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Even though we may not be aware of danger on a cognitive level, on a neurophysiological level, our body has already started a sequence of neural processes that would facilitate adaptive defense behaviors…
Dr Stephen Porges, Neuroception
“Neuroception” is the word that Dr Stephen Porges created for the concept of unconsciously detecting cues of safety or danger from the external (and internal) environment and then shifting into defensive or safety autonomic states. The body is constantly scanning the environment for these danger or safety cues. And it does so through the five senses. External information from the environment passes through our five basic senses, then goes to very primitive parts of the brainstem outside of our conscious awareness. Meaning, neuroception has nothing to do with choice. It has everything to do with predetermined neurobiological responses to safety or danger. These responses are encoded into our DNA, passed on from previous generations that survived long enough to pass on what helped them to survive.
As the body moves down the Polyvagal ladder, we lose access to the behaviors higher up the ladder. Basically, these three states unlock different behaviors. The neuroception of safety is like a key to utilize social behaviors. Things like gentle eye contact and a fuller range of voice. The neuroception of danger is a key to unlock flight and fight defenses of mobilization and aggressiveness. And the neuroception of a life threat is a key to unlocking the shutdown immobilization state. And along with it come numbness and dissociation.
Not only does neuroception unlock these states, it also inhibits the behavior of the other states. We lose access to the behaviors associated with safety when we move down the ladder. And we lose access to both safety and flight/fight when we move down the ladder to shutdown.
Imagine a child running away from a dog. The child is in the sympathetic danger state, specifically flight. They aren’t going to be able to use their safe and social state skills, not having access to that rung on their own Polyvagal ladder. They’ve dropped down the Polyvagal ladder and are in a sympathetic survival mode. Their body's potentials are entirely skewed toward survival through mobilized evasion. There is no use to smile or laugh in this state, so this child will not be able to utilize those skills.
Going down the ladder is not permanenent. When this child gets to safety, they can climb back up their Polyvagal ladder and access their safety state again. Maybe that means getting into their house and connecting with a parent. As they calm in the arms of their parent, their system will slow down and they will settle gently into their parent's embrace. They may process what just happened, sharing the story and begin to smile and feel comforted. They may even laugh about the situation. But these behaviors only happen in their safety state.
There are some things that are predictably probably going to provide a neuroception of safety or danger. We can safely say these are generally applicable to humans and other mammals too. This looks different between each species or individual organism, but these are generally predictable cues of safety or danger that will be neurocepted as such:
face to face interaction
gentle eye contact
use of facial muscles, especially the upper face
harsh tone of voice - too low or too high
encroaching on space
This is what Dr. Porges means when he says - “...neurobiologically determined prosocial or defensive behaviors.” The behaviors that we take in through our senses will trigger responses of safety or danger. When someone smiles genuinely, it triggers a neuroception of safety within us. When we see someone that has no facial movement, it triggers a neuroception of danger within us.
We don't choose how we feel about these behaviors listed above. We simply take in the external stimuli through our senses, like seeing someone's genuine smile. Then that stimuli gets filtered through our brain stem, which then shifts our ANS accordingly. Because generally, some stimuli are more a cue of danger to our system and some are more a cue of safety. Not just to us in our self-aware, egoic, identity form. I mean to our biology. These are cues of safety or danger to our biology. To ourselves as organisms.
Although unconscious, we can mindfully attune to the experiences of the state shifts that come from neuroceptions. For example, if you’ve ever been around someone that makes your stomach turn, you might be neurocepting a life threat. Not that your life is actually in threat, but that system turns on around that specific person. This is something that can be noticed in that moment. We can be aware of it and listen to it. Even if we’re not consciously aware of the biological shifts happening within us, the biological impulse is still there to do something.
Thought Experiment - Use your imagination and notice what internal shifts are happening within you. Fill in the blanks and notice the feelings you have.
You’re walking down a sidewalk after having gotten off of work. It’s dark outside as you make your way to your car, which is about a block away. You can hear the dull hum of traffic in the distance. As you walk, you think about the day’s events, particularly the stressful ones. You look down as you walk, remembering what someone said that upset you. You feel _______ within you and begin to lose connection with the sounds of the environment. You don’t consciously hear the footsteps approaching from behind. When you do notice the footsteps, you feel ______. Your body feels the impulse to ___________.
