Narrative and the ”Safe” Nervous System
There is an unbreakable bond between the body and the mind. There is a shared memory. There is also a mechanical system outside of consciousness. Consider how much busier your life would be if you had to take charge of the digestion of foods; the processing of liquids; the elimination of toxins and the usage and storage of nutrients. The body knows how to do all this and it knows where it is in space and time; when it is time to sleep or rest. Even breathing is done mechanically when the mind is not consciously doing breath work. It is the body that ‘knows’ how to do things. The body can and does pre-consciously command responses. It uses the nervous system to message and regulate these responses.
The brain stem is the means of communication between body and brain. The central controlling nerve of the brain stem is the vagus; the vagal nerve. The vagus, the largest nerve in the autonomic nervous system and the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, is primarily a sensory nerve with about 80% of its fibres being sensory (Porges, 2017). The vagus nerve controls our ability to experience safety, joy, learning and optimize health. It also controls our defense system.
Information travels from the brain down to the body through the vagus but it also travels up from the body to the brain using the same myelinated neural pathways of the vagal nerve. This top down and bottom up neural function is unique to mammals. Mammals also have a unique functional response to danger which is dissociation and fainting. Humans also retain our older, or ancient neural pathways that are shared with other animals and reptiles. Those pathways regulate flight and fight responses to danger. They are top down only and involve mobilization or movement (fleeing or fighting). Unlike dissociation which is an immobilization response. All of these parasympathetic responses are pre conscious. We do not get to decide. Immobilization from threat is not decided, it is sensed by our bodies. To describe this process Dr Porges invented a word: neuroception. This is the process by which the body’s nervous system evaluates risk in the environment separate from conscious processes.
There is a neurobiology to feeling safe.The ability to cue and to detect cues is embedded in our physiology and is part of the evolutionary history of mammals. Interception is the process describing both conscious feelings and unconscious monitoring of bodily processes by the nervous system (Porges, 2017). When we walk into a room our body is sending cues to our brain about our safety. All the senses, from sound to smell are involved in sending messages to the brain about whether we are safe. Even the facial expressions of others send cues to the vagus about our safety.
We are not choosing our defensive responses. They are chosen by our body and communicated through the vagal nerve without conscious intervention. If you think of taste aversion, where after you have tasted something you find the smell alone unappetizing and you react as if you have tasted it. Sometimes even the idea of that food or the mention of it can make you gag. You are not choosing to feel this way. The body remembers. So it is with our of safety. The body remembers the narrative of our safety and the cues around that story.
“ We need to realize that when people get triggered into either immobilization defences or shutting down they are going to develop elaborate narratives to make sense of what their body is doing. It is important to acknowledge awareness of body reactions and that these reactions not only shift physiological state but also bias perception of the world.”
When people are defensive- feeling bad about themselves, feeling angry at someone else-they are recruiting older neural structures. There is an overlap between defensive responses and responses to evaluation. Whenever we are evaluated, we are already recruiting the physiology of defence.” (Porges, 2017)
Psychological symptoms arise when our body puts us into a survival related state and we have difficulty navigating back to a state of safety. We could believe something is dangerous when it is not. We are stuck in a defensive, dissociative mode that tells us we are not safe. We can also have lived in a defensive mode for so long that feeling calm becomes associated with vulnerability and therefore is also something that feels dangerous.
The larger problem is the stories we tell ourselves about our dissociation. The false narratives that we create in order to explain our inability to function are what are at the root of our continued suffering. This should be the focus of talk therapy. Reworking the narrative so that it reflects our real ability to navigate danger is the work that is necessary. Without repairing the narrative we are not able to recreate the facility to navigate defensive states and regulate optimal states. Without the ability to move from a defensive state to a relaxed state of openness we are stuck in a world that is dangerous when it is not.
Diagnosis should not be based on symptoms alone or on traumatic experience but on the reactions and adaptations from those events. If we shift to a defensive (sympathetic) state because of trauma or repeated trauma we can get stuck in that state. Our neuroception will be frozen in a world that is dangerous. The intentions of others and our interpretation of them will be viewed negatively (Porges, 2017). Being stuck in a defensive state dampens the vagal nerve and prevents us from being able to experience joy, health and access to our higher functions.
While an inability to play is characteristic of many individuals with a psychiatric diagnosis, the ‘inability to play with others or to spontaneously and reciprocally express humour’ is not found in any diagnostic criteria (Porges, 2017). The social engagement system is part of a healthy functional nervous system. State regulation - the ability to regulate behavioural state is a basic problem shared with several diagnostic categories. In other words what is missing is a careful evaluation of the functionality of the nervous system; the ability to shift states and reorganize to feel calm and safe again. Play and social engagement are an integral part of health and well being.
There is no such thing as a bad response. There are only adaptive responses. That is what every client’s narrative tells me. Clients choose the stories that tell them why they have adapted in the directions they have chosen. These adaptations were made in a defensive state while recouping from the events that traumatized them. They almost always have elaborate beliefs about their being responsible and to blame for these feelings about themselves and the events. They have shifted their understanding of themselves in order to be able to control for how the outside world is understood by them as dangerous or unfair or cruel.
We need to ask ourselves if our trauma (s) have created a threshold for feeling safe that we can no longer cross. If the story that we tell ourselves is that we are bad for being afraid, broken, confused or that we are guilty for our responses to events we could not truly have controlled then our nervous system is likely compromised. Talk therapy is meant to train your body to move back into a state of safety. It is meant to help you repaint your narrative with all the colours of the truth so that you can see clearly how proud you must be of your ability to survive.