Neuroception 101: How the mindbody scans and adapts for safety and danger

Neuroception describes the neurophysiological ability to scan an environment for safety or danger. When people metaphorically speak about having a “bullshit meter” or a “gut instinct,” they’re often referring to a complex neural circuitry that signals a neurophysiological process that allows us to either relax when oriented to safety or engage in survival mode strategies when oriented to a perceived threat. According to Dr. Stephen Porges, this swift perception for detecting nonsense and life-threatening situations influences our “social engagement.”

Social Engagement: A physiological pathway

In Dr. Porges’ theory, “social engagement” references the neural circuitry that affects the middle ear, facial muscle, and larynx (voice box), and he further posits that the Social Engagement System operates effectively when we feel safe.

Once the conditions of the environment become questionable or overwhelming, a small region of the brain (the amygdala) signals a warning that activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) to respond to the perceived threat.

The body then releases a cascade of stress hormones which affects our ability to filter background noise, communicate through facial expressions, and control the tone and pattern of our voice.

When talking specifically about a trauma response, we often discuss heart rate, breathing patterns, decreased pain perception, and a heightened sense of vision or hearing. However, this state of “survival at all costs” does indeed have a neurological consequences and results in changes in behaviors and social connections.

Our neurophysiology operates optimally in an ideal environment that supports our ability to feel safe and stay regulated, not by “learning social skills” that don’t accommodate our physiological needs.

Imagine yelling “calm down” or “don’t look down” at someone and how that will likely have the exact opposite result. Based on the principles of neuroception, our body is likely to respond through further dysregulation and shutdown.

When our bodies are totally dysregulated, we might engage in a number of observable behaviors as a result of that dysregulation, e.g. averting eye contact, stimming, fidgeting, experiencing a change in speech pattern and modulation, tremors that may affect non-speaking communication and movement patterns, people-pleasing, disengaging, losing track of a conversation or what one is saying, etc.

What’s a Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)?

The SNS is one-half of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). This entire system consists of a bundle of nerves that extend from the brain to innervate orofacial muscles and the spinal cord to innervate our viscera.

In laymans terms, we have a bunch of awesome brain wires that activate our scrunchy face muscles and our organ factory. The ANS divides into the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Dr. Porges’ theory breaks our nervous system into three parts:

Sympathetic Nervous SystemUnder stress or trauma, our nervous system will go into a Sympathetic state. This is the mindbody perceiving a threat and responding through that cascade of stress hormones.  In this state, our human brain shuts down and rescinds to a more primitive or “reptilian” brain the functions strictly on survival mode.

Imagine a tree frog: They don’t care for your conversation.  You can call them all manner of foul things, but once you approach haphazardly, they likely hop away.  Rude tree frog? Absolutely not.  The tree frog’s behavior matches the physiological response to a perceived threat.  It’s a remarkably similar adaptive strategy that also keeps us safe from perceived danger.
Parasympathetic Nervous SystemThe Parasympathetic state is the calm and regulated state where we operate under a sense of safety.  We decompress stress by going into “rest and digest.” 

This is the optimal state for organizing our unique, human brain so we can engage in an activity with safety in mind.  The muscles of our body relax, and in a relaxed-muscle body, we cannot simultaneously be in a Sympathetic state.  Without the presence of a unique medical anomaly, I repeat: when the muscles in our body are totally relaxed, we cannot also be engaged in a trauma response.
Social Engagement SystemCranial Nerve X (The Vagus Nerve) provides a feedback loop in our mindbody.  This also pendulates between two branches: ventral (front) and dorsal (back).

So long as environmental conditions and supports remain regulated, we’re safe, we’re calm, we’re aware of the richness of our environment, and we can socially engage with some leverage and sense of control. We’re now operating on that ventral vagal branch of the Vagus Nerve under a Parasympathetic State.

When the environmental conditions become dysregulated, so too does the mindbody.  Here, we’re mobilizing around a perceived threat with laser intense focus, and our ability to socially engage and experience closeness to our peers becomes disconnected.  Therefore, our system can no longer operate optimally for social engagement.  We’re not under a Sympathetic State (Fight/Flight/Fawn/Flood).

This increase of hypervigilance or hyperarousal activity eventually leads to immobilization where all systems come crashing, and we just can’t deal with it anymore. What goes up must come down.  Under a state of internal emergency, panic, or hopelessness, our body has to rescind its efforts to conserve energy. We’re now operating on that dorsal vagal branch of the Vagus Nerve under a Parasympathetic State (Freeze moving into Fatigue).

After much energy is consumed, we’ll eventually return to that “rest and digest” ventral vagal branch of the Vagus Nerve, where social engagement and other activities can be performed optimally.

Neurophysiology and the “Mindbody”

Cartesian duality is out. The mind and body are not separate, and some language found in trauma-informed care includes mindbody or neurophysiology.

Our experiences (sensations, perception, movement, etc.) interface interdependently of one another. What is “mental” is physical. As the philosopher, Paramahansa Yogananda says, “The body is literally manufactured and sustained by mind.”

Recalling how the ANS functions, recall also that signals ascend and descend from the brain through a variety of nerves via brain and spinal column. In the brain, we subconsciously manufacture a perception of the things we experience in the world, and the body produces the congruent response.

