I walked through the grocery store jumping around from side to side sure that something was about to happen. When I turned the corner, I put my arms up ready to fight, as an 80-year-old woman who was no threat turned the corner and almost collided with me. Having just returned home from Afghanistan it was understandable that I was on guard, but what I didn’t know then was WHY?
Why was I walking around as if someone or something was about to harm me? Another time, a friend made a comment that made me feel insecure and BAM! There it was again. I felt like my friend was a threat. My body couldn’t differentiate from an emotional or physical threat, it only knew there was a threat and I needed to be ready.
Perception and Process
For years I walked around this way, unsure of what safety felt like in my body. In Polyvagal Theory, the perception of threat and the process of our brains assessing the situation for safety or threat goes beyond our awareness is called neuroception. Neuroception was first introduced by Dr. Stephen Porges. This research helped to understand how we, as people, can over perceive threats and under perceive safety.
When we have experiences that do not promote safety, we can begin to detect threats when they may not be there. We don’t consciously think “Wow, that red car is getting really close and last week I saw a red car crash into someone. I should move away from the red car because it could be a threat.” What our brains actually do is constantly scan our surroundings and if we see a red car merge towards us and it doesn’t cross the line, but we swerve and move out of the way because our brain has already processed that the red car as a threat. Even though, in this example the red car was not an actual threat.
We take in information all the time and sometimes we don’t even realize the amount of information our brains are taking in. That’s why when we start to notice a pattern (or friends or family start to notice a pattern) of behaviors such as being overly worried or easily panicked, we stop and examine why our brains are telling us the world around us is not safe. Sometimes we may not recognize the triggers that precede this response, and many people often ask themselves “why did I react that way?”.
When we start to identify triggers, it can help change reactions to them. Understanding why we feel a certain way gives a sense of perspective and lessens the confusion around them. Recognizing triggers as they happen can also enables the use of conscious coping mechanisms.
Sometimes we may need additional support from a therapist to help us recognize triggers. A therapist can help you safely process through triggers and the trauma behind them as well as help give you resources to needed to cope through these moments. No matter the reason we may be over perceiving threat and under perceiving safety the Dawn Institute is here to help.