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The Nervous System’s Three Ways of Being

Of course there are many different ways of being, but in this instance I’m talking about how our nervous systems respond to the world. Our nervous systems have three primary states based on the information our bodies take in about the outside world and about our own bodily experiences. The way of being that we’d like to be in as much as possible is that of feeling safe and feeling that the world is largely predictable. In this state, we are oriented to seeking interactions with others. Survival has been prioritized over the course of evolution and the other two states that we may experience are collapse and the more familiar fight-or-flight state. When we are experiencing anxiety or when we are angry, we’re in the fight-or-flight state. When we feel like we have no energy or we’re dissociating, we’re experiencing the collapse state. The collapse state is our state of last resort and becomes active when we are in overwhelming situations that are inescapable, particularly when our lives are at risk. In terms of evolution, the collapse state is the oldest protective nervous system response. Animals would collapse and play dead because many predators won’t eat an animal that has been dead for a while. Eventually, the fight-or-flight response developed and animals would first try to fight or escape the danger first; if that wasn’t successful, they would then collapse or freeze. When mammals evolved, the newest part of the nervous system also evolved, and this was focused on social engagement. When troubled, we often first turn to others for comfort and help. If this isn’t possible or doesn’t work, then we move into fight-or-flight and potentially into freeze and collapse.

Each of the states is handled by a different part of the nervous system. If you’ve ever heard of the polyvagal theory, it explains the three different parts of our autonomic nervous systems and our ways of reacting to the world. Why does this matter? It matters because what we attend to in our environment and in our experiences is affected by the state we are in. For example, when we are feeling safe, our hearing is focused on sounds in the range of speech but when we are feeling threatened and in fight-or-flight mode, our hearing is focused on sounds at the upper and lower reaches, sounds which often indicate danger. Another example of how our state can affect us is that when we are in the fight-or-flight state, we may interpret expressions differently. When in that threatened state, neutral expressions are interpreted by our brain and nervous system as angry or even threatening.

Here’s the thing: our nervous systems are operating at an unconscious level. The information doesn’t first go to our prefrontal cortex for us to think about it and decide if it’s dangerous. The nervous system is making its own assessments about the expressions on others’ faces, noticing if the voice sounds hard and threatening or soft and welcoming, etc. This can be confusing for people because their nervous system may be reacting to cues they aren’t aware of consciously and in ways that don’t match the current situation. That is, the nervous system may be reacting to cues that are associated with a past trauma but are not inherently threatening by themselves. So a person might wonder why they are feeling scared when there is nothing they can notice that is scary. For example, perhaps you were walking down a sidewalk and a gust of wind hit right at the same time someone fired a gun and people began running and screaming. Years from now, you might be perfectly safe and not notice a gust of wind consciously, but suddenly become very anxious and fearful. That’s your nervous system, noticing something which might have indicated danger in a previous situation and being concerned now when that cue happens again in a different situation.

Does this mean you are helpless in the face of your nervous system? No, not at all! It is possible to teach the nervous system that what it believed to be cues of danger (the gust of wind in my example) is not actually a cue for danger. In fact, that is what we do with anxiety in many instances and with phobias and panic attacks.

Are you ready to make a change? Call or text me at (816) 226-4678 to arrange an appointment or free consultation.

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