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.

 

 

Maybe you are actually something special.

It’s amazing how many of us suffer from Imposter Syndrome – meaning that every time we achieve something we assume that the authorities missed something, or gave us a free pass. It seems almost impossible that maybe we are genuinely capable human beings. Somewhere along the line we learned or decided that we were stupid, unworthy, ‘less than’ everybody else. But this blog post has a moment of pure epiphany – a sudden realisation that a long and deeply held belief about oneself can be completely wrong. And it changes everything.

James is Trying

I cried in the middle of a class. Again. That’s happened more than I would’ve expected in my life. This time, it was a Friday morning, before a really important exam.

In medical school, we have these yearly exams to make sure that we kind of know what we’re doing when it comes to patient care. They’re called the OSCEs, pronounced Oss Skeez, (Objective Structured Clinical Examination). We go from room to room with “standardized patients” (actors) who pretend they have some disease and we have to diagnose them by asking the important doctorly questions or performing the right physical exams or we have to deliver a difficult diagnosis, depending on which room we’re in. This happens while 1 or 2 real doctors stare at us with judging eyes and clipboards where they make notes of all the things we messed up and all the reasons why we shouldn’t graduate…

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If I’m so smart, why would I need therapy?

This blog post comes from US counsellor and consultant Paula Prober, who specialises in counselling gifted young people and adults. I’m sharing it here because she makes a great point – counselling isn’t a sign of weakness or of ‘something being wrong’ with a person – but when the world feels crazy or ‘too much’, it’s time to focus your attention on one place. And the best place to start is yourself.

Things are looking kinda crazy these days. It’s hard to know what to think, what to do, or how to be. There are so many issues worldwide that need attention. So many. What should super-sensitive, empathetic, insightful, emotional humans do? Well. Being the obsessed-with-psychotherapy psychotherapist that I am, you can guess what I’m about to say. Hang […]

via If I’m So Smart, Why Do I Need Psychotherapy? Part Two — Your Rainforest Mind

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