4. Longing For Connection (Anchored Book Club)

“The fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation.”

– Theodosius Dobzhansky

Humans are wired for connection. We are naturally inclined to belong to something bigger than ourselves to feel safe. As we’ve been exploring through Anchored by Deb Dana this season, safety is a biological imperative regarding how we process, respond to, and engage with the world around us.

This post highlights a few ideas from Chapter Four of the book.

If our autonomic nervous system senses danger, it mobilises for action through sympathetic fight and flight. If it feels a threat to life, it prepares to shut down through dorsal collapse.

Our nervous system is searching for cues of safety that allow it to give our body the green light to rest and digest. These cues come through “neuroception”, a subconscious awareness of signs and signals from within, around, and between us. If we have a neuroception of danger, our nervous system will turn its focus on reacting to the threat.

This part of us can’t distinguish between genuine and perceived threats. So, one of the problems we face in the modern, hyper-interactive world is the endless flow of noise, which can leave us in a perpetual defensive state. This means we might spend a lot of time feeling disconnected from ourselves, other people, and the world around us. Perhaps in a state of autonomic anxiety (primed to do something but not knowing what) and autonomic depression (shutting down and disconnecting).

The Social Engagement System

Deb Dana writes about how the social engagement system came to life with the ventral vagal building block, which links the pathway to the heart with nerves that control eyes, ears, voice, and head movement. This is why it’s known as a biological face-heart connection. It sends and receives signals of welcome and warning, reading signs from other people to let us know whether or not it’s safe to come into connection.

The Eyes Speak

We can see so much in another person’s eyes both consciously and subconsciously. Sometimes, it’s clear when they are staring, glaring, or glazed over. Likewise, a person’s warm, inviting gaze can provide an overt sense that it’s okay. But our neuroception can also detect subtle hints from other people’s eyes. And our eyes communicate truths about our state and how we are engaged in this moment.

We can experiment with and raise awareness about the messages we send with our eyes, whether to communicate a more assertive warning signal or send a soft, warm look to help someone feel welcome and accepted.

The Music of Everyday Life

In a state of regulation, our hearing attunes to human vocal frequencies as we listen for sounds of friendship. When we feel anxious or uneasy, our ears tune into frequencies that more commonly indicate danger and the presence of a threat.

The soundscape in an environment is filled with a variety of soundmarks. Familiar soundmarks can anchor us in regulation. They might tell us we are home or remind us of something meaningful and safe. Conversely, unfamiliar or unpleasant soundmarks might prompt a move into mobilisation or shutdown. This is why you might find it hard to sleep in an unfamiliar environment and difficult to relax somewhere with unusual sounds. Our autonomic listening is confronted with information that it needs to process and file.

When we listen to someone speaking, we listen to the prosody (the inflexions and rhythm of a voice) before we look for the meaning in the words. We tune into the conversation when we hear a tone that welcomes us. When we hear a tone of warning, we jump any nuance in the meaning and pay attention to cues of danger in the sound. This is why we use ‘vocal bursts’ to communicate without words. When we can’t find the words (or don’t have time), we can reliably transmit a message with a “whoa!” or an “mmmmm”.

The Moving Head

It seems small, but we connect by tilting and turning our heads. As we talk and listen, our head movement becomes part of our non-verbal message. A lack of movement can signal danger while turning and tilting sends a signal of safety.

Four Connections

According to Polyvagal Theory, connection occurs in four areas: self, other, world, and spirit. The nervous system grounds these connections and they are essential for well-being. Everyone’s needs are different, and those needs fluctuate and change over time (short-term and long-term).

Between Solitude and Loneliness

Dana writes, “Studies show us that how connected or lonely we feel impacts the ways our body responds to viruses, the health of our hearts, our cognitive abilities, and even how long we live.”

When we create a shared sense of safety with others, we experience belonging. We build this through co-regulation. Connection is a two-way path that can break down if it becomes dependent.

According to the shortened version of the UCLA loneliness scale in the book, loneliness arises when we experience a lack of companionship, feel left out, and feel isolated from others. We need social support (reliable, concrete help with getting things done) and social connection (reciprocal relationships with people we know and who know us deeply) to help us meet the day’s demands.

Solitude

Unlike loneliness, solitude arrives as a nourishing choice to be alone. It is a sense of belonging with everything and everyone from a position of being alone and anchored. If we feel dysregulated and without adequate co-regulation, nourishing solitude is inaccessible. Dana writes, “Our unmet longing for connection either activates a desperate search for connection or prompts a collapse into despair and disconnection. Do you have enough experiences of co-regulation in your daily life so that you can also experience the sweetness of solitude?

Connection with others and the world makes connection with self in solitude possible. What does the difference between regulated solitude and dysregulated loneliness feel like for you?

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