You probably had some biological shifts within the imaginary version of you (or maybe even the real you right now). Probably a shift down the Polyvagal ladder into flight/fight, maybe shutdown or even freeze. And that imaginary version of you may have also felt an impulse of some kind. An impulse to walk faster, to run or to turn around and see what the footsteps were.
Neuroceptive shifts are noticeable as they are happening or even after the event when thinking back. That’s much more common; that we look back and can then recognize these neuroceptive shifts in our autonomic state. We can see when these shifts happened, identifying what state we were in and what state we shifted to. We may also be able to notice the environmental stimuli that triggered the state shift.
But we may not. What we neurocept as safe or dangerous easily goes unnoticed, even when we examine the situation later on. Because there could be otherwise benign aspects of the environment that mean something to a particular individual.
I was working with a teen on identifying what fidget might help her to discharge some stuck freeze energy. Fidgets can be useful for this, especially with a wide selection of items to choose from. There is one green rubber ring that I have that I offered to her. She declined it without trying it. She just didn’t want it. She explained later in the session that the color green causes her to feel nauseous, being the color of her Father’s corpse the last time she saw him.
Green has no meaning generally. It’s probably more likely to be a neuroception of safety due to the greens found in nature. But for this person, the color green had meaning. Not primarily a cognitive meaning, more a visceral one. She felt that during the session, a defensive neuroception, experienced as nausea.
Not all of us neurocept the same way. Even though neuroception has generally predictable elements, these can look different between individuals. We each have slight differences, but neuroception can also be very skewed. This is true for traumatized individuals.
I understand "healthy" neuroception to indicate functional for the organism in maintaining survival. It's not about good or bad. And it has no judgmental value on the individual. "Healthy" refers to optimal on a biological level to maintain ideal functioning for the body. In healthy neuroception, the body detects and shifts to the appropriate state based on the environment. The body uses social behavior in a safe environment and the body does not use defenses like fighting or fleeing unless in a dangerous environment.
The individual is able to accurately identify cues of safety and then climb to the top of their Polyvagal ladder or simply retain access to it. This could be a student that goes to a safe school, is able to sit down, interact with others and learn. The individual is also able to access their defensive states when necessary. If they accurately detect cues of danger, like footsteps from our example, they feel mobilization. They lose access to their safety state and the body prioritizes survival.
Again, this is not an issue of the individual choosing to react or choosing to neurocept. Their body's ability to identify safety or danger is in alignment with their biological and evolutionary functions. Having healthy neuroception will ensure their higher likelihood to pass on their genetic material to possible offspring.
In "unhealthy" neuroception, the body does not accurately detect or shift state based on the environment. The body does not fight or flee when in a dangerous environment and the body does not use social behavior in a safe environment. There is danger in the environment but the body does not detect it and then does not shift into flight/fight behaviors.
As you can see, if an organism is not identifying danger and then evading, their potential to survive is going to be lower. Their potential to pass on their genes to another generation is in jeopardy.
Unhealthy neuroception may be why some traumatized individuals continually repeat the same harmful decisions and even why trauma is passed on through generations. This is a common scenario of generational trauma that I have seen in my practice - the mom that was sexually abused by her authoritarian stepfather doesn’t pick up on the danger of having her short term boyfriend living with her family. He is jealous, controlling of the Mother and demanding of the children. This short term boyfriend sexually abuses a child in the home, creating a new generation of sexual trauma by a substitute authoritarian Father.
This scenario is one I see very frequently with the children and families I have worked with. You can see in this sadly common scenario how the Mother’s unhealthy neuroception thwarted her from detecting cues maybe early on. As she looks back, those red flags become more obvious and she’ll realize the cues that she saw, but didn’t register as dangerous. She may remember the first time the boyfriend erupted in anger over something miniscule. Or a “joke” he made with a perverse sexual innuendo that was far from appropriate. She can look back and see the escalation of control over her children he exhibited. In the moment, these red flags were missed because of an unhealthy neuroception from her own traumatic past.
And you can probably see that the child victim in this scenario, if they don’t have a safe person to turn to, may end up with their own unhealthy neuroception and repeat these same mistakes in their own adolescent and adult life. This is a piece of how generational trauma continues.
