What is the process through which the nervous system evaluates risk outside of your conscious awareness?
c. Sympathetic nervous system
d. Parasympathetic nervous system
If you chose Neuroception, you are correct!
Your body has a system that is on the constant lookout for whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening. When it detects risk, it causes your physiological state to automatically shift to optimize survival. If the environment feels safe, you inhibit defensive reactions and are open to social communication
The first priority of the brain and body is to keep us safe. In service of this and outside of our conscious control, our autonomic nervous system is constantly scanning the environment for cues of safety, danger, and life threat. This activity was coined “neuroception” by Dr. Stephen Porges and it forms a central part of his Polyvagal Theory.
When our social and physiological environments are appraised as being safe, defensive responses are inhibited, and a calm state emerges. It is this safe state that supports social engagement with others as well as health growth and restoration. When a “threat” is perceived, the sympathetic system instantaneously dominates and our autonomic nervous system shifts to support defense rather than health. On rare occasions in humans, a life threat is encountered which engages a more primitive vagus system, and the result is a system shutdown that results in fainting, immobilization or dissociation. While three different circuits provide the neural regulation of autonomic state, this is not an on/off system, but rather a dynamic and fluid interaction.
Neuroception occurs under the radar of awareness, but you can definitely feel the physiological effects. For instance, if neuroception detects danger, you may stop what you are doing and feel your heart rate increase, your face flush and your palms sweat. You would experience these feelings in your heart or gut as an intuition that the situation is dangerous. Others may notice too. Your face my lose its positive expressions and your voice may become more monotone. These small shifts may be enough to register as a shift in safety for someone else since even a flat facial affect might prompt a neuroception of danger or fear in another.
In many vulnerable people, neuroception is biased toward detecting danger when there is no real danger. People with autism, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and attachment disorder may have low vagal tone and reduced facial expression. As therapists, it’s important to remember how our own actions and state may affect people and, therefore, lean toward understanding others’ feelings and neuroception by easing into interactions and helping to make them feel safe.
If you’d like to read more about the concept of neuroception and its effects on behavior, read this classic paper by Dr. Porges: Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety.
Learn more about the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP), an intervention created by Dr. Porges to support spontaneous social engagement.