Polyvagal Theory and Emotional Amnesia

What is Emotional Amnesia?

I have noticed in myself and others a tendency to forget.
When I feel really good, I think – or at least feel – that my life has taken a turn for the better, and that it will continue to be good indefinitely. Whatever it is that happened has changed me, or changed the course of my life somehow. When I feel really bad, I know that I felt good sometime before, but I don’t see any path to that good feeling now, and I feel helpless to get back there.

Neither of these are accurate emotional conclusions, of course. Even when I have a truly life-altering experience – and I have personally had many – still, it is a guarantee that there will be a time in the future when I will feel lost, alone, discouraged, confused, helpless and overwhelmed. And whenever I am in that place of helplessness and overwhelm, there will be a time in the future when I feel good again, as good as my baseline for feeling good, which varies from person to person.

I am labeling this phenomena emotional amnesia, the inability to perceive as real and valid a former and opposite emotional state. Because I’m unable to perceive the validity of that state, I am unable to anticipate that I will ever be in that emotional state again.
I have an explanation for this phenomena, which helps me to mitigate some of the negative impacts of the experience of helplessness and overwhelm for myself when I find myself there.

The explanation is based on polyvagal theory, which is a recent breakthrough (in theory) in our understanding of the nervous system, developed by Stephen Porges in the 1990’s. Here is a summary of polyvagal theory in my words.

Long ago, when animal life on Earth was still primitive, an initial system of protection developed. When an animal became aware of another moving object, it would become very still. And in that place of stillness, the animal’s systems would slow down. The stillness made the animal less visible to potential predators, and the reduced activity allowed it to conserve energy during that period of time when it was unable to search for food.
This system of protection is still present in all animals and is governed by the Dorsal Vagal Complex or DVC. The DVC state is essentially freeze mode or conservation mode.

Later evolutionarily, the Sympathetic Nervous System or SNS developed, which provided more options for protection. In the face of threat, the SNS increases heart rate and respiration, and facilitates fight or flight.

Even later, and only present in mammals, the Ventral Vagal Complex, or VVC, developed. The VVC is also referred to as the social engagement system. This system governs the fine muscles of the face, allowing us to make – and read – one thousand different faces with one thousand subtly different meanings. It also governs the ear, allowing us to tune in a single human voice over all background noises. The social engagement system allows us to cooperate and collaborate with others.

When I perceive what may be a potential threat from another human, I first engage my social engagement system (or VVC), attempting to make a human connection and build communication and trust, so that no actual conflict needs to occur. If I am unable to ensure safety using the social engagement system, then I will engage my SNS, to fight and/or flee in order to ensure safety. And if I am unable to successfully flight or flee to safety, eventually I will engage my DVC, shutting down, freezing, becoming still, and possibly dissociating.

That’s a short version of my lay person’s understanding of polyvagal theory as it relates to responding to threat. For the remainder of this article, even though these labels are not completely accurate, I am going to refer to these three nervous system branches using the following labels.

DVC = “Freeze”
VVC = “Social Engagement
“SNS = “Pumped Up”

GHIA People and Social Engagement

[Editor’s note 2020: When I wrote this post in 2018 I was not familiar with the term “Global High Intensity Activation (or GHIA)” But that is the category of people I was talking about in this section, so I am editing the post to use that term.]

GHIA people are people who experience a constant or near constant state of activation and distress in their nervous systems. Typically they are people who experienced developmental trauma in their early life.

There is a caveat about the Social Engagement channel. The Social Engagement channel can only run when I feel safe. When faced with the possibility of a threat, I may be able to engage my Social Engagement channel to determine whether or not a threat is present. And if there is a present threat, but I feel confident and competent that I can manage the threat without significant injury or loss, then I may be able to remain in my Social Engagement channel in order to navigate the threat. But if my body is clear that there is immediate danger that I cannot control, it is not possible for my system to turn on the Social Engagement channel, no matter how desirable that might be.

This is a problem for GHIA people, because we perceive threats that are not actually there. We can feel like we are about to be attacked or annihilated when we are in the most peaceful and serene of surroundings. We may or may not be aware of the specific sense of threat, but we know that we can’t relax, enjoy, or connect, and that we just don’t feel ok.

Combinations of Control Channels

Here is where I believe that polyvagal theory informs emotional amnesia.There are three control channels in the autonomic nervous system: Freeze (DVC), Pumped Up (SNS), and Social Engagement (VVC). At any point, each of these channels is running somewhere between zero and ten (or eleven for fans of “This is Spinal Tap”).

Sometimes Freeze is engaged and both Pumped Up and Social Engagement may be near zero. A life-long meditator could be in this state while meditating. Rest/conservation is ON, Doing is OFF, and Social Engagement is OFF.

Sometimes Pumped Up is engaged and both Freeze and Social Engagement may be near zero. An athlete who is performing in a competition may be almost entirely governed by SNS. Doing is full on, Rest/conservation is OFF, and Social Engagement is OFF.

It is common for both Social Engagement and Pumped Up to be engaged at the same time. Anytime we are both comfortably socially engaged and also active (even mentally active), we are in Social Engagement and Pumped Up. Watching a sports contest on tv with family or friends, playing an interactive game with friends, social dancing, theater, and many other activities involve the combination of Social Engagement and Pumped Up.

