Relationships and Our Nervous System

When it comes to health and wellbeing, the role our nervous system plays is finally making its way into the spotlight. 

As a relationships coach, I’m excited to see this happening, because of the central role it plays in our relationship with ourselves and with others, in both personal and professional life.

A big hello to your autonomic nervous system. 1 (footnote) Right now it’s busy regulating involuntary functions in your body, like your heart rate and digestion. It does this automatically, without you having to think about it (autonomic simply means automatic). It also helps you to survive by getting your body ready to fight or flee, or to freeze or collapse, when you’re faced with a threat – and this is what we’re zooming in on. We move between three states:

  1. Safe and connected (the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system)
  2. Fight/flight (the sympathetic branch)
  3. Freeze/collapse (the parasympathetic branch)

Both fight/flight and freeze/collapse are survival states which occur in response to a (perceived or real) threat, or “cue of danger”. 

Being chased by a tiger is a good primal example of a cue of danger. This would most likely trigger the fight/flight (sympathetic) response – our senses sharpen, our heart rate goes up and blood travels to our limbs to mobilise us into either fleeing from the tiger, or fighting it. In this state, our social engagement system is switched off, which means we’re too busy trying to survive to connect with others.

If we were to get caught by the tiger, it’s likely we’d become immobilised by our freeze/collapse (dorsal vagal) response. This is the shock state – its function is to disconnect us from the intensity and overwhelm of the experience. It can help us to either have a less painful death, or to “play dead” so that if our predator relaxes their attention, we might manage to escape. In this state, our social engagement system is even less available and we’re more likely to withdraw, or even actively hide, from others.

When there is no tiger or other cue of danger in sight, and there are enough cues of safety (e.g. a smile or friendly tone of voice) we’re in the safe and connected (ventral vagal) state. Because we’re not busy trying to survive, our body is more relaxed and we have access to greater brain function and therefore more problem-solving capacity and creativity. Our social engagement system is switched on and we are drawn to connecting and cooperating with others. This is the state in which we can thrive, rather than simply survive. 

Most of us won’t have a tiger to face in everyday life, but cues of danger are plentiful:   a looming deadline, an email from our boss, a late train, a critical remark from our partner or their withdrawal, an aggressive stranger on the street, our own worrisome thoughts, a health issue or accident, overwork, financial insecurity, conflict with a friend or colleague, a high-stakes negotiation…as we all well know, the list goes on, and our nervous system responds by moving between the three states on an ongoing basis.

Let’s take a look at a scenario of how this might play out, to see the impact it can have on our experience, including our relationship with ourselves and with others:

Jill starts a new job. She’s excited and happy to have the opportunity to use and expand her skills and knowledge. She feels optimistic and confident, and the first few weeks go really well; she gets along well with her boss and other colleagues in the team, working well with everyone and spending lunchtimes chatting playfully and getting to know them.

Jill is in the safe and connected state, which means her social engagement system is switched on. It’s easy for her to connect and cooperate with others, and to thrive in her work. Because she’s not in survival mode, she has access to her higher-thinking brain. When we’re in the safe and connected state, we typically see ourselves in a positive light – capable, empowered, wise and worthy, for example; and we might experience feelings like joy, peace and optimism, and see the world as friendly and full of possibilities.

She faces some difficulties navigating her new role, which she finds a bit stressful, but she enjoys the challenge and manages to reach her targets and deadlines. 

Here Jill has a healthy dose of fight/flight energy in her system, activating her enough to meet her challenges and deadlines. A little survival energy is useful, we all need it – it even plays a role in climbing stairs or getting us out of bed in the morning.

A month later, a crisis hits the company and Jills’ boss calls all hands on deck to deal with the issue. 

Here’s the tiger – Jill’s cue of danger.

For Jill, this means working longer hours and meeting tighter deadlines. Jill feels a lot of tension in her body and starts to make what she calls “silly mistakes” in her work. She feels out of her depth and as the pressure increases, she starts to feel panicky.

Jill’s nervous system has gone into the fight/flight response. This affects her capacity to work as effectively, as she now has less access to her creative, problem-solving brain. 

She feels angry toward her boss for putting her under such pressure and behaves in a passive-aggressive way toward her, making underhand comments rather than communicating clearly and asking for support. There’s an underlying tension in their relationship and Jill starts imagining and believing that her boss is intentionally trying to make things difficult for her, even though this isn’t actually true. In fact, her boss is doing all she can to reduce the pressure Jill is under.

In the flight/flight state, we’re more likely to experience feelings like fear, anger and/or anxiety, and we might be more likely to see ourselves as being under attack, and/or as a victim. The world might seem unfriendly or threatening, and our sense of possibility becomes smaller. How Jill feels toward her boss, how she sees her and how she relates to her is impacted in these ways.

Jill starts to get impatient and snappy with her colleagues, who have also become impatient and snappy under the stress. Huge tension builds in the office as people start to criticise and blame each other. Jill withdraws from lunchtime socialising, sitting on her own in the car park to eat lunch.

Jills’ survival response means her social engagement system has switched off, which makes it difficult for her to be able to connect with her colleagues, even though part of her really wants to. She’s in fight (impatient and snappy) and flight (taking herself away from the group).

In fact, most people on the team are in fight/flight, compounded by the neuroception of their nervous systems. Neuroception is the process by which our nervous system looks for cues of danger or safety in the environment, including others’ nervous systems. So in other words, if someone walks in the room in the safe/connected state, our nervous system would likely register that as a cue of safety, whereas if someone were to walk in in a survival state, our system might register that as a cue of danger. 2 (footnote) This happens without conscious thought and is part of the reason high emotions like fear can spread so quickly through a crowd; our nervous systems communicate with each other, and we’re physiologically impacted by this at both an individual level and a group level. This is happening in the team.

