Psychology Today/The Middle Ground
23 Nov 2011
Emotional safety. We all need it. We really can’t do without it. But do we know what it is?
More than at any other time in the history of humankind we do.
Freud, a neurologist by training, acknowledged that there was no way to confirm the validity of his theories unless and until it became possible to measure and monitor neurophysiological processes.
Current technology enables us to now detect patterns of activation and function of the brain and peripheral nervous system in ways that Freud could only have dreamt about.
Breakthroughs in research and theory – with huge indebtedness to the work of Stephen Porges, Ph.D., pioneering neuroscientist – enable us to define the term emotional safety and describe it in neuroscientific, as well as psychological, terms.
When the mind and body experience emotional safety it is evidence that a particular neurological subsystem is in full operation. Porges labels this particular subsystem the social engagement system. When this subsystem is inhibited or short-circuited, emotional safety is not viable. Emotional safety, to say it another way, is inseparable from a particular neurological function which I will describe shortly.
Before considering emotional safety in the interpersonal realm I’d like to clarify how it comes about within an individual.
Definition: The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is part of the peripheral (outside the brain) nervous system. It is largely responsible for the neurological functions that underpin such non-voluntary functions as heart rate, perspiration, respiration, digestion, micturition (urination) and sexual arousal.
Having at least a general understanding of how the vagus nerve functions is key to grasping emotional safety as a function within the nervous system, Aside from that, it is the largest nerve, by far, within the entire human body. The vagus is connected to all major organs: heart, lungs, brain, spleen, liver, bladder . . .
Dr. Porges, in studying the vagus nerve, identified ways in which this nerve functions, not as a unitary nerve but as a system of nerves.
To describe this system he coined the term – polyvagal theory.
‘Poly’ deriving from the Greek term for ‘many’ as in ‘polygon’ a many-sided geometric figure.
Dr. Porges hypothesized that the polyvagal system is comprised of three coordinated sub-systems. When any of the three subsystems is active it inhibits or shuts down the other two. Depending on the information gleaned from sensory input, through a process called neuroception, we determine whether the situation we find ourselves in – this refers to both our internal or external situation – is either of these three qualities: safe, dangerous, life-threateningly dangerous.
If our sensory input supports the notion that the momentary situation we are experiencing is safe then the most evolved aspect of the polyvagal system — the one that triggers our social engagement capability – is activated.
This subsystem connects the heart, larynx, sinus, ears. When this subsystem is active, the voice is primed to articulate emotion and emotional nuance. The face is energized to gesture communicatively. A part of the inner ear contracts so that we are set to be able to distinguish human voice from other sounds in the environment more readily.
Taken together it is easy to see that when this subsystem is active we are at our best in terms of connecting and working through whatever needs to be dealt with in the social-emotional realm. This subsystem defines the functionality of our readiness to invite and respond to others.
But what happens when this system is not up and running? Should our sensory organs detect an internal or external threat to safety, the social engagement capacities described above shut down instantaneously.
Detail: These shifts in functionality of the polyvagal system occur as a result of a complex series of responses along the Hypothalmic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, they are hormone-driven.
When our senses detect danger a second system fires up. If that danger seems life-threatening a third system comes to the fore and the other two go dark. Depending on the degree of safety or danger one of the three sub-systems lights up and the others are dark.
Patricia and Vaughan are a thirty-something couple that I worked with during this past year in couples therapy. Patricia initially described Vaughan as unresponsive, “He’s low-key to a fault – except when he gets angry,” she said.
Vaughan acknowledged having difficulty talking about his feelings and told me that he was often unaware of what he was feeling.
As a matter of fact, the first times I asked him how he felt being in my office he commented on the temperature in the room.
Patricia felt blindsided by his outbursts and was growing increasingly resentful.
Older paradigm: Treat Vaughan as a person primarily in need of anger management techniques. Primary goal would be to shut down his explosive temper. This work would include fostering greater awareness of internal and external triggers that precede his outbursts. A focus on the anger and his history with the issue of anger in his family, and life experience would be pursued.
Newer paradigm: Not to say that anger management techniques are not useful. They are and I have utilized techniques to help improve Vaughan’s awareness of when his anger is mounting and how his handling of his anger affects him and his relationship with Patricia.
I also entertain a very different set of concerns with him.
He is the son of an emotionally distant father and lost his mother to cancer when he was a six years old. He associates putting trust in those closest to him with feelings of loss and loneliness. Given his history, fears of closeness with Patricia made sense. In fact, when he felt he was getting closer to her the closeness in itself might trigger anger because it stirred up fears of being abandoned or disappointed again.
It seemed to me that Vaughan’s social engagement system had been chronically shut down.
I worked with him and Patricia to encourage a sense of emotional safety within him and by extension within the relationship.
Being able to talk about anger in a calm and non-accusatory way, for example, proved soothing and served to help Vaughan not just open up but to become less angry. Part of his anger had to do with feeling out of touch with himself. It is interesting to think about this in terms of his polyvagal functionality – with the social engagement subsystem down he was out of touch with his ability to invite or respond to the soothing connectedness he needed.
At the same time, Patricia brought in her own issues related to feeling shut down due to the chronic anger she had begun to feel because of stress with Vaughan and in her job situation.
The work is still in progress and at this point, both partners appear to be increasingly connected and loving towards one another.