Introduction to Aliveness and Life Force
One of the books now on my "must reads" for those with chronic illness is
I recommend this so highly, because it provided me with profoundly improved understandings of the true origins of my own "idiopathic" chronic disease, as well as insights into what I actually need to do to heal. In particular, the book introduced me to the concept of "Aliveness" in healing trauma and illness, viz:
"Our greatest desire is to feel alive. Meaninglessness, depression, and many other symptoms are reflections of our disconnection from our core vitality. When we feel alive, we feel connected [to our own bodies and emotions, to the world, and to other people] and when we feel connected, we feel alive. Aliveness is not primarily a mental state, nor only sensory pleasure. It is a state of energetic flow and coherency in all systems of the body, brain and mind. It is what the French call elan vital. This Life Force is the energy which fuel healthy aggression, strength, expression, individuation, fight-flight, passion and sexuality".
The book then goes on to describe how developmental and shock trauma can result in the diminishing of Aliveness/Life Force, through disconnection. We will return to what the book has to say below. However, first let me explain why these concepts have had such profound impacts on my self-understandings.
As my readers will know, my deep and broad research has led me to believe that my rigidity dominant form of "Idiopathic Parkinson's Disease" is in fact the permanent activation of my Dorsal Vagus Nerve, keeping me in a immobilized survival mode state, and which, currently, only the PD medications can temporarily lift me out of, as explained more fully in
In short, I believe my Nervous System has got permanently stuck in the "Death Feigning" response to perceived lethal levels of threat.
Perhaps it would be instructive at this point, therefore to describe more about what its like when I am very symptomatic, to help understanding of why I believe this disease truly corresponds to Death Feigning, and why the converse - increased Aliveness - is the key route to healing. In Death Feigning, not only movement is switched off, but as are all signals through which the keen sense of predators might detect some vestigial signs of life. To me, this describes exactly how it is when I am symptomatic - if I don't implement strategies to combat this state and just allow it to take over - and the more symptomatic I am, the more pronounced these experiences:
- not only is my movement is switched off, but so too is my motivation or desire to move;
- my breathing is very shallow and hard to detect, both my chest and abdomen barely move;
- my heart rate and blood pressure become critically low;
- my libido is offline;
- my digestion is switched off, the normal noises and gurgling motions in my gut are completely absent, my stomach is as a quiet as the grave, I am disconnected and cannot sense at all my enteric nervous system (this is a very horrible anti-sensation);
- my positive emotions are switched off, I can not feel nor embody positive emotions, I simply cannot feel love for another person, if I feel anything it all it is anger, guilt or pain;
- my pre-frontal cortex is shut down, either severe brain fog/zombified, whereby I cannot concentrate or form coherent thought, indicating my brain wave activity is switched off, or else I'm stuck in loops of busy anxious thoughts of the type which are known to switch off movement, especially mustering arguments against or blaming others;
- I become disconnected and dissociated, losing connection with my own body, the physical world and connection with other people, I cannot make eye contact nor push my hands and feet against supporting surfaces, for examples;
- my senses are shut off, including the inhibition of both external (smell, focusing eyes or keeping them open, taste, sense of touch, etc.) and internal senses (hunger, thirst, balance, etc.);
- I am averse to music, and hyper-sensitive to loud noises;
- my face goes numb and expressionless, my tongue becomes hard to move, I have no motivation to use my cranial nerves to alter my expression, I can only change this with great energy spend and effort;
- my ability to vocalize or make any sounds at all are offline.
I hope from this description, readers might get a better of understanding of what its like to be in deep Dorsal Vagus Nerve activated freeze, and that indeed the entire biological system, not just movement, goes into shutdown or lockdown. This would seem to me to the very opposite of the concept of Aliveness as described by the book, If so, the long term solution to such chronic Nervous System Dysregulation is to do everything we can to re-establish and expand our Life Force.
