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Neuroception and What Happens When Our Warning System is Mis-Programmed

One of my great passions in life is to integrate information from diverse fields regarding how and why people act or react the way they do in varying life situations. I enjoy writing about EFT research and sharing it with the world, as well get great satisfaction from culling relevant ideas from the worlds of neuroscience and trauma and offering it in an easy to understand manner to the world of tapping practitioners. I believe that every practitioner that utilizes meridian tapping modalities would benefit from being exposed to and learning from the ideas generated by researchers and authors like Daniel Siegel, Robert Scaer, Belleruth Naprasek, Allan Schore, Stephen Levine and Stephen W. Porges. In this article I intend to do my best to offer a fundamental explanation of the theory of “neuroception”, a concept developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. This blog will provide a foundation of understanding necessary for going on to explain his groundbreaking Polyvagal Theory, a transformative explanation that describes the three developmental stages of a mammal’s autonomic nervous system and has profound implications on the repercussions of fight, flight and freeze responses.

Picture this, a Journey

You’ve decided to spend a summer evening walking your favorite trail before the sun sets. You set off from the trail-head parking are where there are no other cars and you are happy to have avoided the summer crowds. As far as you can tell you have your trail all to yourself. As you walk, you become aware of the scent of the local cedar trees. You lose yourself in the beauty of the colors of the setting sun though the trees. The softness of the earth beneath your feet beckons you to forget everything else. Time loses relevance. As you look up to the bend in the trail just ahead, you are jolted into the realization that there is someone turning the corner and is walking swiftly directly towards you, and now is only maybe 10 feet away from you and is carrying something in their hand that appears to be sharp and is reflecting the sunlight. How does your body react even just imagining this scene? Do you feel your heart begin speed up? Are you holding your breath? Do you imagine yourself to be scanning the scene and looking for a way to somehow escape the oncoming unknown?

Evaluation Risk and Safety

How we each process information about our environment, especially other people, is a process of risk evaluation. Our brains are designed to evaluate risk, danger and safety. In all new situations, our sensory organs immediately begin an observational process that makes a determination of whether it is safe to engage or whether we should get out of Dodge. This process is initiated by our sense organs, which then communicates with lightning speed to our brain, central and peripheral nervous system which then informs the rest of our body through electrical signals and chemical messengers, directing us towards the next action required to keep us safe. Stephen Porges has termed this process of perception and evaluation “neuroception.” He defines this process as “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening”. This rapid response hardware and software integration takes place in the reptilian parts of our brain that work at a sub-conscious level.

It’s easy to observe this process when we consider approaching a small child. When you approach a baby or infant, they might sense your presence, turn and look at you and react with a broad playful smile or they also might scream in terror. (I recently had both the joy and heartbreak of receiving both responses with my one year old niece!) The times she screamed bloody murder, I may have been no “real” threat when I kneeled down in front of her, her nervous system chose to inform her otherwise, and she “perceived” me as a threat to her safety. That is one key element of trauma, the perception of threat, real or otherwise.

Our Amygdala Alarm

While the idea of a toddler feeling threatened by a stranger is easy to comprehend, the same reaction in an adult is more problematic. When you imagined yourself walking on the wooded trail, suddenly surprised by seeing the stranger, your brain’s amygdala immediately fired and you may have recalled a similar scene from a scary movie, or quickly imagined it to be a knife, alerting your sympathetic nervous system to activate so that you were ready to fight or flee. Your brain may have responded like the robot in Lost in Space, saying “Danger, Danger Will Robinson!” (I am definitely dating myself with that reference!) Even if within a few seconds you saw that the shiny object was simply a tossed away tin can that you had picked up along the trail, your body might continue to feel the racing, pulsing feelings for a while after the event was over.

Managing Threat and Social Engagement

If our nervous systems are designed to constantly seek safety from danger and threat, how do we manage to live harmoniously in a world full of new people and situations? How do we connect and establish relationships without freezing up or shutting down? How many of us do not for example feel safe or comfortable in a crowd full of strangers? How do we mitigate and subdue that neurological and physiological response every time we meet a new person so that we do not feel and act defensively or even worse? Porges responds to this when he explains that we must learn how to effectively switch from a defensive posture/attitude response to a successful strategy of positive “Social Engagement”. This requires us to be able to do two things: to accurately assess risk, and if the environment appears safe, to learn to inhibit our primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee or freeze.

What can go wrong with this two-step process is that many of us have developed faulty neuroception wiring and as a result, we encounter new situations with inaccurate assessments of safety vs. danger. This is maladaptive physiological reactivity, and causes us to either over or under-respond in such a situation. Someone looks at us in a particular way that feels condescending, disrespectful or judgmental, and we may walk away, feel our stomach tighten, prepare a verbal response in case they say something to us, and all along, they may only be the victim of a facial twitch. A personal history of having been treated in condescending, disrespectful and judging ways primes the pump for just such a situation to be a hyper-reactive response.

