Neuroception – scanning for safety

Neuroception – scanning for safety

Once triggered…

When we encounter something really frightening, we react in ways that are both common to all mammals, and definitive to humans. Our initial response to the frightening situation will be governed by the limbic/mammalian part of our brain, which triggers the fight, flight or free response to mitigate the danger. But after the event we do something that animals do not – we think about it. And this begins to create anxiety. Strangely, even though anxiety is often referred to as ‘fear of the future’, and we experience it as being afraid of something that’s going to happen, all the psychotherapists and analysts from Freud onward suggest that anxiety actually relates to fear attached to something that has already happened. We are being triggered by something in the environment that brings out an intense fear, as though we’re in danger, but while the fear may be triggered by something in the environment, we may not actually be in danger. So how does this happen?

When we survive a traumatic event, and experience the intense adrenaline rush or sudden freeze response, something else happens – our brain takes a series of ‘snap shots’ of what’s happening. These provide our brain with all the information from the environment when the event took place, including not just the important details (such as someone’s face or a car numberplate) but also all the incidentals, such as a red coat, bunch of yellow flowers, or deep puddle of water, for instance.

Seemingly irrational behaviour has rational roots

In one documented case, a woman was calmly putting petrol in her car at a fuel station one day when she suddenly found herself whirling around wildly, spraying petrol everywhere. People rushed to help her, and she quickly calmed down. But afterwards she was at a loss to explain what had happened to create this extreme change in her behaviour. During psychotherapy, she realised that as she was filling the car with fuel, a man wearing a red baseball cap started to walk across the petrol station in her direction. In an ‘aha!’ moment, she remembered that a few years earlier, when she had suffered a physical attack, the man who mugged her was wearing a red baseball cap. The fact that the two men (the innocent man today and the mugger from yesteryear) looked nothing like each other in any respect did not matter to the part of the woman’s nervous system, which was constantly on the look-out for any environmental element that matched the earlier attack.

Stephen Porges has come up with a name for this unconscious scanning of the environment for danger. He calls it ‘neuroception’ and refers to it as ‘detection without awareness’ (1). He describes neuroception as a neural circuit in the brain that evaluates risk in the environment from a variety of clues. Most importantly, it operates outside our conscious awareness, because that’s faster. If you’re walking through a forest and there’s a wiggly thing on the forest floor, it’s not helpful to start wondering about the many things that could be. It’s safer for your body to jump now and wonder about it later. so the response comes from the lightning-fast unconscious part of the mind, not the slower, conscious, reasoning part. But here’s the downside – when prompted by neuroception to react, we move immediately without knowing why. So we may find ourselves feeling acutely anxious for apparently ‘no reason’.

Is this what causes anxiety and panic attacks?

Neuroception can trigger us into a state of defence as a result of external stimuli, but it responds to internal factors too. As humans, we have capabilities that are not present in other animals, including the ability to imagine past and future in our minds. This means that we are also able to use our minds to create internal representations of threat – either future ones (such as making a work presentation that we feel sure we’ll mess up) or past ones (dwelling on a frightening situation in our past). When we do this, our bodies respond to the imagined (internally represented) threat in the same way as a real, physical-world threat, and we move into a heart-pounding fight/flight defence, or a shutting-down frozen response, just as we would if the actual threat were being experienced in the present.

On experiencing these defensive states as intense anxiety and panic, people sometimes say that they think they’re ‘going mad’, because the anxious state seems ‘illogical’ to the conscious mind, which registers the present environment as safe. However, neuroception means that both internal events (such as thoughts or feelings) or external conditions (cues in the environment) can trigger the defence cascade, and all outside of our conscious awareness.

Can we reprogram the system?

