5. Neuroception and The Highly Sensitive Nervous System (Anchored Book Club)


We talk about intuition as the ability to “just know” something without thinking our way to understanding. It results from how our mind and body subconsciously process the external environment and our internal responses. We know things without knowing how we came to know them, and this knowledge can feed how we feel about the options before us.

Neuroception

In Anchored, Deb Dana describes ‘Neuroception’ (a word coined by Dr. Stephen Porges in the Polyvagal Theory), as the autonomic nervous system’s intuition. It works mainly beyond our awareness and is below the level of thought. It differs from cognitive understanding, where we might look around us and consider what we think we ought to feel at any moment. Instead, the nervous system listens to what is happening within, outside, and between us, tracking for safety and danger cues to respond to the conclusions it draws. It might mobilise for action, shut down, or anchor in regulation.

In Chapter Five of the book, Dana focuses on how to bring conscious perception to our neuroception. In other words, how can we become more aware of the subconscious processes that move us between states of protection and connection? She gives us explorations to help us tune into the system, notice the cues that move us between states, and process them in the most helpful ways possible.

How Does Neuroception Affect Us?

It’s estimated that eighty percent of the information from the vagal pathways flows from the body to the brain (afferent pathways), and twenty percent return down efferent pathways from the brain to the body. The brain makes a story out of what is happening in the body to try to make sense of it. If we can bring perception to this, we move beyond the realm of those stories/thoughts and allow space for the body and brain to work together. This means we can begin writing, editing, and shaping the story.

We notice the impact of neuroception within our bodies. It might not be evident to others, as the experience is primarily within us. We might feel the shifts in our breathing, heartbeat, digestion, and sensations in our throats. The story begins to form, perhaps prompting an impulse to act.

We don’t always keep it hidden, however, because there are times when our faces, voices, and body language do communicate what we are feeling. We might declare our thoughts, and the hidden impulse becomes evident in our behaviour.

Neuroception helps us navigate the ebbs and flows of life. We can count on it to mobilise us if we encounter a threat while otherwise in a state of connection. But it can also prompt feelings like alarm and vigilance when there is no actual risk. Likewise, we might not notice where we’re walking or when someone is reaching out in friendship. This could be described as a mismatch between our nervous system and the question of safety, where we enter a feedback loop that leaves us stuck in a state of dysregulation.

What Happens If We Ignore (or Tune Out) Our Neuroception?

Like intuition, we might ignore or override neuroception and go against those gut feelings that sent an important message that we weren’t able, ready, or willing to take in. Dana says that we begin to learn whether and how to tune into (or out of) neuroception in childhood.

If we grow up being told that what we felt wasn’t okay or incorrect, we learn to ignore what our neuroception tells us. Or if we have been shown how to tune into our feelings and bring them into the decision-making process, we learn that it’s safe to express what we see, feel, and notice in and around us.

Shaping Neuroception

Dana encourages us to reflect on how our relationship with neuroception was formed. Were we taught to honour or ignore it? How do we finish the sentence, “In my family…”? She suggests exploring this by writing several sentences to learn how our family shaped our ability to use information from neuroception to guide our daily living. This can help us reclaim the power to listen and tune in to the wisdom of the nervous system. How do we want to remember to keep listening? Or, if neuroception was not encouraged, what values do we intend to create?

Ignoring neuroception is different from deciding to override it. We will receive danger cues when we face essential situations like medical concerns, a conflict in a relationship, or something we need to present. The decision to override the signals that might tell us to turn away allows us to remain tuned into neuroception (acknowledging cues of danger) while making intentional choices to move towards the scary thing in a gentle and self-accepting way. We might not fully resolve the neuroception of danger in a particular situation, but we can find ways to work WITH our nervous system to reduce it.

Tuning Into The Surveillance System

Invite your creative spirit to bring your autonomic experiences to life. Make space to imagine, observe, and play with how your inner surveillance system works.

