Do you berate yourself for feeling anxious in situations where other people seem to feel at ease? Have you felt judged for being particularly sensitive?
The truth is that feeling unsafe is simply the body’s response to the environment and is largely involuntary, as are the behaviours that result from it.
In normal circumstances, our primitive defence systems are “turned off”. However, traumatic or distressing experiences can cause a person’s nervous system to become dysregulated, affecting the way they respond to the world around them. They may become withdrawn or react with extreme anger or fear to certain stimuli.
This dysregulation and the behaviours that result from it are not easily overridden. Unfortunately this is not widely understood, and people suffering from hyper- or hypo-arousal are often told to “calm down” or “snap out of it”, as if this were something they can do voluntarily. Whilst it is possible to regulate our defence systems, ways of doing this are not widely known or taught.
In many ways, our society encourages us to subjugate our feelings and inner experiencing in favour of thinking and behaving in ways that are considered acceptable and desirable. Unfortunately, repressing the body’s responses may over time contribute to physical and mental illness, as it creates a disconnect between the brain and the body, where there should be a two-way flow of information.
How our bodies protect us
The traditional way of understanding the autonomic nervous system is that it has two opposing parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system, which work in a complementary fashion to mobilise us for fight or flight in threatening situations and allow us to rest and digest when there is no threat.
Dr. Stephen Porges suggests that actually the autonomic nervous system is more complex. In studying the role of the vagus nerve, a primary component of the autonomic nervous system, he discovered that mammals have two vagal circuits, an unmyelinated one, shared with reptiles, and a uniquely mammalian circuit that is myelinated. Porges coined the term polyvagal theory to describe this system. According to the polyvagal theory, the autonomic nervous system consists of a hierarchy of three sub-systems, which developed at different stages of our evolution.
Through a process Porges calls neuroception, our bodies are constantly monitoring how safe or dangerous the environment is, and responds according to a hierarchy of defences. This all happens outside of our awareness. The resulting behaviours are adaptive and are not under cognitive control.
The hierarchy of defences
At the top of the hierarchy is a recently evolved social engagement system, found only in mammals, which originates in a brainstem structure that is linked to the muscles of the face and head. When this is operating optimally, we interact freely, making good eye contact, demonstrating a range of facial expressions, and we feel good and safe in our bodies. If the body assesses a situation as dangerous and feels unsafe, the social engagement system is inhibited and our sympathetic nervous system takes control and supports metabolic motor activity for fight/flight (the second defence in the hierarchy).
In situations where fight or flight is impossible or does not help us to become safe, the ancient unmyelinated vagal system is recruited and the body shuts down, resulting in immobilisation (the final defence). This is not a conscious response of “playing dead”, but rather an adaptive biological reaction to the inability to utilise fight/flight mechanisms to defend or to escape.
Dysregulation of states in Trauma
In a person who has been traumatised, the social engagement system does not operate as it should. There will be little intonation in the voice and little emotion expressed in the upper face. The person will have difficulty regulating states and may move rapidly from a calm to a highly reactive state. These physiological reactions are outside of the person’s control.
Unfortunately, a natural physiological response to a traumatised person’s involuntary behaviour is to feel hurt or angry. This response is also difficult to override. However, when we understand that the behaviour is an adaptive way of regulating physiological state, we can choose not to evaluate it as “good” or “bad” and not to take it personally.
Reactivating the social engagement system
Many of the behaviours exhibited in people who have become dysregulated result from the body’s inaccurate detection of danger. The key to restoring good mental health is to trigger the calming social engagement system. Creating safety in the environment and in the body is the first step.
Connect with safe people
People who make good eye contact, who have a broad range of facial expressivity, who are curious and non-judgmental of others, have the potential to enable traumatised people to feel safe. When these cues are effective, the other person responds in kind with facial expressions and vocalisations; the face appears more alive and more expressive, and the person draws physically and emotionally closer. A good therapist can provide an environment in which a traumatised person can begin to feel safe again.
When we are alert to danger, our bodies are primed to detect the low-frequency sounds of predators, tuning out the higher frequency sounds of the human voice. One of the most potent triggers of the body’s sense of safety is through higher frequency vocal sounds with modulation (variety of pitch and volume).
Value your body’s responses
If you are currently in a dysregulated state, try to accept what your body is doing. There is no need to feel guilty or angry, as these responses are outside of your direct control. Understand that your body’s responses have enabled you to survive the trauma. They saved your life or reduced the risk of injury. Your nervous system is trying to help you. Respect what it is doing, even if it seems to be getting in the way of your living life to the full right now. When you move from a judgmental position to a non-judgmental and respectful one, healing becomes possible. The more accepting you are of yourself, the easier it is to engage with others, thereby restoring equilibrium and good mental health.