Luckily, as Porges points out, we also have recourse to a ‘social engagement system’ (2). This is the system we use to judge that people and environments are safe. It is also automatic, and takes account of various signs of safety such as the intonation of a speaker’s voice and facial expressions. When a person speaks so us using a range of pitch (rather than speaking in a monotone voice), and looks at us with an expressive face and with eyes open, we unconsciously pick up the sense that they are relaxed and we experience them as ‘safe’. As we begin to relax in response to these ‘safe’ signals, some tiny muscles in our middle ear also begin to contract, making it easier to hear a human voice from among many background sounds. (This inner-ear ‘danger or safety’ response may explain why people experiencing high levels of anxiety find that they cannot hear what people are saying.) The social engagement system lowers the sense of threat, also unconsciously, in a way that matches the unconscious firing of danger signals via neuroception. it means that when two people meet and talk in a state of open expressiveness and goodwill, they recognise it in each other and the central nervous system (of both people) becomes calmer and less reactive.

It is the social engagement system, according to Porges, that holds the key to recovery from trauma and helps people return to a state of greater equilibrium and a renewed sense of safety. For this reason it is now recognised as a key and effective part of psychotherapeutic approaches to trauma, and guarantees you will always receive a warm welcome into the counselling room.

 

References

1 Porges, Stephen in conversation with Buczynski, Ruth, published as ‘The Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma’. The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.

2 Porges, Stephen (2011). The Polyvagal Theory.  New York: W.W. Norton.

 

 

Don’t know why you’re anxious? Your primitive brain may have the answer.

Don’t know why you’re anxious? Your primitive brain may have the answer.

Cognitive psychologists, who like to think of us humans as very logical and rational, say that anxiety is useful because it sends a signal to the brain saying “change direction!” whenever we’re doing (or about to do) something dangerous. In this way, it acts in a similar way to pain. Pain itself is not the real problem but a signal that there is one – it might be indicating a bone fracture or appendicitis, for example. Pain gets our attention, and anxiety acts in a similar way to indicate that there’s something wrong.

Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy (and grandfather of CBT), said that we are constructed “in such a way as to ascribe great significance to the experience of anxiety”, so that we’ll feel compelled to do something about it. It’s such an uncomfortable feeling, in other words, that we’ll stop doing whatever is causing anxiety, and so remain safe.

But this isn’t always the case. It’s entirely possible to experience anxiety but be unable to identify its cause. In fact, many people suffering from high levels of generalised anxiety don’t know why they feel this way, and may feel bad about themselves for this perceived incompetence. So what’s happening in these cases?

Our primitive brain decides

As the great trauma expert Peter Levine pointed out, there’s a difference between anxiety designed to produce a volitional response (e.g. stop driving so fast) and one that’s designed to produce an involuntary response or reaction. And here lies the answer for the more mystifying types of anxiety – they stem from an area of the brain that controls all our involuntary actions (such as breathing and heart rate). This is the sub-cortical section of the brain, which also houses our basic animal instincts, including the supreme instinct to survive. When this part of the brain is triggered into perceiving a survival threat, it causes an instant, non-volitional reaction. It’s super-fast, because it’s not a good idea to be wondering about whether that car heading straight for you might swerve at the last minute. You see it coming, and you’ve leaped out of the way before thinking about it. This is very different to the volitional anxiety that Beck was talking about, which might make you carefully step back from a cliff.

The fast-reacting, involuntary kind of response that sees us jump away from a snake comes from the primitive, sub-cortical part of our brain that we share with other mammals. It assesses any threat in the environment and forces us into taking involuntary action if survival demands this. But our animal brain (the ‘reptilian’ and limbic parts of the brain) does more than this – it also immediately assesses whether we can escape or fight back, or are trapped and can do nothing.

This unconscious decision – about whether to fight, take flight or freeze – becomes known to us through our reaction to the threat. If our animal brain has decided we can fight this or make a run for it, we may experience symptoms such as a tightening sensation across the neck, shoulders, arms and legs, rapid heartbeat, and a feeling of being ‘ready for action’. We have an active pattern of coping, and a set of actions that can arise and be completed.

