Neuroception is our unconscious perception of danger and safety. It is an ongoing involuntary response of our nervous system and it drives more of our life experience than we might realize or want. Our system is set up with a negativity bias to avoid danger. This is how the primitive brain evolved to increase our chances of survival. It makes a split second analysis and doesn’t stop to consider options like our more developed pre-frontal cortex, our thinking brain. And wow, does this ever get us in trouble!
The polyvagal theory was developed by Dr Stephen Porges. Check out his new Polyvagal Institute – the art and science of human connection. We learn about the primitive dorsal vagal, our gut reaction and freeze response. Humans later developed the sympathetic nervous system that drives fight and flight, then made the huge leap to the ventral vagal, our system of social engagement, trust and connection.
Our higher level brain and social engagement is what we identify as unique to being human. We still have our reptilian brain and our impulse to flee and get out of Dodge when trouble is coming. Fighting back these days includes social and emotional more than physical but we are all vulnerable to being left out or ostracized.
“Safety is an absence of threat plus a feeling of connection.” Dr Porges
Danger is the reason we get triggered into a survival response. What feels threatening to you? The science of neuroception opens up a vast and deep field to understand our human responses. The most important fact to understand is that our nervous system responses are involuntary and that our perception is threat is highly associated with past experience seen through the primitive brain negativity bias lens of better safe than sorry.
We might despise ourselves for freezing up and not having a cutting comeback when someone makes a joke at our expense. We think of something later and chew on it for days or weeks. Why couldn’t I have thought of that at the time? Or maybe we did but we were too scared to say it and we call ourselves a coward. We were in a freeze response intended to help us survive a threat. Freeze or dorsal vagal can extend from habitually holding our breath, to avoiding contact with people because of social anxiety, to being stuck in a rut for months or years. In relationships, we don’t show up authentically as ourselves and end up lonely and disconnected.
People with a stronger fight response have a hard time with relationships because they hurt people when they lash out. The impulse is also involuntary and following it can lead to deep regret. When people act from a fight response, they are not safe to be around and drive people away. They also end up lonely and disconnected although it may be covered with anger or rage.
Deb Dana, Rhythm of Regulation, works closely with Stephen Porges. She describes our system of social engagement and trust with words like benevolent, courageous, happy, joyful, kind, vibrant and whole. We move up and down on the polyvagal ladder between freeze, fight/flight, and trust and connection.
Is social trust and connection “home” for you? Or are you more often in fight/flight or freeze? We can’t control being triggered into a threat response. We can work with refining our perception of threat to heal responses from childhood and more accurately assess threat and our resources in the present.
The key to happiness and freedom is not to avoid or suppress our nervous system responses. Our nervous system is working as it is meant to function to keep us alive. Being hypervigilant when our experience in life is that people hurt us makes sense. Feeling trusting and connected makes sense if that was your predominant experience growing up or if you are healing into that now. We are not responsible for our childhood conditions. We are not inherently damaged or broken. We had difficult experiences that formed our nervous system. We can now take a fresh look, understand our operating system, and bring our neuroception up to date.
Our nervous system continually scans for threat in our internal system and organs, outside in the environment around us, and by assessing other people’s nervous systems. It is pervasive, affecting our life moment to moment. This actually gives us a lot of room to improve our self-regulation and become safer within for ourselves and in relationship with others. Here are some examples:
Internal system cues of threat: we hold our breath, our shoulders go up around our ears or our gut tightens. Self-regulation: breathing and relaxation practices.
Environment around us: our eyes dart around, hypervigilant for danger. Self-regulation: look around the room to accurately see for yourself or do 5 4 3 2 1
Assessing other people’s nervous system: What signals threat or safety to you? Recall a memory of a time when you were triggered into fight/flight/freeze or a memory of someone who feels safe to you. Stay connected in your body and breath as you do the exercise. Bring up an image and assess these elements: look at eyes, listen to voices, see facial expressions, watch social gestures. (You can listen and do this along with the video below)
Their eyes are signalling … Their tone of voice sounds … Their face is expressing … Their gestures convey …. Notice what specifically invites connection or prompts disconnection? What sends cues of safety or danger to your nervous system?
Join us live Sundays this month to explore aspects of our nervous system or watch and inquire using the videos on this playlist from November/December classes Grounded and Powerful in Challenging Times.
Developing a regulated nervous system is the most important work we can do to heal from our past and be free now.