• By understanding more about neuroscience and how our brain can affect our feelings, says therapist Zoe Hassid, we can learn to regulate our emotions

Anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, IBS, muscle tension, feeling ‘on edge’, stressed out, lonely – some common symptoms of so-called ‘modern living’. If you’re familiar with these, how do you understand, manage or address them?

If you buy into some of the adverts pervading the media, these symptoms can be ‘fixed’ or over-ridden by an array of products or regimes. Economic pressures, a prevailing culture that objectifies our bodies and the grip of the philosophical stance “I think therefore I am” (set out by Descartes in 1637) may keep us feeling at war with our bodies and battling for control.

Recent findings from neuroscience offer a different perspective, ascribing to the body an integral role in our sense of self and our way of being in the world.  “I feel therefore I am”, even “I feel therefore I think,” may be more apt. This is not – as it’s sometimes mistaken for - an invitation to ‘indulge’ our feelings; rather it’s an understanding that to be able to think and make conscious choices, we need to know how we feel, otherwise the unconscious may be in the driving seat.

The autonomic nervous system

Much body-mind communication happens out of conscious awareness and is managed by the ANS, or Autonomic Nervous System, which has a bearing on key bodily functions including breathing, heart rate and digestion.

The ANS, which we share with other mammals, responds to potential threats to our survival. Its ‘sympathetic’ branch readies the body for ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, releasing adrenaline and cortisol, making us feel alert or afraid, increasing our heart rate and readying our muscles for action. If there’s no perceived threat, the ‘parasympathetic’ branch of the ANS takes over, releasing oxytocin and enabling recovery, relaxation and digestion. 

If fight or flight don’t or won’t work in the face of a threat, the ‘parasympathetic’ branch of the ANS triggers a ‘freeze’ response, the so-called ‘defence of last resort’. In animals, bodily systems shut down – we can observe this when for example a mouse ‘plays dead’ as the cat pounces, or in humans when someone is ‘paralysed’ with fear. At these times, the conscious mind is overwhelmed and goes off-line, ‘dissociating’ from what’s happening.

Being in autonomic hyper (fight/flight) or hypo (freeze) arousal is not only unpleasant, taking time and energy to recover, but pretty incompatible with functioning in human society. So, in humans, the main nerve of the parasympathetic ANS – the vagus nerve - has evolved a so-called ‘Social Engagement System’, to respond to the environment more subtly, allowing us to balance our needs both to be safe and to interact with others.* The safer we feel, the more the SES puts a brake on our more primitive autonomic fight/flight/freeze responses, enabling the activation of parasympathetic states so we can relax, take in nourishment and engage ourselves fully in the world. However, what each of us experiences as ‘safe’, varies greatly.

How safe are we?

Our sense of safety is determined by a sophisticated internal alarm system, called ‘neuroception’, which detects the threat level in relation to other humans. This operates out of awareness, interpreting the bodily states of those with whom we’re relating, whilst transmitting our own bodily state, all in micro-seconds, through right-brain to right-brain communication. 

Neuroception is informed by the vagus nerve, which runs from our brainstem, through our eyes, ears, facial muscles, vocal chords and pretty much every internal organ from heart to intestines. If you exchange a ‘look’ with someone, you may have a ‘gut’ feeling about them – which is exactly that – and they may have a ‘gut’ feeling about you. You may feel relaxed and smile; chances are they’ll do the same. Or if they evoke anxiety in you, your guts may register this, your heart rate may increase (fight/flight) and your voice and facial muscles may communicate how you’re feeling, even before you realize what’s happening. If they remind of you of a traumatic relationship, you may even dissociate (freeze) in response.

Neuroception is calibrated in each of us early in life, as we’re developing in relation to our parents or caregivers. Those of us who had early life experiences of being responded to by attuned and consistent caregivers, will have internalised the capacity to regulate ourselves well, to process difficult feelings, recover our equilibrium when upset, and to seek support if needed. We will also tend to feel safe around others, trusting that deep down that they are not going to hurt us. We communicate our secure state to others, who in turn feel safe in relation to us.

Those of us whose early life experiences were not optimal and whose caregivers were unable to respond well enough to our basic needs, may find it harder to self-regulate our embodied emotional states. This may also be the case if we’ve experienced a traumatic event or situation later in life. We may struggle with our emotions, developing ways to ‘not feel’, or getting easily overwhelmed. We may tend to feel hyper-alert or vigilant around others, responding more sensitively to perceived threat, and unconsciously communicating our mistrust to others. This may cause us to experience interactions as stressful or frightening, rather than as a source of wellbeing. If we’ve learnt early on that we can’t use others for autonomic regulation, we can become trapped in a vicious cycle of chronic dysregulation. Shame may often be bound up in this.

If we consider that the ANS regulates heart rate, breathing, digestion, body temperature, sensitivity to stress and pain, our capacity to think, and our visceral sense of self, we begin to understand the impact of dysregulation on our sense of wellbeing and on how we experience our day-to-day lives. Over time and to varying degrees, we can become trapped in chronic states between fight-flight and freeze, for example feeling anxious and tense, unable to relax enough, digest properly or ‘let go’, tired from holding ourselves together, too wired to sleep, or numb and disconnected.

We may unconsciously, develop ‘bio-behaviours’ in relation to others, driven by our fundamental need for regulation. We may need to keep our distance or we may develop strategies to keep people close. We may be seen as ‘aloof’ or ‘clingy’, perpetuating dysregulation – and often shame. We may, unconsciously, find other ways to self-regulate, for example in our relationship with food – restricting or bingeing for example – or masking our emotions with alcohol. Often these unconscious strategies bring about the very thing they were designed to avoid – dysregulation.

Disrupting the cycle of dysregulation and supporting self-regulation

If we’re aware of being dysregulated, we can consciously start looking for healthier ways to self-regulate. So developing self-awareness is a good place to start, noticing how we feel and how we relate – to our-selves, to our experience, to others. Are we accepting and compassionate, or judgmental and controlling? Do we keep things out, or get taken over by them? Are we, or others, not enough, or too much? How do our patterns of being serve us, or don’t they? What happens inside us if we hit ‘pause’?

Developing ‘self-awareness’ is not about being ‘self-conscious’, but about tuning in and being with oneself from the inside out, enabling growth. Self-consciousness is more about looking at oneself from the outside, which can restrict growth. There are different ways to tune in to our embodied selves – and also to be in tune with others in a tolerable way – for example through yoga, pilates, aikido, music, exercise, meditation, mindfulness practice or therapy. These can all help to access parasympathetic restoration.

Psychotherapy offers an opportunity to explore embodied experience that may be unconscious – increasing embodied self-awareness – and to develop our capacity to self-regulate. Through the therapy relationship, we can become aware of how we attempt to regulate ourselves and how this plays out in relation to ourselves and others. The relationship with the therapist offers a space both for familiar relational dynamics to emerge and be explored, and for new relational experiences to be created. 

Dysregulation is perpetuated by unprocessed, undigested emotions or experiences that may have been avoided, deflected or numbed. Your therapist can support you to feel and to think about difficult emotions and experiences in a way that’s tolerable enough to engage your Social Engagement System, instead of being overwhelmed or switched off. The more we become able to process our emotional states and experiences, the better we are able to listen to and work with our bodies, rather than battling to control our symptoms.

* The discovery of the SES and ‘neuroception’ are the work of Stephen Porges

Zoe Hassid is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

What is the vagus nerve?

Is dancing the best medicine? How movement stimulates the vagus nerve

Polyvagal theory, dissociation and trauma: Healing through embodiment

Dissociation: Understanding the impact of relational trauma

What is body psychotherapy?