Friday, December 08, 2017

What is neuroception?

I’m going to give a real life example of how neuroception* actually works from my own life. I was mugged once, I wasn’t hurt physically, but psychologically, it left its marks.

I was walking along the quays in Dublin at about 7.30pm, it was November, so it was dark. An older man asked me for the time; there was also a teenager walking a little bit behind him. Immediately, I sensed very strongly that something wasn’t right. Something (neuroception) was telling me to run, get out of there as fast as I could. But I rationalised it away by calling myself silly/paranoid, there was no need to worry.
The teenager walked passed me and then all of a sudden ran up from behind and ripped my bag off my shoulder. I froze (for which I judged myself later). I didn’t even think of putting up a fight and knowing what I know now, I didn’t have any conscious choice in the matter. My body sensed danger (which I ignored/rationalised away) and then froze to keep me out of more danger (it was very likely that the teenager would have become violent to get my bag/money if I had fought him).

Our bodies are amazing. Even before the brain in our head can react, our oldest brain (our gut, the enteric nervous system), is able to sense danger, or safety, in the environment and lets us know immediately whether we are safe or under threat**. ‘All’ we need to do is listen and trust this ancient source of knowledge. But too often we ignore, deride, override, shame, chastise and berate our own body because it’s not doing what we want it to do, or what we think it should do.

Our body is the repository of every single experience we’ve ever had since conception and even beforehand, taking the studies on intergenerational experience and trauma into account. We put out the rubbish every day/week to be collected, but how often do we empty our body of stuff it no longer needs or wants? How much stuff is your body carrying right now? (Try and answer that and you can tap on your answers).

Just as we might work on various different parts of ourselves, we can work on our body as a part with its own intelligence, feelings and perceptions. This is not segregating the body from us, it is giving its experience its own credence and weight.

I can give you an example of working with the body this way. I woke up at 1a.m. recently with a sense of dread and fear and didn’t know where it was coming from. Rather than play Sherlock Holmes in the middle of the night, it struck me that it might be my body sensing danger/threat. I tapped on my body not feeling safe (in my imagination, very handy for nighttime when you’re tired), acknowledging, not fighting, how my body felt which calmed me/my body down. I was able to go back to sleep after about 10 minutes of tapping and get a few more hours sleep before I had to wake up at 6.30am.

*Another word we could use for neuroception is intuition or gut instinct.

** Fear is a necessary and valuable emotion when there is immediate and present danger that requires us to act now. However, our nervous systems can get permanently 'switched on' after repeated trauma and detect threat where there is none which leaves us exhausted and hyper vigilant.

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