But if our animal brain has decided that fighting or running won’t work, what happens is that our active forms of defence (fight/flight) are aborted. They arise but are quickly switched off – and it is this incompletion of the active coping mechanism that causes anxiety to follow from the event. We freeze, which is one of the last defences of any animal, and lock down any movements that we would wish to make to save ourselves. These incompleted responses, such as running or punching, are denied and locked down. Anxiety that seems to have ‘no reason’, is essentially the energy wrapped up in these unrealised defensive responses. The anxiety stems from times when we wanted to fight or run, but were trapped or overwhelmed, and had to contain our active defences, instead falling back on passive ones (the freeze response or even thanatosis, where the body appears to be dead).

Anxiety doesn’t arise from dangerous situations, but from a feeling of being unable to cope with them and take action to get out of them. Levine says that “ultimately we have only one fear, the fear of not being able to cope, of our own un-copability. Without active, available, defensive responses, we are unable to deal effectively with danger and so we are, proportionately, anxious”. And that anxiety does not go away over time. It remains in the mind and body.

This kind of anxiety can either erupt occasionally in the event of being triggered, or operate as a kind of background hum all the time.

It also can be said to result from trauma – which involved a feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to escape. But we’d remember that, wouldn’t we? Confusingly, not always. Sometimes the trauma occurred many years ago, in childhood (such as being bullied at school or frightened by an angry parent) or stemmed from an event that we remember but don’t realise has affected us in a very deep way (such as caring for a loved one when they were dying). Traumatic memories are different: they are not processed fully or correctly at the time (because they were too overwhelming to the system) and so they are inadequately processed and maladaptively stored. Instead of fitting into the autobiographical memory of our everyday lives, they remain ‘unfiled’ in some way, and continue to intrude, unbidden, into our lives at odd moments.

Which means that it’s quite possible to feel highly anxious, while not knowing why. But the not-knowing does not mean that the fear is illogical or unreachable, or that the sufferer is behaving stupidly in some way. Quite the opposite – the person suffering from this form of anxiety has had to be immensely brave at some point in their lives. This is where therapy can play a vital role, in helping someone to realise and release the emotions and actions that were put aside for survival, and genuinely let go.

‘A person suffering from this type of anxiety
has had to be incredibly brave at some point in their lives’

 

 

The Oscars and failure – it’s ok

The Oscars and failure – it’s ok

All the reviews I’ve seen and read on the Oscar ceremony have focused on the confusion that surrounded the Best Picture award, but it seems to me that we’ve missed a great chance here to say something important about failure and mistakes.

In Western societies, many of us fall prey to the cultural message of perfection. We’re told to do better, try harder, ‘be the best you can be’. Whatever happened to the idea that you’re ok already, just as you are? This constant push towards perfection and the inextricably linked feeling of low self-esteem (‘I’m not good enough’) includes the idea that mistakes are not acceptable. Hence the outcry and apparent need for an inquiry over the Oscars’ white envelope mistake.

An inquiry? For a simple mistake over two sets of envelopes?

What if everyone had followed the line taken by Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight, the movie that won Best Picture? He said that it was just ‘a human error’ and “It just happens. We’re human beings, you know? We’re not perfect.”

He’s right. It’s ok to make mistakes. As humans, we’re bound to make mistakes, in fact. We can’t avoid them, because we’re not robots, programmed to just do a few things, perfectly. We’re complex living beings who will make mistakes and fail from time to time. We’re not perfect. And that’s ok.

Moonlight is a film that teaches us compassion, and I’m happy to follow its director’s line. It’s good to let our mistakes go, and move past them with forgiveness, not self-recrimination.

PS If you find yourself struggling with anxiety over the idea of failure or making mistakes, there’s a mind-changing speech at the Insight Meditation Centre, Redwood City, California on the benefits of failure.

