Several weeks ago I went to an ENT clinic to have hardened wax in my ears removed. When the technician finished the procedure I found myself surprised at the immediate difference in my hearing. It was not a pleasant surprise. Suddenly, the sound of traffic, the chirping of birds, the voice volume of the people speaking all around me was making me involuntarily wince. I found my body in a constant state of hypertension. Ironically, it was exactly the opposite of the state I went to the clinic to try to achieve.
This wasn’t the first time I found myself surprised at suddenly becoming an auditory hypersensitive. In my early 30’s I went and worked for a year out in the country in Litchfield, Connecticut. One day I had to make an emergency trip into Manhattan. The radical juxtaposition from many months of bucolic peace and natural solitude with the honking, screeching, high energy pace of New York immediately overwhelmed my neurophysiology. I felt like a newborn waking up in the garage of a heavy metal band.
In a recent report, the World Health Organization determined that “noise is second only to air pollution as an environmental cause of ill health.” One way it compromised my health is by triggering the emotional structures in my brain and body in a kind of involuntary, self-protective immobilization response. Loud noise is one of the few aversions newborns arrive in the world with. It is not good for aging and other living creatures. Not only that, but ears that have to work harder to hear, actually hear differently than ears that hear normally, as this research shows.
Here’s what Steven Porges, the father of Polyvagal Theory, has to say about how being an auditory hypersensitive can make many of us feel unsafe in the world and then often use isolation as an unfortunate remedy:
When the social engagement system is working and downregulating our defenses, we feel calm; we hug people; we look them in the eye; we feel good. However, our (first) two defense systems take priority when risk increases. In response to danger our sympathetic nervous system takes control and supports metabolic activity for fight or flight. Then, if that doesn’t help us begin to feel safe, we recruit the ancient unmyelinated vagus (nerve) and completely shut down (the freeze response).
If we are in a physiological state that supports fight or flight, it is just not going to be good for social behavior. If we are in a physiological state that is shutting down, we are functionally immune to social interaction; we are not going to be a part of it.
What we want to be in is a state that enables social engagement. But that physiological state is reserved, due to our neuroceptive processes, only for safe environments.
Essentially, Stephen is pointing out how this onset of acoustic hypersensitivity affected my 10th cranial nerve and compromised its ability to downregulate stress and allow for easy social engagement. The sounds of normal life are simply too loud for me, making me feel unsafe – and here’s the important piece – mostly without me even realizing it! For many of us it’s an unconscious, neurophysiological response learned and acquired over the course of a lifetime. Stephen calls it: Neuroception.
On Lacking Fizz and Risibility
The vagus nerve (10th cranial) has strands that connect to our viscera – our hollow organs. The fibers of the ventral vagus strand are a “newer” evolutionary development and mobilize us for action. When it needs to – when all else fails – the older dorsal vagus strand becomes activated as a defense of last resort. It works to immobilize us – which means that it’s always involved with the freeze response and in dissociation in response to trauma; but it is also very likely involved in the experience of depression and so-called learned helplessness, as well. Soft or hard trauma, and a real or perceived lack of safety in our daily environment, it turns out, can literally break our heart.
Here’s how. Frank Partnoy, writing about Porges’ Polyvagal Theory in his book, Wait, describes how the dorsal vagus nerve operates in unsafe environments. In particular, Partnoy talks about how lack of safety affects the heart: by reducing the variability in the range of its beating rate. So, for example if a healthy range is between 110 fast beats a minute and 90 slow beats a minute, and an unsafe living situation constricts my range to between 105 and 95, I will find myself in a category that researchers have found correlates with less than optimal mental health and poor social engagement behaviors. Feeling safe and wide-ranging in our hearts literally allows us to connect easily with other people, heart to heart.
Unfortunately, closing down in the face of auditory overwhelm, works against such easy connection. And so, while I have new work cut out for me at this point in my life, at least I know what my new work is – it is work that many of us have: taking the challenge of a broken heart and turning it into a gift.