Diminished Aliveness and Lifeforce
"Healing Development Trauma", the book referred to above, describes how developmental and shock trauma diminishes our Aliveness or Life Force:
"[People can] respond to shock and developmental/relational trauma by dissociating and disconnecting. The result is a dimming down of the life force that leaves a person, to various degrees, exiled from life."
[I can certainly identify with being exiled from life, as we will explore further below].
"In neglectful, abusive [or otherwise dysfunctional] environments, where lack of adequate response [to needs] is chronic, anger and aggression cannot be resolved [since] when [children] feel chronic anger toward their caregiver, it is experienced as a threat to the relationship, and therefore as dangerous to survival [because the caregiver is supposed to be there to protect and nurture the defenceless child]. Symptoms of undischarged sympathetic [nervous system] activation then develop, leaving children, and then later as adults, in states of high arousal, anxiety and irritability, prone to temper outbursts, fearfulness and even panic attacks."
"When aggression or anger are ineffective or dangerous, ... at a certain point, the chronic sympathetic arousal overloads the nervous system... and moves into the parasympathetically dominant freeze response... effectively numbing needs and emotions. The unfulfilled needs and unresolved feelings become bound in the body and nervous system... as undischarged arousal, which is held as physical tension or as collapsed and frozen states."
Before proceeding to what the book tells what we can do to heal, through slowly increasing our Aliveness, I hope it may be useful to look back at how early developmental issues, followed by shock trauma (a near drowning event at age thirteen), greatly diminished my own Aliveness, as a working example.
The following describes just a few of the issues I've experienced in various stages from childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, up to my Parkinson's Disease diagnosis. I now consider that phase as my life as actually my "un-life", due to the greatly diminished Aliveness I experienced as outlined below.
It is important to understand I am reflecting on this during my own serious attempts at healing, and I believe it is only through this lens that has allowed me to see my "un-life" for what it was. Indeed, before, I would have not only have considered most of this my true nature, and the resulting behaviours as my innate "personality", but also pridefully identified my "self" with them. I now know this isn't the case, and these represent the conditioning I received due to environmental failures, or as well-meaning survival strategies which became maladaptive as I continued into adulthood.
- Chronic irritable bowel syndrome, could not leave house before two hours of repeatedly sitting on toilet, making sure and double checking bowels were empty. Constantly aware (hypervigilant) of state of digestive system - any sensations or noise would indicate to me a need for the bathroom, creating rising distress, increasing feeling of needing to go. Also hypervigilant of where nearest/next bathroom was, or planning routes around bathroom stops. I would sit on ends of rows in lectures and cinema/theatre and in aisle seat in planes and trains in case of needing to go, would feel trapped otherwise. Always scanning for escape routes more generally.
- Developed other Obsessive-Compulsive behaviours such as checking that doors and windows were locked multiple times, checking oven was off too.
- Unable to enjoy enjoyment or take pleasure in pleasure, wallowed in sadness and wreathing myself in dark moods/bleakness.
- Clumsy, poor control of body, poor at sports, limbs felt heavy, fatigued, low energy, low physical activity.
- Never present to my experiences, lost in own abstract, busy thoughts, mind never quiet except during sleep.
- Poor sleep patterns and oversleeping, late going to bed, late getting up, never feeling refreshed, sleepy in afternoons.
- Played on my own a lot in my bedroom, lost in computer games or books.
- Painfully shy as child, later arrogant and grandiose.
- Body image issues, especially around a broken, discolored front tooth which for some reason I never got fixed until 2004, and unmanageable sticky-out hair.
- Wore only black clothes from age 13-24, covering body (would not wear shorts, exposing legs, for example).
- Averse to having photograph taken, very few photos of me exist, even on special days.
- Night terrors as a child, accompanied by odd pains and sensations (as my pain/rigidity symptoms continue to resolve, I'm noticing they are reverting to these childhood sensations).
- Introverted, apart from with friends, when behaviour was outrageous, loud, attention seeking (I do now feel some of this behaviour was on the autistic spectrum).
- Feeling embarrassed easily and keenly, experiencing mildly embarrassing situations as deep shame, memories of which would haunt me as "shame attacks" through constant recall.