Neuroception & mental health
Unhealthy neuroception might actually be at the core of many mental health disorders. With unhealthy neuroception, the result is an ANS in a defensive state even when it does not need to be. This person will have a harder time engaging in prosocial behaviors. Their biology is simply prepared for defense. This is something that “disorders” throughout the DSM have in common. They also have other features in common, all with potentially the same etiology - the social engagement system is inactive. Such as:
Lack of eye contact
Body is hyper- (flight/fight) or hypo-active (shutdown)
Being close is a challenge
Lack of vocal prosody
I would argue that someone who is diagnosed with a mental health disorder probably has less access to their safety pathways. Thus, more defensive state activation than they probably need. Lingering flight sympathetic arousal could look like anxiety in the various anxiety disorders. Lingering fight sympathetic arousal could look like defiance in Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Lingering shutdown state activation could look like the emptiness and isolation of depression. All of these share a lack of access to the biological pathways for social engagement.
When I work with clients in therapy - no matter their diagnosis - as they gain more access to social engagement, their “symptoms” ameliorate. First, reducing in intensity and then potentially stopping altogether. As their ability to access safety increases, the capacity to handle the defensive states improves, resulting in less intense defensive state presentations and “symptom” presentations. (This is based on my experience over the past 10+ years working with a wide range of diagnoses, symptoms, dynamics, contexts and so on. I am not making a conclusive statement for every DSM diagnosis.)
Story follows state
Your autonomic state comes to life
and then the information is fed up to your brain and it's your brain's job to make sense of what's happening in the body, so it makes up a story.
Dab Dana, SNB
When Polyvagal state shifts occur, we create a story to explain why - a concept from Deb Dana called “Story Follows State.”
Stories may sound something like this:
“There’s no point in trying.”
“I deserved it.”
“I’m worthless and unlovable.”
“I shouldn’t have been there.”
“I must have wanted it because I didn’t say '\no.'”
These stories are there to explain the world and attempt to make sense of what caused the autonomic state shift. However, these stories do not necessarily reflect reality - they serve the function of creating an explanation and possibly minimizing the overwhelming nature of the state shift.
Unfortunately, these narratives can add to the problem by keeping the survivor in their defensive autonomic state. The narrative can unintentionally act as a reinforcer. There’s the actual event that happens, the autonomic shift in response to the event, then the narrative that the survivor creates to explain the state shift.
Our autonomic states also directly influence our thoughts throughout a normal day. These “stories” are not just in relation to traumatic events. In our state of safety, our thoughts will be more empathetic, understanding, validating and normalizing. In a flight/fight state, thoughts will be more anxious, catastrophizing, avoidant or aggressive. And in a shutdown state, thoughts will be pessimistic, lacking hope or belief, and devoid of purpose.
Think back to the example of my client that had a nauseous reaction to the green rubber fidget ring. Her body responded to the sight of the green rubber ring, feeling nauseous, something she said is common for her with the stimuli of green. Let’s break down what happens within her from the view of the Polyvagal Theory.
She sees the green ring, then has a state shift felt as nausea, then remembers the image of her deceased Father, then has the thought that she doesn’t like green. She didn’t first see the green, then have the thought that she doesn’t like green, then have a nauseous reaction. The “story” of not liking green followed the memory, another kind of “story” in this example. And these stories followed the biological autonomic shift.
The brain is attempting to explain the state shifts in response to the stimuli. “I felt shutdown, therefore I don’t like green.” And that’s both true and not true. If we were to successfully renegotiate the trauma response for this client and get her more access to her safety state, then she might discover she doesn’t really have any aversion to the color green and maybe even likes it.
Stories can be helpful to explain; but they’re also useful to contain the state shift. It provides her an avenue to get a sense of control over the state shift and possibly to not fall further down her Polyvagal ladder. It also provides an avenue for her to communicate with me as a supportive person, which will also help her to maintain her spot on the ladder.
Her noticing the “I don’t like green” story is the first step toward getting to the next story, which is the memory of the deceased Father. This second story - the memory - is a direct visual connection to the experience of the state shift from the traumatic experience. If we had just stayed with the thought of not liking green, we would be one step removed from the direct experience of the autonomic state, something she went into in the past and is recurring in the present moment of the therapy session.
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