Welcome back, friends! As promised, this week, I am going to provide you with some information on the neurobiology behind connecting to our authentic selves, as well as, what gets in the way of us being able to do so (hint hint: it all comes down to safety!). I will also briefly explain from a neurobiological standpoint, why change is absolutely possible and what is needed in order for the possibility of change to become a reality.
Let’s get to it:
1). First things first, I want to start by saying that our brains are designed to change and adapt. Neuroplasticity says so! Neuroplasticity is defined as “the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections” (Puderbaugh & Emmady, 2023). Our nervous system (brain included) is quite literally the command center of all that we do, feel, think, process, experience, etc. Even the way we make meaning is dependent on the neural connections and pathways in our brain, which are influenced by the interplay of our genes and experiences. Therefore, change is ALWAYS possible! It’s true that it requires some effort, repetition, and consistency, (these are the things that strengthen neural pathways!), but with the right support, it is absolutely possible.
2). It is important to understand that our autonomic nervous system is constantly scanning the environment to determine whether it is safe or if there are threats lurking about (and it is doing so, much faster than our level of awareness!). This is called neuroception. Neuroception explains why we might feel more at ease in a tidy and open space and feel discomfort in a cluttered or untidy environment (i.e. a tidy, open space has less surprises but perhaps something could be lurking behind that mountain of clothes!). Another example of neuroception is how we might find certain people more comforting over others (i.e. I can’t decipher what the person with the neutral expression is feeling and so I must remain on guard!). Depending on what our neuroception determines (whether something is safe or a threat), it will impact what state our nervous system activates, which then impacts how we experience, perceive, and interact with the world.
I must note that neuroception itself is not always “perfect”. The complex interplay between our genetics and past experiences, especially our experiences during the first 5 years of our life (but not only!), heavily influences how our neuroception functions! But don’t forget about neuroplasticity, either. Our neuroception is constantly evolving based on the cumulation of our experiences.
3). Finally, let’s talk (very briefly!) about the three nervous system states that can be activated based on neuroception. Keep in mind that none of these states in and of themselves are “good” or “bad”. They just are and they allow us to exist in and experience the world. All three are necessary for our survival. A healthy nervous system moves fluidly between these states; however, when we have lacked support and/or healthy modeling in critical periods of our lives (i.e. not getting the support we needed as children, for example, through connection and co-regulation in or after moments of distress or overwhelm), our nervous system can become stuck in “threat” states longer than intended. These experiences can inform our neuroception by making it more sensitive to cues of threat, continuing this cycle of “stuckness” or making it easier for our “threat” states to become activated.
However, over time, the more experience we have with safety and genuine connection, neuroplasticity supports our healing and reconfigures the way our nervous system functions, allowing us to feel more at ease, and better connected with our authentic selves and others. Our brains and nervous systems are quite literally wired for connection - connection to ourselves (i.e. our feelings, sense of self, internal cues based on internal and external stimuli, etc.) as well as connection to others (i.e. relationships, community, etc.). It is only when we are threatened (or in other words, when our nervous system perceives threat), that our nervous system activates our defensive states, because safety always comes first. And as you will see, when our nervous system is focused on trying to survive the threat (i.e. threat states), our brains and bodies do not have the resources necessary to make and maintain connection.
Now, let’s take a look at what these three nervous system states are:
Immobilization (Freeze) - threat state
Mobilization (Fight/Flight) - threat state
Social Engagement - safety state
i). Mobilization (Fight/Flight) - This is the state that is activated when we perceive a threat in our immediate environment. The purpose of this state is to push our body into action so that we can either fight or run away from the threat at hand. Our body goes through physiological changes which prepare our body to fight or run away, affecting us both physically and emotionally (see the infographic below for details!).
ii). Immobilization (Freeze) - This is the state that is activated when the threat we are facing is perceived as too severe, or has been going on for too long. This is a nervous system response to life threatening circumstances and the purpose of this state is to immobilize our body and disconnect us from ourselves and our surroundings as a way to cope with the immensity of the threat. When the threat is perceived as so severe that we cannot fight it off or run away from it (perhaps it is actually more unsafe to do either!), this state is activated. Our body goes through physiological changes that prepare us to immobilize as well, affecting us both physically and emotionally (see infographic for details!)
iii). Social Engagement - This is the nervous system state that is activated when we feel safe in our environment. The purpose of this state is to promote connection and social engagement. Once again, our body goes through physiological changes that prepare us to connect with those around us, affecting us both physically and emotionally (see infographic for details!).
Understanding how our nervous system functions can help us foster compassion and curiosity towards behaviours that may not make sense to us - whether those behaviours are our own, or of others. Everything that we do is almost always more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Simply learning how to practice the consideration, “could there be something else going on here?” or “could there be another explanation for this?”, can be the start to our deeper connection with ourselves - and inevitably, others too. Connecting with our authentic selves starts with the willingness to explore - but as we can determine from what we have covered in this post, it happens best in safe environments and in small increments at a time. So, take the time to start exploring what safety feels like to you (the reflective exercise in part 1 is a great first step!). This exploration will be an evolving process, and could be the next step in your journey to becoming better connected with your authentic and invaluable self.
Polyvagal Theory in Therapy by Deb Dana
Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory with Stephen Porges, PhD: Trauma, Attachment, Self-Regulation & Emotions (Online Training)
Written by: Arsh Reddick MSW, RSW
Arsh is a registered social worker, with a Masters of Social Work degree from Wilfrid Laurier University, and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology: Brain and Cognition with Honors from the University of Guelph. Over the last 9 years Arsh has worked with children, youth, and adults providing psychotherapy to those struggling with addictions, trauma, anxiety, depression, acute and chronic emotional dysregulation, self esteem issues, parenting struggles, and more.