How does this bode for neurodivergent individuals? Ideally, our safety is determined by the input we receive from our body’s neurodivergent senses, and our neurodivergent minds code “threats” according to the resources of our physiology! And so for an individual who may experience Pathological Demand Avoidance or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, being leveraged with demands by someone else may set off that “bullshit meter” eluded to earlier in this article. The neurodivergent individual in this example may simultaneously code a demand with a very real threat that was previously experienced.

This is not a malfunctioning system; it’s an incredibly adaptive system that’s attuned to differing sensory perception, differing physiology, differing lived experiences, differing memories, differing sensory fragments, differing communication, etc. This is an adaptive system necessary for survival.

Final Thoughts: Supporting Autistic Needs

Because an autistic person cannot “out-regulate” a dysregulated environment, the solution is to begin to develop a knowledge of triggers and early warning signs, seek accommodations to modify environments, explore needs to stay regulated (passive or active strategies), and seek social and policy reforms that allow our nervous system to stay grounded.

Social Participation:

  • Unpredictable schedules with no time to transition between activities, particularly when encountering new events, responsibilities, or chores without planning and preparation.
  • Uncertainty may also lead to a meltdown, because we don’t exactly know what to anticipate or how to support Autistic neurophysiology.
  • Social encounters may also increase anxiety such as sustaining a conversation that holds no interest or value, particularly if the other participants of the conversation are hostile or discussing topics that trigger a trauma response.
  • Some Autistics may also experience social anxiety when initiating, sustaining, or terminating a conversation. Being called on or singled out may present as a perceived threat for Autistics.  This can be especially challenging for Autistics who have experienced bullying or abuse.
  • Demands, feedback presented as demands, or high-stake situations may also cause anxiety and dysregulation.
  • Being leveraged with too much information can be especially challenging when no organization or breakdown in tasks is readily available.

Touch, movement, and body positioning:

  • Healthcare procedures such as dental hygiene, routine check-ups, and physical exams, especially those led by clinicians who do not articulate what to expect.
  • Grooming activities such as hair cutting, hair combing, oral care, nail care, dressing, or showering yield a variety of sensations, but especially affect the tactile system of response.
  • Particular fabrics of clothes, soggy spots on clothes from water, rolling up sleeves, collars, clothing tags, tightness or looseness, stitching patterns are some examples of features or clothing which may be extremely bothersome.
  • Busy crowds of people, large group gatherings, or being in a situation to navigate through several people. This feels like “everything” plus people, and it can be completely intense.
  • Be forced to hold a position or do a physical movement in a manner that’s uncomfortable can not only be unsafe but signal a perceived threat to the system. Too often does unwarned physical contact and repositioning during activities illicit dysregulation, because it takes away autonomy and agency from the individual and places it in unwanted hands. This not exclusive to physical touch by another person, either. This can be overwhelming even when repositioning is demanded by another individual instead of allowing the Autistic person the autonomy to exist in space where one is comfortable and grounded in safety.

Sound, Sight, Smell, and Taste:

  • Noxious and strong smells, especially around cleaning materials, paints, perfumes colognes, or rooms which tend to emit strong aromas such as a rest room or restaurant.
  • Certain food textures or arrangements and possibly also the sound of someone’s chewing or slurping (known as misophonia).  The sight of certain food may also cause distress.
  • Bright or flickering lights and fluorescent lights may cause visual fatigue.
  • Visual and/or auditory information without time to process information on a perceptual level creates cognitive overwhelm. Ideally, anyone should be allowed to get across, “I see it, but I need time to also understand it!” However, oftentimes, Autistics are sandbagged and expected to keep up with all manner of information overload. In fact, a lack of access to breaks and a moment to process can be grueling and oppressively restrictive.
  • Loud noises and sources of competing sounds, e.g. several noises at once, knocking sounds, clicking sounds, etc.  This can also tie into misophonia.

The internal body’s environment (interoception):

  • Some bodily experiences may also be challenging to distinguish and therefore may lead to a meltdown, e.g. hunger or thirst, too hold or too cold, cognitive or physical fatigue, sleepiness, constipation, need to use a toilet, sickness, are but a few examples.

Considering how the sensory system retrieves information from the environment through sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, movement, and body position can be a boon to discovering how one might promote regulation throughout the day.  Once it’s known what sensations and situations are an unbearable nuisance, Autistic individuals can be supported in removing triggers while add adding enjoyable sensations.

Recommended Resources

The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy by Deb Dana

Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection by Deb Dana

Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self-Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism by Stanley Rosenberg

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3 Responses

  1. Thanks for assembling all this info, Donna—it’s really helpful for someone like me who’s sorting out trauma and autism.

  2. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! I have been searching everywhere for a physiological explanation of the “withdrawal” of my adult sister on the spectrum. Th She was living under extreme bullying and verbal abuse on an assisted living ranch. I feel it was also physical when she was denied food and only had drinks for a month, confined to her room and not allowed to use the bathroom during the night. There is much more to the story! Anyway, the stress was so extreme that I believe she was burning an enormous amount of calories also. She got down to 88 pounds. I’m convinced she would have died from the stress and liquid diet had I not gotten there in time. We are pursuing legal action against the facility. Would you be willing to read over her experiences and provide comments??

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