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.
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.