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Jennifer Wright, Clinical Psychologist

My clients wonder why, in some situations, they behave like calm, loving, enlightened human beings towards their partners, and at other times, they scream and shout at the person they love, surprising even themselves.

Or they can be socialising with people they know well, with lots of confidence, eye contact and good social exchange. But when someone they don't trust enters the group, they shut down, stumble over their words and want to hit out (usually verbally) or hide.

Neuroscientist Steven W. Porges PhD, director of the Brain-Body Centre at the University of Illinois, Chicago, may have come up with an answer to these perplexing behavioural changes. He says that engaging socially, smiling and participating in calm conversations is very good for us. In his Polyvagal Theory of Emotion (1995), Dr Porges proposes that when we enhance our connection with other people, we trigger neural circuits in our bodies that calm the heart, relax the gut, and turn off the fear response.

The Vagus Nerve is central to Dr Porges' theory. It is a sophisticated pathway that carries messages quickly from the brain stem to the heart, lungs, and intestines. It regulates some facial muscles, including the ear, and can enhance our ability to give others appropriate facial cues and even hear them better.

The Vagus Nerve influences our heart rate and breathing, and is involved in how we perceive, react to and recover from stress. When the Vagus Nerve is activated, we operate through a system that Dr Porges calls the Social Engagement System.
For example, under social conditions where we feel confident, our heart rate and breathing slows down, our blood pressure drops and our stress response switches off. Our bodies enter a state of physical calm. We feel safe enough to move closer to another person, making intimacy possible.

Therefore, social engagement enhances our sense of safety, creating a positive feedback loop which leads to further calming. But there's a catch. We must feel safe to enter this condition and the body unconsciously decides when we are safe and when we are not. If the body detects that we are in "danger", it switches to the fight/flight response, driven by the body's HPA (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal) Axis, which translates into symptoms of anxiety in the modern world.

Dr Porges says that our reaction to stress is organised hierarchically through the autonomic nervous system. The social communication neural circuits, involving facial expression, speech and listening, inhibit more primitive (reptilian) systems, such as mobilisation (fight/flight behaviors) and immobilisation (feigning death, fainting).

Evolution has produced this three-tiered system of "wiring" which was once adaptive, and helped us to respond to immediate danger.

Tier 1

When we feel safe, we are usually operating through the Social Engagement System, via the myelinated Vagus Nerve, which is the most sophisticated of our evolutionary responses. It supports our ability to engage socially with others, connecting the cranial nerves associated with the face, voice, and ears with the heart, lungs, and gut. It enhances our ability to create appropriate facial cues, like smiling, and improves our hearing and our verbal fluency. Messages to and from the brain travel faster when we are in a state of social engagement.

Tier 2

When we feel unsafe, the fight/flight response is mobilised, and at this point we usually find it impossible to operate through the Social Engagement System. The fight/flight response functions through the more primitive, sympathetic branch of the Autonomic Nervous System - the HPA Axis - which in humans leads to rage and/or fear.

Activation of the sympathetic pathway is the physiological equivalent of pushing a panic button, and we revert to this pattern when we are under excessive stress. This explains why we can suddenly lose our social elegance. Our heightened arousal leads us to become tongue tied, tense and clumsy when someone we may not trust enters the room. Even the muscles in our ears tighten, so that our hearing is compromised. We might experience internal organ dysfunction such as digestive problems.

Tier 3

If the fight/flight system fails, we can simply freeze. Dr Porges says that this primordial response strategy is a total shutdown or immobilisation. This response is a relic from our invertebrate past, and operates through the branch of the Vagus Nerve that lacks a protective coating of myelin, the fatty substance covering most nerves in mammals, enabling a faster transmission of impulses.
The theory suggests that smiles, gentle eye contact and soft voices with rhythmic inflections signal the brain structures that regulate the myelinated pathway of the Vagus Nerve. His theory fits with some versions of Psychological Attachment Theory, where it is thought that our connection with others is formed when we are babies, depending on the style of nurturing we receive. Perhaps the earlier we start and the more we practice staying in the Social Engagement System, the less likely it is to switch off.
Our reaction to danger and the mobilisation of primitive defensive systems, rather than the Social Engagement System, happens out of our conscious awareness. Our feelings of stress build up to a point where our more sophisticated system switches off and the older mechanisms automatically take over.

But Dr Porges says there's a way we can help ourselves get back to the Social Engagement System if our panic button is pressed. He says that we can learn to restore social engagement by inducing a calm behavioural state. We can move to a quiet room or attempt to re-connect with others.

Social interactions are very important in our experience as human beings and the Social Engagement System determines the quality of those interactions. Calm behavioural states in others can induce similar states in people who might be struggling. A calm therapist can induce a similar state in a client through limbic resonance. Dr Porges maintains that the Social Engagement System is compromised in individuals with autism and several psychiatric disorders.

Dr Porges says that strategies like exercise tackle stress primarily at the visceral level, but they could work against the operation of the higher Social Engagement System. We have been taught that exercise is curative, but the calming effects we induce could be due to an analgesic effect on stress, rather than a preventative effect. The aroused, excited state induced by exercise might inhibit mindful social engagement.

For more information about the fight/flight model see The Bear Is In Your Head, and for more scientific information, please download this article.