Wim Hof, Jordan Peterson & PUA’s – what happens when trauma healing becomes trendy?
The Jordan Peterson nerve
You may have first heard of the Vagus nerve from the infamous breathing coach turned self-help junkie Wim Hof. Hof has become an iconic figure in the personal development world. He is known for cold immersion therapy to help calm the central nervous system, as well as deep breathing techniques that are thousands of years old but have never had a charismatic spokesperson behind them. Breathing and cold water, great, they have always been there. But Hof has turned an entire generation onto breathing and bathing in cold water. It’s pretty harmless, and while living in Thailand at a yoga retreat we are lucky enough to have a Wim instructor teach us cold immersion techniques, I was doing about 35-45 minutes per day in the ice bath at that time.
But what happens when these things become trendy? First by Hof, and then by other more sinister figures who are trying to deal with their own pain and trauma, figures like Jordan Peterson. Hof had Peterson on his podcast recently. Peterson, an individual who fantasizes about beating 2-year-old children at playgrounds and who makes a living existing somewhere in between The Secret and The Bell curve has inspired a generation of young folks to place social Darwinism above all else. Around 2016 Peterson was given the label ‘alt-right despite most of his ideas deriving from the Bible. People nowadays act like Peterson has invented some new kind of theory when really it’s just re-purposed biblical scriptures from 2,000 years ago when Peterson’s fans probably would have gotten laid on the regular. In 2016 during my braindead psychopath phase, I went to a Jordan Peterson debate. For more than 90 minutes he fumbled awkwardly arguing passages out of the bible, most of the audience who I assume were Peterson fans were half asleep.
Peterson is often seen dunking on cable news hosts who generally read teleprompters and run stories about squirrels on jet skis. But when backed into a corner, Peterson’s fight or flight mechanism becomes clearer than any performer I have seen in my life. He desperately reaches for a Dostoyevski quote while his jaw locks, his eyes bulge, his brow furrows, his voice increases, and all of that repressed rage comes out.
Back to Wim Hof and the Vagus nerve.
While my brain isn’t big enough to sit through an entire Wim Hof/Jordan Peterson podcast, I have digested enough of their content over the years to comment on it. I have also read several of Peterson’s book recommendations, as I said earlier, I have gone through some weird phases in my life. One book that stood out to me was Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, a book Peterson talks about endlessly. He says it’s great for reducing your victim mindset as it tells the tale of how Frankl survived Auschwitz and other concentration camps essentially through mindpower. Once you passed the physical test and were deemed of good enough quality to work, survival became a mental game. This kind of togue it out mentality is a great tool for Peterson to use to prop up his own thoughts and beliefs around the power of the individual. Despite Peterson disliking Ayn Rand for her lack of character depth (agreed), Peterson applies many of the same aspects of objectivism into his work. Here’s the issue though, this is all very heady, very ‘logical’, a trademark of this ideology that goes directly against what Wim Hof is trying to teach people. This is what happens when something like trauma healing or bodywork becomes trendy, people want to jump on it for the attention, for the clicks. Peterson himself has had a well-documented issue with addiction, ie benzos where he travelled to the country he talks most about in his lectures – Russia, to meet some kind of Rasputin-like figure.
The Polyvagal Theory
In 1994 Dr. Stephen Porgous wrote a book titled ‘The Polyvagal Theory’ where describes a lot of what Hof talks about with regard to the Vagus nerve. Vagal and Vagus are referring to the same structure. Hof – while lacking a Ph.D. isn’t wrong in his approach. According to Porges, the polyvagal theory describes an autonomic nervous system that is influenced by the central nervous system, sensitive to afferent influences, characterized by an adaptive reactivity dependent on the phylogeny of the neural circuits, and interactive with source nuclei in the brainstem regulating the striated muscles of the face and head. The theory is dependent on accumulated knowledge describing the phylogenetic transitions in the vertebrate autonomic nervous system. Its specific focus is on the phylogenetic shift between reptiles and mammals that resulted in specific changes to the vagal pathways regulating the heart.
Porges’ theory is partly what Wim Hof teaches, but when it’s used by pick-up artists and the Jordan Peterson’s of the world, again, we come back to this idea of Social Darwinism – ie, healing so we can be better than the next guy. This puts several people, including my former self into a narcissistic self-development (keyword is self) tailspin where healing doesn’t happen for compassionate purposes, but rather for selfish ones. I highly recommend listening to Dr. Porges talk for just a brief minute, do you feel your blood pressure drop? Is there a calming effect? I believe there is, and it has less to do with the timber of his voice, but more to do with his knowledge of the subject. When PUA’s or Peterson-like figures talk about it there’s an opposite effect, to me at least. Increased blood pressure, increased tension, raise the voice, dominate those around you with your newly found superpower, as healing trauma is a kind of a superpower, or can feel that way to those who do finally recover from their symptoms.
After years of pickup lines, routines, and peacocking techniques, many of the pickup artist (PUA) communities are turning toward trauma healing. Real Social Dynamics (RSD) – one of the biggest male PUA companies has made about half of their content about trauma healing over the last couple of years. They release $700 programs directed at men who are dogshit at talking to women, they say that healing the trauma will make you naturally more attractive because you aren’t carrying around that negative energy. But, for $700 someone could go through some intensive 1 on 1 therapy with a doctor that would probably be a lot more beneficial and powerful. The self-development community has always gravitated towards what is trending whether it be, paleo, keto inner child work, trauma healing – but it’s often for more sinister motivations than healing.
PTSD is almost always the result of trauma. Trauma is the foundation on which maladaptive behaviors are formed. I recently wrote about The Ace Score, a study done in the 1990s that correlated the amount of childhood trauma someone experiences with things like domestic abuse, drug addiction, self-harm, and suicide in adulthood. PTSD is one of the main target ailments within the psychedelics space, and for good reason. For many with PTSD, their trauma is so engrained within their nervous system, as Porges explains in the Polyvagal Theory that traditional talk therapy is often not enough, and can actually backfire as some therapists will try to take a logical approach as to why the person is still acting out in adulthood. The problem is, trauma isn’t logic-based, and someone experiencing it likely knows it isn’t rationale, but they can’t help it.
Trauma coats itself in the central nervous system and brings up what is commonly known as the fight, flight or freeze response. This is the ‘lizard brain’ Wim Hof talks about. In order to access that people need to get into the body, figure out what is happening under the hood. And while it’s great that people like Wim Hof and these pickup artists are introducing trauma healing to a society that desperately needs it, the work goes a lot deeper than a $700 course. Even in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, the psychotherapy aspect is crucial. Giving someone with PTSD some LSD and sending them alone into the forest may bring back some positive results, but it’s the integration with a professional that can truly unlock the changes needed to move past those maladaptive behaviors. The psychedelics can provide a ‘window of tolerance’ where the individual can finally become comfortable enough to deal with these things that are likely running their life on a subconscious level.