Human beings are naturally the most social of animals. This could seem like a paradox when we look at our civilizations, but it is a biological reality, inscribed on the very heart of our organism, particularly the autonomous nervous system, that which governs our respiratory rhythm.
Why do we need others?
The reason is simple: we need a protective society, a family and those around it to reach adulthood; otherwise we die.
Humans are vulnerable and dependent until adulthood, the longest interval among mammals. For more than a decade, the child depends completely on those who take care of him; afterwards he will still need a favorable environment even if he enjoys more autonomy. Furthermore, the species has the capacity, unique among primates, to grow old, and to preserve its old people in its midst, because their wisdom can profit the community. Our social nature and our biology cooperate here.
It was in response to the need to care for children so long that our brain has developed its powers of empathy and attachment, but eventually these abilities apply to all those around us. In turn, we cannot survive without the good will of our neighbors: the social bond is indispensable to our equilibrium, down to the most fundamental levels.
How deep does it go?
The ‘polyvagal theory’, an important discovery by Stephen Borges, is the illustration of this connection. Our being is regulated fundamentally by our autonomous nervous system: the orthosympathetic branch of the nervous system leads us into action, while the antagonistic parasympathetic (vagal) branch is active in repose and inaction, or in calmer activities. This branch in turn is divided into two branches: the primitive dorsal (found in the rear of the medulla oblongata at the top of the spinal column), which does not involve myelin and leads to defensive immobility (’freeze’); the other branch, using myelin, known as the ventral, much more evolved, which soothes and leads to social interaction. It is at this point that engagement with others registers even before conscious reason, will or emotions, come into play. This latter branch is the source of our feelings of peace and well-being, and thus to the organism’s reparative capacities. Our health depends directly on this: all are linked up here, autonomous nervous and endocrine and immune systems.
The civilizing of chronic stress
And it is just here that all our ills and weaknesses have their source. We have built a civilization which relegates our old people to warehouses when we think we don’t need them any longer; just as we park our children somewhere where they won’t bother us at our work ...
as to adults in their prime, our society pits them against each other in an endless competition, so that some manage to dominate others, and accumulate more goods. We have constructed a society which prizes selfishness, isolation and competitive predation. The lack of social integration, the different forms of individual isolation, threaten to dislocate us by cutting us off from ourselves and from our roots in humanity.
This lack of social bonds is one of the principle causes of the chronic unhealthy stress in which we are all more or less submerged; this opens the door to a host of imbalances and also the compensations which we adopt in order to survive. Whether this stress is felt in the body or the mind, together with the behaviors we put in its place to deal with it, the result is: we are stooping, belly-out, knock-kneed, with digestive problems, overweight, diabetes, disorders cardiac or allergic, insomniac, anxious, irritable, depressed ... Even worse, we self-medicate with a variety of substances and behaviors more or less toxic; these take a toll, even if they work in the here-and-now.
There are however numerous ways to combat chronic stress and its effect without recourse to toxic behaviors with deleterious after-effects. Let us begin at the beginning: the most visible impact of chronic stress to which we are subject is found in bad posture and limited mobility. These are not only the results of the sedentary life which we undergo, but also the reflections of the anxiety and correlated inhibitions which infect our procedural memory. Our bodies bear the weight of the ‘apprenticeships’, by the fear which we felt and still feel. Unconsciously, we display the defensive reflexes of ‘fight or flight’ that never could find expression in the face of the agents of our stress, before which we have had no choice but to freeze in a sort of stupor. We are exactly in the state of helplessness to which a trapped animal must resign itself. The normal response to stress should be movement, but if this is blocked it is stuck in a painful tension. If there is no way out, the only solution is resignation, inaction being less harmful.
The body is the key
It is thus that our body language expresses our aborted attempts at self-defense, and these attempts are inscribed in our whole being. The organism continues to seek to defend itself although the threat is long gone. but as soon as we manage to correct our posture and to recover a more human mobility, our mind receives positive information, and these will serve to pull us out of the effects of chronic stress. Our spirit receives a message of freedom coming from our sensorimotor perceptions. As we become conscious of our bodily history, and particularly our mechanisms of flight, fight, and ‘freeze’, we begin to restore our internal equilibrium.
Of course, for this recovery we also need strong and healthy human connections, for our organism is not self-regulating but collectively regulated. Here lies the deepest root of our problems.
At some point, it is necessary to discover the proper techniques to regulate the nervous system, techniques which will pass through the body: myofascial massages, exercises correcting posture and movement. We are not neglecting psychology, but the therapeutic path from chronic stress lies through cold water, breathing exercises, a low sugar diet, a squeeze ball, a PVC pipe, a medicine ball, a bit of elastic fabric, even small dumbbells ... When we work on the body to fight the effects of stress, our psyche feels the repercussions, just as it did when we were suffering. This is the ‘virtuous circle’, as opposed to the vicious circle we knew before. This freedom of movement represents the first step of a life which no longer feels the constraints of an environment more or less toxic: in some way, we are unlearning our acquired helplessness. It may well be that we cannot attack the ultimate causes, perhaps they are outside our reach. But it is possible to counter the effects here and now, not only on ourselves but on those around us. We do not have to accept this life of chronic stress as inevitable.
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