Our sense of safety and social connection are intrinsically interlinked, creating feedback loops that allow us to not only form healthier connections with others but to combat loneliness and be more gracefully alone.
Dr. Stephen Porges calls the ventral vagal complex the “social engagement system” and refers to Polyvagal Theory as “the science of feeling safe”. What is the link between social engagement and safety, you might well ask? The answer to this question offers insight into one of the most important features of our nervous system.
Remember, the primary job of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is to keep us safe. Its our main protector; our personal bodyguard. It does this in several ways. We can think of these as different programs that our nervous system runs. These programs produce their own particular physiological responses in the body, with their own particular set of hormones and neurotransmitters.
In what I have termed the three GROUNDS OF BEING of our ANS, the Vagus Nerve informs the GROUND OF CONNECTION. The two main programs we generally hear about are the fight or flight (the GROUND OF defensive AROUSAL of the sympathetic system) and the rest and digest – perhaps better identified as the tend and befriend program which is run by the ventral vagal complex. Fight or flight is a state of defensive mobility in the face of a threat. Either we’re moving towards the source of the threat to tackle it head on, or we’re moving away from it, to escape it. There is a also state of defensive immobility (GROUND OF WITHDRAWAL) when the nervous system shuts the body down in response to an extreme threat from which there is no obvious means of escape.
The first two programs, the GROUND OF AROUSAL and the GROUND OF WITHDRAWAL are both foregrounded by our nervous system in response to danger. The third state, the GROUND OF CONNECTION of the parasympathetic, is non-defensive and is foregrounded when we feel safe. This is the domain of the Vagus nerve. And this is where the social connection comes in because humans are social animals. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have engaged in non-defensive group and coupled activities when they feel safe. When the feedback loop that is always occurring in nervous system states is operating optimally, not only do we naturally engage in these other-connected activities from feelings of individual safety, engaging in them helps to make us feel safe.
When we feel safe and secure, in other words when we background our defensive systems, we can relax. It is in such a safe and secure state that we most easily engage in non-defensive behaviors, which is why this state is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ state. Relaxation states are certainly conducive to resting and digesting, but also involve many other behaviors such as nursing babies, cuddling, massaging, healing, etc. These are all non-defensive activities with little to no mobility. But the parasympathetic Vagus nerve complex is also very much involved in activities of non-defensive mobility.
Mobility is not always about defense. There are playful, creative and explorative forms of mobility that engage the Vagus nerve to run completely different physiological programs than the fear-based grounds of arousal and withdrawal. This includes all forms of play, exercise, sports, ritual, dance, playing music, creating art, and so on. Now these activities can be performed alone, of course, but there is a powerful feedback loop of safety and relaxation signaling that occurs when we do these things in groups or even with just one other person. Just like how puppies play in litters, we also play and perform other social activities in order to enhance our social intelligence.
So how does this work? Well, the feedback loop of the Vagus nerve allows us to interpret signals from others to determine whether they can be trusted or not. It also ensures that the signals we are sending to others are aligned properly with our intention. What signals are these? Primarily, they involve facial expressions, particularly the eyes and the area around the mouth. Smiling is how we signal to one another, “I’m not a threat, don’t worry.” Smiling does not just signal to the other person, it signals to one’s own nervous system, since the Vagus nerve innervates the face, especially the area around the mouth. So when we smile, even lifting the corners of our mouth slightly, we immediately feel a bit more positive. Now, of course, this isn’t always the case and people can smile deceptively, but we’ll deal with that in another session. There are other signals too such as the tone and rhythm of the voice called ‘vocal prosady’. Again, there is very good reason why we find ourselves making high range cooing sounds around babies. Those sounds are soothing to a baby’s nervous system. They signal the presence of loving humans.
Dr. Stephen Porges has developed a therapeutic tool that is being used effectively for children with trauma and behavioural issues, called the Safe & Sound protocol that uses specially produced musical tones based on the frequencies of the human voice that trains the middle ear muscles to better tune-in to cues of safety. This in turn stimulates the social engagement system of the Vagus nerve by repatterning the neural networks to improve regulation of the ANS.
When we misinterpret the signals that others are sending, or as is often the case, we send out signals that do not properly reflect our inner condition – all kinds of trouble can ensue. Of course, there are times when we need to hide our intentions for the safety of ourselves or others, but in general honesty is the best policy, especially in the context of small community groups where it’s difficult to stay anonymous. This stuff is programmed very deep. And these programs start running as soon as we’re born. Early exposure to signals of safety are crucial to healthy neural development. Myelin, for example, the fatty sheath around our nerves that helps to carry messages around the body, develops in babies as a direct response of the nervous system to safe-inducing signals from caregivers. A child who grows up with under-developed or damaged myelin can be prone to a whole range of medical conditions from slowed or blocked nerve impulses.
