Hello, everyone, and welcome to the December episode of the Therapy Spot! I’m excited to share with you today my conversation with Dr. Susan Reyland. Susan is a clinical and developmental psychologist with a practice here in Denver, as well as a fellow Internal Family Systems practitioner. She’s been a guest on my show several times, discussing topics such as attachment styles, resiliency, and childhood development.
On this episode, we talked about the autonomic nervous system. Your autonomic nervous system plays a huge role in how we physically and mentally react to threats. Don’t worry — this isn’t a vocabulary lesson, and you won’t have a quiz at the end! You will, however, learn a few things about yourself, such as how and why you react the way you do to certain situations.
As you read or listen along, I encourage you to use this chart for a reference point.
Your Survival Surveillance System
Acting as a “survival surveillance system,” the nervous system receives and assesses cues from the world around us to detect possible danger. Another function of our nervous system is to inhibit our survival instincts so that we can connect. After all: humans are social, and connecting with each other is part of our survival too! This place of safety, the social engagement system, also allows us to create an organized response to unexpected situations.
The subconscious decision-making process that lists one thing as a threat and another as safe is called neuroception. Susan outlines 3 possible responses to 1 common situation: finding a parking space.
Say you’re driving through downtown in search of a parking space, but you’re not having any luck. If you’re in social engagement mode, you’re able to respond to this by thinking, “No problem! I’ll drive around the block a few times.” You have a wider perspective that lets you come up with different possibilities.
If your neuroception picks up cues of danger, however, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in. Energy floods our bodies so we can respond to this threat — you may have heard this called the “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic nervous system demands action, it has to mobilize. Whether you have more fight or more flight in your systems depends on a variety of factors, such as the threat itself, your biology, and the behaviors that have been modeled for you over time.
Think of a flight response as moving away from the problem, and a fight response as moving towards it. So in the parking example, the flight response would be to turn around and drive home. The fight response would be to yell at the drivers of other cars, or honk the horn.
Beyond Fight or Flight
But there’s another response, beyond fight or flight: freeze. If you’ve ever felt immobilized with fear, anxiety, or worry, you understand this response. Neuroception has told your body it needs to shut down as much as possible to keep you alive. This can show up as depression, helplessness, and numbness. At its extreme, you might experience dissociation: a feeling of being completely disconnected from your body, or the situation.
The irony here is that people in this extreme state often don’t look like they’re overwhelmed. I know that I enter a state my son refers to as “stress calm.” When I go into “stress calm,” my voice gets very robotic, and I assure everyone that everything will be fine — even though I feel very overwhelmed on the inside!
It’s important to identify the situations where we find ourselves reacting in different ways. Ask yourself, “When do I feel like I’m in social engagement mode? What specific triggers cause me to have fight or flight reactions? At what point do I go into shutdown?”
Our early childhood experiences play a significant role in determining how we respond to these situations. People who grew up in abusive households have brains which are constantly vigilant for signs of threats. They are chronically in a defensive state, even when no threats are present.
One wonderful quality about the human brain, however, is its adaptability. Once you realize that you tend to default to these states, you can begin to do things differently.
Getting Back Into Balance: You’ve Got Options!
You can recalibrate your nervous system. In fact, it wants to be recalibrated! Our brains and our bodies are at their healthiest when we are in balance. If you’re at a point in your life where you frequently respond with fight, flight, or freeze, it’s like you have a menu where those options are in big, bold print. You’re overly focused on survival. It’s hard to thrive when the calmer, planning, social engagement options are in fine print off to the side. Luckily, many researchers have been doing incredible work creating clinical protocols for this recalibration.
One such tool is the “Safe and Sound Protocol,” developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. In this clinical, non-invasive process, clients wear headphones and listen to special music one hour per day, for five days. The music is processed in such a way as to train your auditory pathways by focusing on the frequencies of human speech.
You can learn more here. The “SSP” shows results in the following areas:
- Social and emotional difficulties
- Auditory sensitivities
- Anxiety and trauma related challenges
- Stressors that impact social engagement
The “Safe and Sound Protocol” is a wonderful “jump start” for your brain. (It’s a lot like iRest, in that way!) It’s one of many tools out there to help people recalibrate their nervous systems. If this podcast has gotten your attention, I encourage you to look into some of these tools.
Get in Touch With Me
More and more of you are listening each month, and I’d like to thank you. It means the world to me to know you’re out there listening and learning. I’d like to hear from you! Has a past podcast helped you? Do you have a topic you’d like me to cover? Let me know.
I hope you all enjoy a restful, joyful holiday season. I’ll see you in the new year with a brand new episode of the Therapy Spot!
“Surveillance Cameras” by Flickr user Kin Lane, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.