It can also happen that both Freeze and Pumped Up are engaged at the same time. This occurs when I am frozen, possibly dissociated, but at the same time my system is on high alert, watching for signs of danger, and prepared to react if necessary. This is the typical state for many GHIA people.

What apparently does NOT happen is for both Freeze and Social Engagement to be engaged at the same time. Both Freeze and Social Engagement operate using the vagus nerve, and it seems there is some mechanism that ensures that only one or the other of these two channels is running at once.

Now, Social Engagement feels good, and Social Engagement combined with Pumped Up feels really good. Social Engagement plus Doing FEELS REALLY GOOD!

Freeze may feel good or neutral. But Freeze combined with Pumped Up feels terrible. It’s like having the gas and the brake both pressed to the floor at the same time. It feels uncomfortable or even painful. But this combination shows up in GHIA people as Freeze and Vigilance, and it is very common. The default setting for GHIA people is freeze combined with vigilance.

Most people, particularly GHIA people, have Pumped Up (which includes actively thinking, and which includes vigilance) running at some level all of the time. For some of us, it even runs when we are asleep. We crave television or other soothing activities or substances, because those activities turn down the level of sympathetic (Pumped Up) activation. 

And many of us, again, particularly GHIA people, have a default setting of Freeze.  By default as a GHIA person, I don’t trust or feel safe with other humans, even the people I am closest to. Remember, Freeze and Social Engagement cannot run simultaneously, and Social Engagement cannot run if I do not feel safe. By default I am running the Freeze channel, and if you do an exquisite job of proving your gentleness and safety, then I might find that I can eventually make my way to social engagement, where I trust you and I open up and connect.

So, as a GHIA person, my default is some level of freeze and dissociation combined with some level of hypervigilance, Freeze and Pumped Up. It’s uncomfortable, and  each of us has come with with our personal brand of subtle and mostly unconscious techniques for navigating in ways that reduce or hide our discomfort.

If I find myself in a situation where I feel safe and my Social Engagement channel has come on board, this is a relief and a delight! I feel ok, I am connecting with other people, other people seem to like me, life in this moment is good.
In my own adult life, there are three activities that stand out as having evoked Social Engagement. One was social folk dancing. For a period of time, at an extremely difficult and painful junction in my life, I faithfully attended a folk dance event twice a week for many months. The relief and enjoyment I experienced in those events was perhaps unprecedented in my life. What a sweet, sweet experience! I didn’t know about Freeze, Social Engagement and Pumped Up. I didn’t know that I was suffering from life-long PTSD, Developmental Trauma and Attachment Disorder, that I was experiencing Global High Intensity Activation. I did know that going dancing allowed me to relax and feel ok, to connect with other people safely and playfully, and to feel good!

Another activity was personal growth workshops. The structure of the workshops removed the element of light social engagement, an element that was always painfully uncomfortable for me. And the workshops facilitated authentic sharing and connection, which allowed me to see into the other people enough to create a feeling of safety for me. So my Social Engagement channel came on board, and I felt energized, connected, and hopeful.
The third activity was interacting with my young children. Their trust and delight and aliveness triggered my own softness, gentleness and hope, and I was able to feel safe and engage my Social Engagement channel. 

But there were also times when I attended folk dances or workshops, or where I was engaged with my children, where I still could not feel ok. I was taking the medicine but I was not getting the cure.

The Vagal Switch and Emotional Amnesia

A GHIA person has spent a lot of their life in Freeze, navigating life while feeling continually unsafe, often consciously unaware of this whole circumstance. So when a GHIA person is able to experience their Social Engagement channel, it is a bit like getting out of jail. If this GHIA person who is enjoying their freedom suddenly finds they are back in Freeze, back in jail, it is a rude and unpleasant shock.

The GHIA person does not understand that they have a Vagal Switch, and that some sort of trigger has just occurred, that flipped the Vagal Switch from Social Engagement to Freeze. They don’t know why they suddenly feel awful, and they don’t know how to get back. So they can easily find some circumstance or person to blame. “I was feeling good, and you just destroyed that!, it’s the worst thing you could possibly have done!”

The experience of being in jail and out of jail are so different, than when I find myself in jail, it seems like I am locked up permanently until something external happens. When I find myself out of jail, it seems like I am free, and nothing could cause me to choose to walk into that jail cell, so I think I will be free forever.

So how can we help ourselves if we are this person?
One of the keys to navigation, no matter how you are and what your history is, is to develop the skill of maintaining an internal witness. The internal witness is held in thought and in deeper knowing, and is immune to your feelings in the moment, immune to the affects of the state of your nervous system in the moment. Each of us needs to develop our own witness, and then we need to educate our witness with useful information.

For many years, I had a solid internal witness, but I did not know the workings of the Freeze and Social Engagement channels. Now that I know about these channels, when I find myself feeling locked up, cold, distant, overwhelmed, or resentful, my witness says, “OK, I am in Freeze. In order to feel better I need to get back to Social Engagement.”

I will write more about ways to get to Social Engagement. But one simple tool I have used is to chat with an imaginary friend, one who is always kind and joyful, and who always cares about me. By engaging with my ideal imaginary friend, I start to soften, and sometimes I can soften the whole way into Social Engagement, and then I can be soft with the people around me.

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