We have all had moments when we’ve got our wires crossed. We can misinterpret a neutral or sad face as being angry, especially if we’re in a bit of a sour mood. In an extreme situation, if we’re feeling really unsafe, we might even interpret someone’s gestures of kindness and compassion towards us as threatening. You might have experienced this second-hand if you’ve ever tried to help calm someone right after a traumatic event.
Humans are social animals and spending long periods of time alone and isolated is very bad for neural health with implications on both mental and physical health. Like an instrument that needs to be tuned to perform optimally, we need to engage with other beings for our nervous systems to perform optimally. When we spend too much time alone, our social engagement system gets rusty. Without the influence of ‘positive others’ for neural feedback, we have to find ways to self-calm and self-motivate. Even if we are moderately successful at this, we might find that our threshold for stress tolerance has narrowed and that we remain easily triggered into states of fight or flight. We can become unnecessarily defensive, perhaps even a bit paranoid, reflexively distrustful of the intentions of others. This is a very uncomfortable state to remain in for the long term. Someone in this condition will scan their environment for cues of safety, but since they are doing so in a highly stressed state, their powers to discern threat and safety are compromised. They may perceive ‘negative others’ as trustworthy, becoming submissive and gullible, especially towards authority figures, making them easy prey for people with malicious intent.
Such experiences can create negative feedback loops that make us want to withdraw even more from the world. We may become emotionally numb, detached from our own feelings because the social engagement system is no longer functioning properly. If this becomes a chronic condition, then there is a cascade effect where withdrawal and stress continue to feed back upon one another. It’s a tough one to resolve. There is no quick fix. It will take time and patience to learn how to regulate again.
So let’s keep our social engagement system intelligently engaged and make sure to get out once in a while. This is not about being a social butterfly. Actually, a high functioning social engagement system means that we can spend time alone and not feel lonely or bereft because we have this deep sense of connection. Seek out company where you feel safe, with one other person or a small group, and by safe I mean safe to be who you are. It doesn’t require a lot of conversation. In fact, I find it better to do a simple mutual activity like a board game or a walk where the conversation is focused on the activity itself. It doesn’t need to be often or for very long, but afterwards you will feel that was time well spent and when it comes to spending time alone you will feel more connected with your Self.
When we spend too much time on our own we can become a bit solipsistic, thinking that the world really is just about us and our ideas. We need other people for many reasons. Not just to bounce our thoughts off, or to hear another point of view, but to meet the challenge of engaging face to face with someone who thinks differently from us. That in itself is mind expanding. To allow oneself to be corrected if we’ve gone off on a wrong tangent; to discover unexpected areas of common ground; to agree to disagree; to ask whether someone is okay, and to be asked in return; to allow ourselves to be seen through another’s eyes; to engage others as morphing complex wholes and not just as a set of opinions, which is so often and exhaustingly the case in the online world that skews our interactions with people into boring and inaccurate boxes.
Now you might say, what about meditators who spend so much time alone? They seem fine. When we think about cultures that have solitary meditation traditions, we will find that those cultures have very strong family and community bonds. The meditators have received years of training and are usually operating within a close-knit spiritual community. Although they may spend long periods of time physically alone, they are very much part of a support network, under the guidance of a teacher or several teachers and are generally cared for by others in the spiritual community as they pursue their meditative practice. This is not at all the same thing as being thrown into a situation where we are forced to cut all ties with our fellow humans. There is a reason that social isolation is used as a punishment and is regarded as a form of torture. The long-term effects can be devastating.
Spending time with others is not a luxury. It’s something that we need on a very fundamental level. It doesn’t have to happen every day or to be for very long, but we do need a degree of social interaction. It is absolutely vital to our well being. When we understand this, our alone time and social time will modulate each another effortlessly. We will just naturally seek out company when we need to engage, and seek our own company when we need to disengage. Whether we are an extrovert or an introvert is only relevant to how we work the balance.
The science of the nervous system helps us to accept our essential humanity. We understand on a visceral level that connecting and engaging with others is not something that we can dismiss as an optional expendable treat; like a bar of chocolate in the weekly food budget. Social engagement is pivotal to who we are as human beings. Accepting this doesn’t make us weak. It makes us stronger than we could have imagined.