Beyond Fight or Flight
Bodily responses to threat can be profound. That gut-wrenching, heartache, or ‘heart in the mouth’ moments are familiar to us all. Often we are unclear about the physiological causes of these experiences and therefore we find it difficult to understand them. Even when we seek this information, it is limited to the fight or flight response which only part-explains our experience and can lead us to have even more unanswered questions.
In this series of 'Beyond Fight or Flight' we explore three levels of autonomic nervous system response to safety and threat to develop a greater understanding of these responses.
Level 1 – Social communication (e.g., facial expression, vocalization, listening)
When addressing questions about how our bodies respond to stress, threat and danger, often it is useful to consider what systems are most active when we are safe.
When we feel safe, our biological systems associated with growth, recovery and social engagement with others are prioritized. This is promoted by neurological systems dedicated to: (a) regulating the body in an efficient manner (i.e., not using lots of energy to ready the body for action); and (b) Regulating the muscles which control eye gaze, facial expression, listening, and voice pitch and tension. As social engagement became progressively important as we developed into increasingly social beings, this response to safety is under the control of the evolutionary newer ventral vagal complex – also known as the ‘new vagus nerve’. This is in contrast to the old vagus nerve which we will explore later in this series.
The new vagus nerve is associated with calming and social engagement, it puts the brakes on other systems which are organized to get us ready for action. This system is aimed at promoting social engagement and safety within social groups. When active, we will have a soft gaze, relaxed facial expression, cool tone of voice and may focus on listening and connecting with others.
People who have high activation in this area will nod when listening to other’s stories, respond emotionally when friends tell them a story and mirror people's smiles. These responses encourage others to respond positively to us, and therefore build our connection with others. The way we interact and relate is shaped by culture and our early interactions with caregivers.
Calling for help - with both our facial expressions and voices - is often our first response to threat
When we experience fear and anxiety, our bodies use this system first to attempt to get us to safety by using facial muscles and vocalizations. Calling for help - with both our facial expressions and voices - is often our first response to threat. We may automatically signal this to others that we are afraid with sharpened eye focus, frightened or shocked facial expressions, and shaky tone of voice. Before we know it, our bodies automatically call out for help and assistance.
If our cries for help don’t work, then our older less prosocial responses to threat are triggered and we become much more socially withdrawn and the brakes are lifted on other systems evolved to fire us up for fight or flight (level 2), and if this doesn't succeed, we move onto our final defences of shutting down (Level 3).
Summary of Levels:
3. Social communication or social engagement
Neural response: The new vagus nerve activity is reduced – higher levels of activity is associated with calm behavioural states through inhibiting the fight or flight response.
Behavioural responses: Expressed through facial expressions, vocalizations and social engagement (e.g., being able to listen to others).
Neural response: The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes our muscles, the heart, lungs and sweat glands. Resting, recovery, growth and digestion are inhibited.
Behavioural responses: Running and hiding or fighting for our lives.
Neural response: Activation in the old vagus nerve causes blood to divert from our muscles making us feel weak and shaky, triggers our heart rate and blood pressure to drop, slows breathing and reduces gut activity.
Behavioural responses: Feigning death and behavioural shutdown.