Jill usually drinks an occasional glass of wine after work, but now she’s drinking a couple every day. She’s also started eating more, seeking comfort in sugary foods whilst binge-watching TV. 

Being in a survival state can make self-care a challenge, because our relationship with food, alcohol, sleep, use of substances and other compulsive or addictive behaviours can be impacted. For example, in fight/flight, our sleep may be disturbed and we might not feel like eating, or we might worry, smoke and drink more. In freeze/collapse, we might isolate ourselves, sleep more, ruminate on our past, smoke more, drink more alcohol, binge-watch TV, or do more scrolling on our phone. 

In the safe/connected state, we’re more likely to make healthy choices, like taking exercise and spending time doing things that are nourishing and that connect us with ourselves and others. 

She finds it hard to sleep for worry, fearing that she’ll mess up and get sacked for it and lies awake replaying past mistakes and failures, reliving the shame she felt. Before long, she’s waking every morning with a sense of hopelessness and finds it hard to get out of bed. She knows talking it through with a friend would probably help, but she can’t bring herself to reach out. She feels a sense of worthlessness and tells herself she isn’t up to the job, and doesn’t deserve her position, so she quits. 

Jill’s become so overwhelmed that her system has pulled her into the freeze/collapse state. In this state, we’re more likely to experience feelings such as sadness, hopelessness, numbness and shame, and have a lack of energy or listlessness in our body. We might see ourselves as small and vulnerable, as a failure, and/or unworthy, and see the world as a dark place, with few possibilities. Jill can’t see the possibility of working through her difficulties at work, so she quits. Her social engagement system is so unavailable to her that she feels she can’t reach out for the support and connection she needs. 

Of course, not everything that happened is completely down to Jill’s nervous system. There are other factors such as her not communicating assertively with her boss, for example; and there may have been relationship dynamics such as the Drama Triangle playing out with her colleagues. But even within these factors, her nervous system response would be playing its part.

If Jill had been looking at what was happening through a nervous system lens, it could have supported a healthier relationship with herself and with others, because: 

  • When we have an understanding of the nervous system, we have a better understanding of both our own and others’ feelings, perceptions, attitudes and behaviours, which can help us to have less self-judgement and judgement of others. This can lead to greater compassion and empathy, which is good for the wellbeing of all of us, and our relationships. 

  • When we’re aware we’re in a survival state, this gives us some objectivity and therefore some space from it, which means we are less likely to get completely hijacked by it. Not getting hijacked by a survival state means we keep a toe in the safe and connected zone as we travel through the states, making it easier to stay connected with ourselves and others, and less likely to be reactive (e.g. snapping or shouting at someone, or withdrawing completely) or to neglect ourselves. We have greater choice in how we behave and relate, rather than being stuck in reactive autopilot.

  • Our understanding can help us to normalise our experiences. For example, instead of falling into despair when we find ourselves in the freeze/collapse state, and thinking we are the only person who feels this way, we can remind ourselves that it’s a common human experience and that it’s normal and okay that it’s happening – which helps us to feel that we are ok – helping us to keep a toe in the safe/connected zone.

Even though each state has universal characteristics, we each have a unique experience of them. I guide coaching clients through a process of mapping their unique nervous system, to get to know what happens for them in each of the three states – how they typically feel, see themselves and the world/others, behave and connect (or disconnect).

Once you’ve created your map, you can refer to it in any moment, to identify where you are on it – which of the three states you’re in – this is good information for knowing how to best tend to yourself and regulate your system, so that you can find your way to the safe and connected zone, or at least keep a toe in it. 

There are many ways we can find regulation: through our awareness, connecting with our body and the environment, listening deeply to ourselves, following our impulses, responding to our needs, directing our attention in particular ways, and sometimes even using our imagination. 

If Jill’s boss were seeing through a nervous system lens, she might:

  • Hold one-to-one meetings with everyone in the team to see how the crisis might be affecting them individually at a nervous system level, and whether their wellbeing and capacity to work effectively is being impacted by what’s expected of them
  • Set goals and expectations that would stretch the team but be less likely to lead to overwhelm
  • Call a team meeting to acknowledge the tension in the office and talk about the ways nervous system dysregulation could be contributing to the breakdown of relationships in the team
  • Ensure her own nervous system is as regulated as possible, so that she is not leading and making decisions from a survival state, which would very likely create a ripple effect of dysregulation in the team and lead to poor management decisions
  • Offer the team training on nervous system basics and regulation and ask them to identify other training that could support them

I’ve chosen a workplace example, but this lens is useful for supporting our health and wellbeing in all relationships: friendships, family relationships and parenting, romantic/sexual relationships, partnership relationships, teams, groups, communities, and any kind of leadership. And of course our primary relationship, our relationship with ourselves, including our own nervous system.

Footnotes:

1. The autonomic nervous system is an in-depth subject. As a relationships coach I’m outlining only some of the basics most relevant to relationships, as I see it – I recommend researching The Polyvagal Theory to learn more and recommend my teachers Irene Lyon and Deb Dana. Deb’s approach is particularly useful if you are a professional wishing to use this work to support your clients.

2. Our capacity to sense danger and safety can be impacted by stored survival stress. If you think you may have stored survival stress or trauma, I recommend finding an experienced practitioner to work with. I’m a relationships coach with nervous system training relevant to my profession – I am not a nervous system expert.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the coaching and training I offer, please do get in touch at info@nicola-williams.com 

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