Stress Less:

Stress Less:

Polyvagal theory and why clarinets might help...

There was a madcap article in the New Statesman this week which tried to argue that stress was a hoax dreamed up by the tobacco industry to sell more cigarettes in the 1960s. Leaving aside its very partial use of research to back up its claims, the article also plays suspiciously into the idea that “eustress” (that is positive stress) makes you work, think and compete more efficiently. A convenient belief for corporations who are happy to drive their workforce into stress-related sick leave.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, the number of workers taking time off for stress has stayed steady over the last decade, at around 440,000 a year, that’s about 9 million hours lost per annum. That’s about the same as lost to back-pain (musculo-skeletal injury) but twice the number lost to work-place injury.

Despite the author’s cherry-picking of research, neuroscience is pretty emphatic that long-term exposure to cortisol (rather than the very fast acting adrenalin that he name checks) is very detrimental to long-term health. More than an hour’s exposure starts to compromise the immune system, build up bad cholesterol and diminish good cholesterol, leads to crazy blood-sugar imbalances (hypoglaecemia), decreases bone-marrow density, incites high blood pressure and, in the long term, corrodes the structure of the hippocampus which affects our autobiographical memory.

I can’t imagine what agenda is really served by overlooking that sort of damage…

All this is interesting to me, having just run Mindsprings first “stress” workshop in London last weekend.

As always with these courses, I ended up learning more from my participants than they probably learned from me (though most were generous in their feedback forms…) But the subject is deeply fascinating and I have become greatly enthused about the possibilities of meditation making a healthy dent in the impact of stress on us in the world.

What arose very clearly in the course was that the nature of our ‘stressors’ was very evenly spread between outer (work, relationships, the Tube, money, advertising, emails) and inner (thoughts about work, worry, projection into the future, rehashing the past, catastrophizing). I was also interested in the category of ‘secret’ stressors - that is those barely conscious beliefs and submerged thoughts that actually generate a huge amount of subcutaneous stress. These included things like time, death, ageing, fear of abandonment, “the They” and a sense of wasting your life.

Of these, the secret stressors can do the most damage because they can be triggering the adrenal-cortical stress response all the time and that damage can be very profound, effecting not just our body but also our way of being in the world.

I spend a great deal of time (perhaps too much) getting excited about the theory of American neuroscientist Stephen Porges who has studied the stress response in the nervous system of mammals.

For a century or more, we have believed that the nervous system mediated stress by balancing the sympathetic (activating) and parasympathetic (calming) systems. Porges points out that this is completely wrong. There is no ‘good’ calming system that balances a ‘bad’ stressing system, rather there are THREE nervous systems, that have developed over evolutionary time.

The oldest and most primitive, that we share with all primates, is the PLAY DEAD system that simply shuts the body and organs down in a trauma-response that simulates death. This may be effective for a lizard but is actually very hazardous for mammal that relies on a heart-beat. Nonetheless this dissociative response is still apparent in humans - for example, when people who are experiencing terrible car crashes exit their bodies and pass out for the duration of the crash and recovery. It also occurs when people are sexually abused or raped.

The next oldest is the familiar FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT system of adrenal-cortisol activation. This is about flooding the body, ready for activity and generating aggression or fear.

The third, and evolutionarily speaking, the most recent system is limited to mammals and is called by Porges the SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT SYSTEM.

All three of these systems utilise the vagal nerve that runs from the brain down through the spine and the vital organs of the body (hence the name of the theory: polyvagal) but this newest system uses a sheathed (or myelinated) nerve that is super-fast and links a part of the brain to the facial muscles, the heart as well as the adrenal system.

This new system acts as a ‘vagal brake’ to the other two, overriding these more primitive and physically corrosive responses, and activates a more socially aware system. Basically, the mammal checks to see whether the surrounding mammals respond to his/her facial cues. Do the people around mirror your voice tones, facial movements, eye-movements? Are people speaking in a friendly sing-song or an aggressive monotone? Are people’s faces smiling and fluid or fixed in a frightening rictus?

Thee facial and visual cues are then transferred to the heart and endocrine system and the state of emergency is relaxed.

This has enormous repercussions to how we deal with stress. Most obviously, it points to the dangers of self-isolating when we are stressed.

After a long gruelling Tube journey, many Londoner think that getting home, opening some wine, watching telly and having some “me” time is the answer to stress. In fact , the lack of real-time face-to-face cueing leads the brain to assume that the world is still dangerous and the stress triggers us to drop down to the fear-anger system or even worse to the dissociative collapse system.

The best thing you can do to counter the build-up of corrosive stress, according to Porges, is to have live, face-to-face (or at least voice-to-voice) contact with other humans. Texting is a no-no since it doesn’t activate the face or voice. And looking at screens of pre-recorded TV shows or internet content (!) won’t cut the mustard either because there is no live feedback in it.

If you can’t find another person to speak to, then simply listening (activating the muscles of the middle ear that act as a the ‘lens’ of the ear, focussing on meaningful melody or sense) to vocal music - he recommends gregorian chant, female vocalists, Disney songs - will have a similar effect. Best of all, he says, is playing the clarinet! The breath is activated, the middle ear also and the embouchure of the mouth mimics smiling…

You may wonder, then, why I would recommend meditation rather than joining a Dixieland Jazz band, but there are three crucial factors in this face-to-face cueing: we have to 1) be aware that we’re stressed in the first place, 2) allow ourselves to open to other people’s faces and voices and not get lost in thoughts and 3) stay in the here-and-now long enough for it to work.

These three are all the work of mindfulness meditation: stopping, being aware and staying present. And we spent much of the weekend exploring a very powerful way of dropping down below the thinking mind (that generates so many of those ‘inner’ and ‘secret’ stressors) and experiencing other people from the space of the lower belly rather than the head.

Dwelling in this space, what the Daoists call the tantien or hara, stops stress from building up in the first place because we see others as part of our world rather than antagonists or potential attackers. It is also the space where we can really engage our mammalian de-stress system and undo all the toxic stress that the modern world secretly and blatantly unloads on to us.