A few years ago, I had an experience that made clear how differently my mind and body react when sensing danger. I was at a restaurant picking up an order to go. The woman in front of me was someone with whom I had had an antagonistic relationship in the past. I realized that if I moved, there was a chance she would notice, and then we would have to engage, there was no way for me to predict how that would go, so I remained still to avoid calling attention to myself.
I intended to stay frozen in my seat, only a few feet behind her, and wait for her to leave. There was no fear response or feeling of unsafe, but I recognized a physical tension in my body. She claimed her order and started to walk out. Just as I had anticipated, she turned away from me to leave. I knew she was right-handed, so she would open the door with that hand when leaving the restaurant and would be facing away from me as she exited.
That is not what happened. Instead, she used her left hand, which meant she turned to face me directly. Her immediate reaction was one of questioning, evidently equally surprised to see me, and then a smile sprang to her lips. This momentary recognition caused my face to respond with a smile, but my body reacted by flooding my system with adrenaline. My autonomic response system had recognized a threat and prepared me to take flight or fight. As she approached, smiling, extending her arms for a hug, I began to shake visibly. We exchanged greetings, falsehoods all around. She then asked if I would put my cell number in her phone, indicating that we should get together and catch up. When I tried to hold the phone, my shaking increased to the point where I acknowledge that I appeared to be freaking out. However, that was not how I was processing this situation cognitively. I was surprised by her presence but knew that nothing untoward would occur, but my physiology had an entirely different take on the situation.
How was it possible that my body had reacted with such volatility to a situation that held no real danger to me? I understood that my physical safety was not in jeopardy, yet my body had reacted to this woman’s presence in a visceral way.
To comprehend this occurrence, I began to study the Polyvagal Theory . Dr. Stephen Porges introduced this theory in 1984 after researching the physiological state and its effect on how we respond or interpret feeling safe. Dr. Porges’ theory explains how a threat shifts the physiological state to a defensive posture. The theory explains that feeling safe is less about removing a threat and is more dependent upon unique environmental cues and relationships that “have an active inhibition on defense circuits and promote health and feelings of love and trust.”
My past relationship with this woman did not promote a feeling of trust. Instead, my limbic system reacted to her presence as the environmental cue to begin the physiological defensive process by releasing adrenaline. The nervous system, as Dr. Porges’ explains, is the mediator of behaviors and physical responses.
The research conducted using technology to evaluate the neurophysiological responses in subjects revealed that the cognitive process in assessing potential threats to our survival is secondary to our autonomic reaction. Dr. Porges defines this response as neuroception. To understand all of the nuances of his finding, I recommend that you read his book, which you can find here. His book, The Polyvagal Theory, is written from a scientific perspective and for professionals, but it provides extensive data if you’re up for a deep dive.
Essentially the point I want to discuss is that your body will tell you the truth of a situation long before your brain has processed the environmental cues. Therefore, indicating that becoming aware of your physical reactions and being in tune with the nuances of sensation is vital in discerning relationships, environments, and navigating daily life: Both the comfortable and uncomfortable aspects.
There is an enormous amount of data available on the connection between body and mind, but I want to briefly unpack just a sliver of the wealth of information available. The importance of becoming familiar with your physical sensations becomes evident through the Polyvagal Theory and through experiments conducted using brain imaging maps the areas of the brain that engage when a person experiences a feeling. For example, being attentive and focused stimulates the brain’s cortex which produces mirror neurons .
Focusing your attention on how you understand the physical cues, through sensation, that your body is sending you will allow those new mirror neurons to connect the cognitive understanding to the physical sensation. (Please know that this is a significantly reduced picture of how mirror neurons work, but we are trying to get somewhere here.) Essentially you are re-wiring your brain to accept, more readily, the cues your body is sending and remain in the present moment rather than defaulting to a pattern of thought or interpretation.
How do you accomplish this? The first step is getting the left and right hemispheres of your brain functioning in sync. The simple exercises below don’t take much time or effort and have physical benefits as well. You can use these exercises any time you might feel foggy or “aren’t hitting on all cylinders” (that’s because you aren’t). Here are two examples. Either will work, and you only need to do a few minutes to achieve results.
Beginning with a hemisphere sync, you can start to assess your sensations by keeping a journal or a simple note of how you feel before the exercise and how you felt afterward. When you record how you are feeling prior to the exercise using descriptive words like calm or agitated will give you more information than a more general term such as good. You will not only jump-start your brain but begin the process of recognizing the feelings in your body.
As approached in Positive Psychology, body-mind integration will ultimately help you map the path to understanding your sensations. Therefore, the focus of my next blog will be providing a broad scope of information and detail the steps you can take to make the body-mind connection.