 

How to control your reptilian brain

How to control your reptilian brain

In the simplest of terms, the human brain is made up of three parts that evolved at different times over millions of years. This is the theory of the Triune Brain, developed by Paul MacLean in the 1960s, and it may be the most useful brain theory for those of us without a degree in neuroscience who nevertheless want to understand something about how the brain works and why we act like we do. It also holds the key for learning how to regain calm from a state of high anxiety or even panic.

In MacLean’s model, the oldest part of the brain is known as the reptilian brain. This developed in animals over 100 million years ago, and not only does that ancient brain still operate in our nervous system, it’s often running the show. Which is not always useful, given that this part of the brain is instinctive, automatic, lightning fast, and hell-bent on survival (it’s the part that will make you swerve away from a falling object before you’ve even consciously noticed it). The reptilian brain controls the involuntary systems of the body (breathing, heartbeat, organ functioning, body temperature) and it’s also responsible for triggering our fight/flight/freeze responses. It gets scared or angry fast. It’s territorial, aggressive and horny – it wants to stay alive and to reproduce. It’s obsessive, compulsive, and easily scared (its job is to keep us alive), so it not only holds us back from applying for new jobs or pursuing our dreams – it can keep us held in a state of anxiety.

Which means that if you’re struggling with anxiety, the reptilian brain needs soothing. But to know how best to do this, it’s necessary to know something about the other two evolutionary parts of the brain: the limbic system and the neocortex.

Anxiety and the reptilian brain

We share the reptilian brain with reptiles and birds, but the limbic system (sometimes called the ‘limbic brain’) is the part we have in common with mammals like dogs and horses. This evolutionary addition emerged in the first mammals, bringing a huge increase in brainpower and the ability to feel emotions, experience motivation, store long-term memory and be able to learn. It contains the amygdala, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘fear centre’. The limbic system is tightly connected to the newest part of the brain – the neocortex.

The neocortex evolved in primates around 40,000 years ago, which is a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. This is the ‘clever’ part of the brain – it allows us to do complex things that mammals and reptiles can’t manage, such as advance planning and intricate social interactions. The neocortex is often referred to as the ‘executive functioning’ part of the brain, because it figures things out, makes reasoned judgements, calculates and handles complex concepts. It also provides us with imagination and creativity. Our neocortex is three times larger than would be found in a similar-sized primate, which perhaps explains why we’re top of the food chain and have populated the entire globe, while monkeys and chimps are still swinging from trees.

And here’s the thing: the neocortex can temper the reactive response of the reptilian and limbic brains.

When your reptilian brain leaps off the path after seeing a coiled something, your neocortex checks it out, realises it’s a rope not a snake, and sends out ‘it’s ok!’ signals to the whole nervous system. The neocortex can help us to reason our way out of an anxious or fearful feeling. The reptilian brain might get jumpy in the dark, but the neocortex checks for time, place and contex, and says ‘It’s just 3 a.m. and you’re in bed at home – everything is fine’. It’s this cognitive ability that is used in CBT (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy) to reduce constant worrying and high levels of anxiety through examining thoughts and changing unhelpful thought patterns and associations.

The CBT isn’t working! I’m still anxious!

The reason that CBT is often unable to help in a state of high anxiety is this: once our reptilian brain is triggered into ‘thinking’ there’s a survival threat, the neocortex effectively goes off-line. This is because it is not helpful to be wondering whether that’s really a rope or a snake on the forest path – you need to act. Fast. In a survival threat situation, the reptilian brain leaps into action and saves us, effectively shoving the neocortex and its slower thinking out of the way. Which means that we lose the capacity for careful, reasoned judgement, and now we’re acting instinctively. Like an animal.

If you find yourself living in a permanent state of fear, anger or very high stress, your mind and body will be reading this as a struggle for survival. And when that’s the interpretation of your current situation, control will veer between the reptilian and mammalian (limbic) parts of the brain. You won’t have access to your human, reasoning part, the neocortex. You may not be able to process emotions either, while the reptilian brain is screaming ‘RUN!’ (which may not be helpful in the middle of a work appraisal). In this situation, the world may be experienced as overwhelming, out of control and full of danger. What you need, in this situation, is to use one of the reptilian brain’s own tools.

