a link that describes the theory in more lay terms. We have a wonderful early warning system that alerts us to abuse coming at us in charming and socially accepted ways. Respecting that warning system can free you from living in a pattern of abuse and can probably add vital years to your life.
P.S. It's not just about hearing!
Dr. Stephen Porges, author of the Polyvagal Theory
The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay