The Neuroscience of Feeling Safe and Connected

Source: Harmen Piekema/Wikimedia Commons

We as humans (along with other mammals) evolved to be able to feel safe and connected to others. An understanding of the evolution of our nervous system gives us insight into how we can improve our ability to resolve conflicts and also deepen our connections with those we love.

Our primitive nervous system

Years ago, in high school biology class, we were all taught about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. We share these nervous systems with all vertebrates, even fishes. We learned that the sympathetic system provides the “gas” and starts up a behavioral response. When you approach a frog near a pond, he’ll leap into the water to get away from you, whether you actually intended to eat him or not. This has been called the “flight response” and it is managed by his sympathetic nervous system (SNS). If you approach a nervous dog who is unfamiliar with you, he may bite you in order to protect himself from a perceived threat.  This “fight response” is also managed by the SNS.

The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) provides the “brakes”. It lowers the heart rate and relaxes the muscles so that the body can return to more passive behavior such as digestion and normal breathing. If a threat continues or is unavoidable, the animal may go into a “freeze” response. That frog who jumped into the pond likely sat perfectly still once he got into the water, hoping that you would not see him. You may have seen lizards do the same thing; they’ll quickly run away from the potential predator, and then freeze.

As humans, we have similar automatic responses to threats from other people or animals. We may fight back (verbally or physically) or we may retreat. When we feel as though we are in extreme danger, we may even shut down and “freeze up.” This occurs when the amygdala (part of the brain’s anatomy which detects danger) signals the brainstem to inhibit movement. Intense fear limits our ability to move or even to think and reason. We are left with only our most basic responses, including tonic immobility, in which the body is literally paralyzed by fear. Similar reactions include collapsed immobility, which looks like playing dead, and dissociation, which is spacing out and feeling unreal.

 Both the SNS (fight or flight) and the PNS (freeze, play dead, dissociate) evolved to maximize our chances of surviving life-threatening situations. The fact that these behaviors occur in frogs, dogs, and humans indicates that they evolved very early in the course of evolution. However, if these were our only reactions, we would not have much of a social life! Our nervous systems would be in a constant state of alert. Safety is not predictable in our lives. The absence of an obvious threat is not enough to calm our nervous systems, because an unexpected threat can occur at any moment. To the primitive nervous system, every stranger is a potential danger. This presented an evolutionary challenge because humans benefited from association with other humans but we needed to receive safety cues in order to engage with others in a friendly way.  

Our newer nervous system: the social brain

To meet this need to for socialization (in pairs, families, communities), a third subsystem developed. It is called “our higher social brain” and is also known as the “ventral vagal complex” (Porges, 2011). Evolution led to a modified and more complex brainstem which is activated when we hear a soothing voice, see a smiling or relaxed face, and notice calm gestures.  These signs became our social safety cues. They contribute to our ability to feel safe in close proximity to another person.  We even become more able to listen to their words and to connect with them on an emotional level.

You can imagine how this might work against you in a conflict situation. You have a concern to express to your partner and you are anxious about how they will respond to this concern/complaint. Because of your own discomfort, your facial muscles may tense and your voice sounds edgy. S/he responds to your distress with his/her own distress, guardedness, and maybe defensiveness.

Using our social brain to change our behavior

How can we use this knowledge to make the discussion more helpful and draw us closer rather than get us caught in a negative loop? According to Stephen Porges, we can give ourselves social safety cues. These may include taking a few deep breaths and pausing for a moment. We can try making a self-calming statement, such as “I have confidence that my concern will be heard”. We can even try feeling compassion for the other person, especially when that person is a partner, who is probably extra sensitive to our distress.

Any self-calming behavior would be helpful in activating our own social safety cues. The benefits in terms of conflict resolution are clear. We will evoke a calmer response and a greater capacity for the other person to listen to what we are really saying. The benefits go beyond conflict resolution and toward strengthening the relationship. As Stephen Porges said, “ Insofar as we can give ourselves and others social safety cues, we can become more attuned to our internal state, ‘more authentic.’ When we feel more authentic, we can become more safely vulnerable and connect with others.” http://nalandainstitute.org/2018/04/17/loves-brain-a-conversation-with-stephen-porges/

Concluding thoughts

Porges even goes as far as to say, “connectedness with other mammals, other humans, and even our pet dogs and cats, is really, in a very pragmatic way, our purpose in life.” I think that’s a subjective view and I leave it to you to form your own opinion: Do we survive in order to connect, or do we connect in order to survive? Either way, I think we can agree upon the value of feeling connected to those we love.

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