Consciously taking hold of an involuntary process

The reptilian brain controls all our involuntary body processes, such as our heartbeat. And most of these are beyond our control, so they’re operating in a one-way system – they automatically (unconsciously) control parts of our bodies and we cannot consciously gain control over them. Except for one thing – the breath. Breathing is a function of the reptilian brain that we can take conscious control over, and as we do so, we can affect the other involuntary systems that the reptilian brain is controlling. The fight/flight/freeze response will show up in many ways, including fast, shallow breathing from the high chest area. But if you consciously take hold of the breath and change it – making it slower and deeper – you will be taking hold of the entire fight/flight/freeze response.

Slow the breath and you’ll slow the heartbeat. Slow that, and you’ll begin to bring the fight/flight system under control. This calms the limbic brain and allows the neocortex (which disengaged during the survival response) to come back online. Now you’re in a position to see where you are and what’s actually happening – you can assess the real level of danger. You can think clearly again.

The breath is a tool that’s always with you and it’s inconspicuous to use. You could be standing on a train packed with passengers and bring the breath into use to calm the reptilian brain without anyone noticing. You may even use this system unconsciously at times already to relieve stress, such as when you let out a huge sigh or a long deep breath when things begin to feel stressful.

How to calm the reptilian brain

In a moment of crisis, when you feel triggered into jumpy over-reactivity, stop what you’re doing and take your mind off your current stream of thought. Direct all your thinking to the breath and take control of it. Breathe in and out very slowly, drawing the breath right down to the belly, so that it expands (as though you’re blowing up a balloon in your belly). Breathe in through your nose (over a count of about four seconds), hold the breath for one or two seconds, then very slowly breathe out again, over a count of six to eight seconds. Breathe out through your mouth as though you’re cooling hot soup on a spoon by your mouth. Slowly and smoothly.

Notice the difference in any shakiness you were feeling, as you bring the fight/flight/freeze response under control. Keep breathing like this until you notice that you are able to think more clearly again (a sign that the neocortex has reconnected). In a case of real danger, like an oncoming train or tiger, we need to disengage the slow-responding, “hmm, wonder what that is?” type of thought that the neocortex engages in, but for daily life, we benefit from its consideration. This is our higher, human brain, that allows us to function happily and healthily in a complex world. So if the reptilian brain gets triggered into driving the system, simply move it gently into the back seat again by using one of its own tools – the extraordinarily effective breath.

ACoA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) – the ‘reverse’ laundry list

The ACoA World Service Organisation have identified some of the likely traits that we’ll suffer from if we grew up in a family where one or both parents were alcoholics. They call this list of traits the ‘reverse’ laundry list, to reflect its affinity with the AA laundry list.

It can make heartbreaking reading, but – as they say in ACoA – it’s good to remember that this is a description, not an indictment. If you’re reading the list and see some truths in it for you, please keep reading, because below the descriptions of how you may be thinking, feeling and acting now is another list – which shows the way to feeling safe and truly empowered. It takes bravery, but if this list means something to you, you’ve already proved that you have bravery in spades.

Here’s the ‘reverse’ laundry list:

    1. To cover our fear of people and our dread of isolation we tragically become the very authority figures who frighten others and cause them to withdraw.
    2. To avoid becoming enmeshed and entangled with other people and losing ourselves in the process, we become rigidly self-sufficient. We disdain the approval of others.
    3. We frighten people with our anger and threat of belittling criticism.
    4. We dominate others and abandon them before they can abandon us or we avoid relationships with dependent people altogether. To avoid being hurt, we isolate and dissociate and thereby abandon ourselves.
    5. We live life from the standpoint of a victimizer, and are attracted to people we can manipulate and control in our important relationships.
    6. We are irresponsible and self-centered. Our inflated sense of self-worth and self-importance prevents us from seeing our deficiencies and shortcomings.
    7. We make others feel guilty when they attempt to assert themselves.
    8. We inhibit our fear by staying deadened and numb.
    9. We hate people who “play” the victim and beg to be rescued.
    10. We deny that we’ve been hurt and are suppressing our emotions by the dramatic expression of “pseudo” feelings.
    11. To protect ourselves from self punishment for failing to “save” the family we project our self-hate onto others and punish them instead.
    12. We “manage” the massive amount of deprivation we feel, coming from abandonment within the home, by quickly letting go of relationships that threaten our “independence” (never get too close).
    13. We refuse to admit we’ve been affected by family dysfunction or that there was dysfunction in the home or that we have internalized any of the family’s destructive attitudes and behaviors.