- Became very argumentative, had to have last word, saw everything as black and white, could not understand people who disagreed, sunk large amounts of energy in to trying to control what other people thought.
- Perfectionist, idealist to the point of obsession, later extreme workaholic.
- Depressed, feeling emotionally "flat", couldn't tell anyone I loved them [didn't know what love was], thought emotions were weakness - wanted to be like Star Trek's Mr Spock.
- Extreme loyalty to other even when clearly undeserved and not reciprocated, yet with keen sense of betrayal.
- Very private and secretive - did not want others to see the real me - causing lack of healthy intimacy.
There is no longer much resentment, blame, shame or emotional charge attached to these self observations. Many of these issues have now resolved or are resolving in facing my disease, and I now feel like an entirely different person through seeking to find my authentic nature. Indeed, it is now a very different experience being in my own head and body compared to before. However, it is now clear to me that the way I lived my life not only fed and made me more susceptible to disease, but I would go also further: the self-exile from my own life outlined above is my disease, which just got worse and worse as I got older and the resulting "symptoms" became more physically manifest.
Increasing Aliveness and Life Force
In this part, we begin to explore how me might slowly heal and get better by seeking to increase our Aliveness.
The book "Healing Developmental Trauma" says about this:
"The spontaneous movement in all of us is towards connection, health and aliveness [if the roadblocks to this can be removed]. No matter how withdrawn we have become or how serious the trauma we have experienced, on the deepest level, just as a plant spontaneously moves towards the sunlight, there is in each of us an impulse to move towards connection and healing."
"Working with the roadblocks that are in a way of reconnecting with aliveness is key... learning how to be in touch with our emotions and appropriately express them is a fundamental part of this approach... puts us progressively more in touch with our core aliveness... [need to] explore the psychological and physiological patterns that limit expansion and aliveness... understand the fear of aliveness..."
However, the book also explains why this necessarily must be a slow, long term, painstaking, healing process. It introduces us to the concept of "expanding" into Aliveness, but teaches us that with each expansion, there naturally follows a subsequent contraction. This process is referred to as "pendulation" to denote a swinging back and forth effect. I have definitely experienced this effect myself, many times. Following an period, event or occasion where I have felt more Alive (an expansion), I always experience a "set-back" in which my symptoms then flair up and my Aliveness contracts.
"It is important... to explain... that growth is a process of expansion and contraction and that the contraction phase is inevitable."
We are also introduced to the concept of titration, which in this context, refers to approaching traumatic experiences slowly and obliquely.
"Particularly following... a strong experience of expansion, the unmanageable contraction, evidenced by regression, strong anxiety, depression or increased physical symptoms, ... called a boomerang effect, is an indication ... to titrate more carefully and go forward at a slower pace."
The book also provides important information about the type of things we can do as part of this process of becoming more Alive. Note that most of these do not require us to re-live nor focus on the traumatic events, at least not until we have gained enough Aliveness (capacity, resilience) to do so, and instead the emphasis is on as remaining present as much as possible - these are some of reasons why these methods appeal to me..
- Being present in our body.
- Learning to live in the present moment.
- Supporting the ventral vagus and social engagement system (cranial nerve health).
- Developing self-regulation.
- Re-establishing exploratory-orienting and seeing reality through the eyes not through distortions from the past.
- Tolerating increasing aliveness.
- Coming out of dissociation [including identifying what our own dissociation looks like, as I attempted to do for myself above].
- Integrating healthy aggression.
- Developing the right to "be".
- Repairing ruptures in personal boundaries.
- Working through projection of the past onto the present.Working through self-hatred, self-judgements and identity distortions [as I attempted to do in my own case above too].
- Seeing through the illusion of designating "issues" which try to makes sense of a nameless dread caused by preverbal early trauma.
- Working through early trauma.
- Increasing the capacity for attachment, connection and relationships.
I return to these themes in a sequel
in which I will share more about my own struggles and journey in this regard.