Where in your body do you find your surveillance system?
What image represents your surveillance system?

The Pathway Between Neuroception and Perception

Neuroception begins the creation of our behaviours, feelings, and stories. From here, we can bring what otherwise remains hidden into awareness. Where do you feel your perception?

Consider the pathway between neuroception and perception. This allows safety and danger cues to travel into your awareness, allowing you to trace actions, feelings, and stories back to their autonomic origins. Dana shares an exploration to help identify and strengthen this pathway.

There are “factory settings” where most of us respond similarly to specific sensory triggers (especially sounds). But other cues are shaped by our personal histories and might differ significantly from others. We have our response patterns. That’s why the same sound can activate a neuroception of safety in one person and a neuroception of danger in another person.

Can you think of a cue that brings a neuroception of safety to you but not to the people around you? And vice versa.

Awareness and Change

Neuroception can bring a dramatic state change that moves us out of safety and into danger. A sudden loud noise, someone walking away from us, or something someone says might prompt a defensive response, or we might feel ourselves shutting down.

Can you think of a time when you felt the change in your body and how the story changed? Likewise, when was a time when your state changed from danger back to safety? e.g. seeing a friendly face or hearing a familiar sound? What was the moment you felt that happen? How did the story begin to change?

Noticing Cues

We can pause and bring attention to the three streams of neuroception: Embodied (within), environmental (outside), and relational (between us and other people).

Embodied (Internal)

Cues of Danger

Is there an ache, tension, soreness, or numbness?
Listen to digestion, heart, and breath.

Cues of Safety

Find the places of ease, warmth, and flexibility.
Feel heart and breath rhythms.

Environmental

Cues of Danger – Immediate Environment

Bring awareness to the space you are inhabiting.
Look around and see what is distressing

Larger Environment

What do you find distressing as you look outside your space to the world around you?

Cues of Safety – Immediate Environment

Bring your awareness back to the space and look around you.
What brings you some joy?
What helps you anchor in regulation?

Larger environment

Look outside your space to the world around you – what do you find that feels nourishing?

Relational

Cues of Danger

What warning signs do you notice your social engagement system sending or receiving from:

  • Someone’s eyes
  • Facial expression
  • tone of voice
  • posture
  • movements

Cues of Safety

What signs of welcome is your social engagement system sending or receiving from

  • Someone’s eyes
  • Facial Expression
  • tone of voice
  • posture
  • movements

We can stay curious about what we find. Does what we notice feel proportionate? Is it too big or too constrained? Notice whether responses are coming from the past or grounded in the present. Use a clarifying question to help figure this out:

In this moment, in this place, with this person or these people, is this response (or this intensity of response) needed?

Because the autonomic nervous system doesn’t create meaning or motivation, the question doesn’t ask if a response is appropriate. It simply takes its cues and enacts the response it deems necessary (needed) to ensure survival.

If the answer is no, we can look for a familiar cue that has reached into the present from the past. Think about times when this feeling has been there. What was similar about that experience and the present one? This information helps us understand our patterns.

Being Out of Danger Does Not Equal Feeling Safe

Dana ends the chapter by explaining that being out of danger isn’t the same as feeling safe. There are many examples of procedures and precautions that add layers of safety but are experienced through our neuroception as cues of danger. Protective mechanisms can serve as reminders that we are not safe.

She asks, in the systems you regularly interact with, what are the cues of safety and danger that you feel as you navigate through them? Well-being comes when we attend to both. Dana suggests exploring this by considering a particular experience that feels slightly unsafe or holds a hint of distress. Use the three streams of neuroception to look for cues within, outside, and between ourselves and others. How might each cue of danger be reduced or resolved? What embodied, environmental, and relational safety cues are in this experience?

Because of our negativity bias, humans can miss safety cues because we are looking for signs of danger. By raising awareness around our perception of neuroception, we might find cues of safety that we missed in particular environments, situations, and systems. How can we bring more cues of safety into an experience?

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