We act as if we are nothing like the dependent people who raised us.

And the path to recovery…

  1. We face and resolve our fear of people and our dread of isolation and stop intimidating others with our power and position.
  2. We realize the sanctuary we have built to protect the frightened and injured child within has become a prison and we become willing to risk moving out of isolation.
  3. With our renewed sense of self-worth and self-esteem we realize it is no longer necessary to protect ourselves by intimidating others with contempt, ridicule and anger.
  4. We accept and comfort the isolated and hurt inner child we have abandoned and disavowed and thereby end the need to act out our fears of enmeshment and abandonment with other people.
  5. Because we are whole and complete we no longer try to control others through manipulation and force and bind them to us with fear in order to avoid feeling isolated and alone.
  6. Through our in-depth inventory we discover our true identity as capable, worthwhile people. By asking to have our shortcomings removed we are freed from the burden of inferiority and grandiosity.healing heart
  7. We support and encourage others in their efforts to be assertive.
  8. We uncover, acknowledge and express our childhood fears and withdraw from emotional intoxication.
  9. We have compassion for anyone who is trapped in the “drama triangle” and is desperately searching for a way out of insanity.
  10. We accept we were traumatized in childhood and lost the ability to feel. Using the 12 Steps as a program of recovery we regain the ability to feel and remember and become whole human beings who are happy, joyous and free.
  11. In accepting we were powerless as children to “save” our family we are able to release our self-hate and to stop punishing ourselves and others for not being enough.
  12. By accepting and reuniting with the inner child we are no longer threatened by intimacy, by the fear of being engulfed or made invisible.
  13. By acknowledging the reality of family dysfunction we no longer have to act as if nothing were wrong or keep denying that we are still unconsciously reacting to childhood harm and injury.
  14. We stop denying and do something about our post-traumatic dependency on substances, people, places and things to distort and avoid reality.

Thank you to Donna Torbico at Heal and Grow for ACoAs for drawing my attention to this list, and for all her great blogs.

The Happiness Jar

The Happiness Jar

I recently saw a great idea from author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) that encourages giving thanks and acknowledging the positive in our day. She suggests getting a jar of some sort and taking a couple of minutes to write down the happiest moment of your day. Taking a moment to do this allows you to slow down and actually appreciate something from each and every day. It doesn’t have to be anything earth shattering or a standout moment. The happiest part of your day might be sharing a laugh with a friend, or maybe it’s being the first one up in a quiet house. Maybe the happiest moment is grabbing a cup of coffee that gives you the energy to get through the day. I love this idea because it is about finding something special in a completely ordinary moment.This is also a great reframing exercise. Honestly, life is hard and there are some days that are just really shitty. Often within the tough moments we can find moments of gratitude or peace if we choose to look for them. This isn’t about pretending life is perfect or that the tough stuff doesn’t happen, it is just about choosing to find good moments even amongst the chaos.Throughout the year you get to see the notes piling up. On days that are feeling particularly tough, being able to read through your notes might give some strength to keep pushing forward. I can’t think of a better keepsake at the end of the year as you reflect on what your year was like. It’s easy to get caught up and let big moments define our year (both good and bad), but this exercise is a reminder that it is the small things that can bring absolute joy.Danielle

Source: The Happiness Jar