A faulty response mechanism can look like someone over-reacting in a safe environment or not reacting appropriately in a dangerous situation. When we sense risk when no real danger exists, we may be strongly influenced by past traumas that look like or feel like, current situations. A past mugging may, for example, make us feel unsafe anytime we are visiting the city where it occurred, or feel our heart race when we are near anyone wearing a leather jacket that subconsciously reminds us of the attire of the mugger, even decades after the fact. When we feel safe, we are able to dampen automatic/autonomic body reactions that are mediated especially by the sympathetic nervous system. Our body is able to automatically respond and stop the survival-based pre-programmed release of adrenaline and stress hormones, which would have resulted in increased in blood pressure, quickened heart rate, faster and shallower breathing, etc. In addition, when we perceive safety, our bodies are also able to over-ride the possibility of a parasympathetically driven freeze response that can occur when we feel threatened and helpless and unable to fight or flee. This ability to over-ride subconscious pre-programmed danger signals is dependent upon our access to perceiving safety and be free of the feeling of threat.

Risk Detection

So how does our brain and body make the determination if something is safe or not? Risk detection is being better understood with the aid of imaging technologies like functional MRIs. These technologies are able to detect subtle changes in parts of the brain, like the amygdala, that light up when activated in the case of perceived danger. Imaging studies have also elucidated areas in the temporal lobe of the neocortex that light up upon sensory recognition of things familiar, especially with regards to faces and voices. Porges describes what he calls the “biological movements of face and limbs” that offer significant data in aiding the evaluation of how a person responds in their unique determination of safety vs. danger. Elements such as prosody (tone and fluctuation) of voice, facial gestures controlled by specific facial muscles, gaze direction, and upper body limb positions and gestures, all allow for a hastening or dampening of the fight, flight or freeze response. Without deactivation, the triggering of an alarm response will initiate the body’s response in creating a protective defensive or aggressive reaction.

Neuroception Takeaways

What is the take-away from understanding neuroception? I think that such a comprehension allows us to gain insight into how we behave with others when we find ourselves moving towards or away from another person or situation. Do we automatically engage or pull back as we meet our new boss at work? We can begin to notice our automatic body reactions as we enter these situations and witness the possible opposing responses between our cognitive thoughts and our body’s response. Neuroception can also offer tapping practitioners insight when working with clients who continue to experience repetitive situations in which they emotionally “over-react” to even mildly stressful situations. This can offers clues into why individuals may “mis-read” certain situations. This maladaptive response is often based upon their particular set of risk factor programming, uniquely influenced by their personal history. EFT tapping allows us to play sleuth and recognize neuroceptive conditioning based on previous negative experiences and traumas that can significantly affect what external stimuli (though internal physiological states/body sensations can also trigger hyper-reactive states) can trigger our body’s alarm system. A plethora of past harm-inducing experiences can summate in such a way that makes it extremely difficult for a person to be able to over-ride or dampen the stress programming once it’s triggered by an environmental stimuli and has the program has been initiated.

Using EFT to Reduce Triggers

Theoretically, methods like EFT tapping, especially an exercise like the Personal Peace Procedure, (a recommended step-by-step procedure suggested by EFT developer Gary Craig, where an individual works pro-actively by tapping on all of one’s major past stressful live events), would lower the number of and strength of neuroceptive triggers that can throw a person off into maladaptive responses and reactions in a wide variety of life situations. Alina Frank, EFT trainer, of Tap Your Power, offers the suggestion of creating a journal and on the top of each page, create a heading of important figures in your life, i.e. mother, father, sibling, spouse, ex-spouse, etc. and listing the “experiences you wished never happened.” This will provide a wealth of specific situations and experiences to tap on and will also likely engage the Generalization Effect in which tapping on one experience will simultaneously neutralize others because i.e. more than one parent was in the scene.

An appreciation of the role of neuroception as a neurobiologically programmed set of pro or anti-social behaviors can offer great insight into understanding behavior and perhaps offer a window into how to re-set such programming to help resolve faulty neuroception when developed in response to stressful and traumatic experiences.

Craig Weiner, is a chiropractor and international EFT Trainer, facilitator and co-creator of Tapping Out of Trauma, who loves exploring, writing and teaching about mind-body and energy healing. He lives, loves and works in tandem with his wife Alina Frank on Whidbey Island, WA.

Interested in learning more? Check out Tapping Out of Trauma, an 8 week webinar course for home study that may just profoundly change the way you work with clients who have suffered chronic stress and trauma. CLICK HERE for more information and registration.

Porges, S.W. (2004, May) Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety. Zero to Three, p.19-24.