Relaxation: Engaging Your System

We have all heard of the fight-flight response, the system which kicks in automatically when we perceive danger. Less commonly known are the neural circuits triggered by social contact that calm the heart, relax the gut, and switch off fear.

The fight-flight response can be triggered in all kinds of inappropriate situations. It is extensively referred to in the literature which informs therapuetic and self help approaches to panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety, etc.

Stephen Porges, director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois, as quoted in Psychology Today, has investigated the wiring of our brains and how we react to perceived danger. Without reiterating all the research findings in the article, he basically throws some biological light not only on this evolutionarily primitive system (the freeze response dates back to the invertebrates!) but on an alternative system, far less known to us non brain-scientists, and how we can activate it in order to relax.

It seems that the vagus nerve is the route to calm and functioning “normally”. It reverses the normal effects of stress and panic, lowering heart rate, steadying breathing, lowering blood pressure. And the myelinated vagus, by linking the cranial nerves which serve the face, voice, and ears with the heart, lungs, and gut, is usually only activated when we feel safe, and offers the body a way of bypassing anxiety rather than trying to fight it head on or run away from it — two reactions which are sure to fuel the fire and intensify the fear.

So the vagus nerve, which Porges refers to as a ‘social engagement system’ is activated by smiles, friendly voices, and eye contact. This is the ‘highest’ system, evolutionarily speaking, which can be engaged when we are not involved in other actions, such as exercising, aimed at distracting ourselves or forcibly removing stress. Such actions engage the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, the one which causes the fight/flight response. New plans to combat stress by taking up new hobbies or forcing oneself into a new social activity activate the same old system. What we need are conditions of safety, associated with familiarity, predictability. When our nervous systems kick in in an unhelpful way, it is good to know that there is an alternative circuit which, once accessed, we can rely on to produce pleasant automatic responses.

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How does this relate to me as a therapist? It reinforces the importance of safety for the client, of regularity of sessions, times and places and payment, and the power of physical presence, softness, smiles, eye contact, responsiveness, the fundamental importance of me as a counsellor consciously engaging this system in myself, however stressful the day may be for me.

This new information also makes me aware that the first meeting with a counsellor, even when framed by the client as a very positive proactive step, may well activate the very same old fear circuit for a client who suffers from habitually anxious responses. I realise how important it is to create conditions in which the client feels safe enough to switch systems. Once the body is linked up in wholeness, and relaxed, the person will be able to use the energy that previously went into defenses or panic to explore their lives further, or to experience what it is simply to be accepted, just to be alright as they are, right then.

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