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Can you stop getting on my nerves?

You walk into your home and see your kids screaming and fighting with each other. What do you do? Do you feel numb and walk away or do you scream at them and ask them to cut it out? Or do you take turns going close to each of them, asking them to share what’s going on? There is no right or wrong answer! What you do depends on the survival strategy your autonomic nervous system adopts at that moment. Surprisingly, the logical brain doesn’t have much say here. To understand how and why we react the way we do, we need to understand our autonomic nervous system’s survival mechanisms.  

Let me give a brief historical overview of how our autonomic nervous system evolved that can potentially shed some more light on our behaviors. About 500 million years ago, some life forms developed a new operational state called the Dorsal Vagal State. This state engages a survival mechanism where a being totally immobilizes, disconnects, or collapses. This mechanism was efficient because it conserved energy. To understand this visually, think of a turtle that disappears into its shell when it senses a threat and stays there until it feels safe again. Then over time, around 400 million years ago, another survival mechanism emerged with the evolution of the Sympathetic State. This mechanism had an entirely reverse strategy – to send energy to mobilize the being to fight or flee! This was also a very useful protective mechanism.  Finally, around 200 million years ago, another survival mechanism called the Ventral Vagal system developed. It was unique only to mammals and was based on social connection. This survival system relied on co-regulation or connection between beings for survival. Each of us has these survival strategies built in to face threats and we use these survival techniques based on the intensity and nature of the threat. 

To explain this a little better, I will use a simplistic analogy that can help you visualize the concept. Consider a building with two floors and an underground bunker. The topmost floor (Ventral Vagal State) is the place from where you have a better view of your surroundings, it’s the place where you carry out your day-to-day activities, you connect with others through social gatherings, meetings, and negotiations; and it’s a place where the world looks welcoming and you feel alive, hopeful, and creative. However, when you experience a threat that cannot be managed by staying on the topmost floor, you step down to the lower floor. Let’s say you see smoke coming from below. You are going to spring into action (Sympathetic State), getting down to see if you can manage it (fight response). If it’s serious, you might even leave the building (flee response). However, let’s say instead of the fire the threat was a catastrophic tornado coming your way and you can’t possibly run from it. That’s when you step further down into the bunker (Dorsal Vagal State) and disconnect yourself from the outside world to keep yourself safe. As you can see, every state provides a functional strategy, depending on the intensity of the threat.

Now, in the example mentioned at the start, a parent will react to the sibling fight based on their perception of how threatened they feel in that situation. One could either move to the Dorsal Vagal state with total disconnect and a numbing response, move to a Sympathetic state with screaming or threatening, or move to the Ventral Vagal state by trying to talk to each of the kids.  Our nervous system is incessantly gauging threats within us and around us, to make sure we are in a state of safety. This process of gauging safety is called neuroception.  And how do we define this safety? Does safety simply mean being away from physical harm? No! Seeing someone’s face or hearing someone’s voice who has not been nice to you can be perceived as a threat! It can take someone from their Ventral Vagal state of social engagement to their Sympathetic state of fight or flight. It’s not uncommon for kids to perceive their parents as a threat if there is a history of parents blaming or shaming their kids. This is a difficult-to-process truth that is not easy for parents to recognize. 

Now, here is where it gets complicated: if we accept that all our behaviors are a result of our biology, then when a parent screams and criticizes his/her kids constantly, we can understand that it’s coming from a place where the parent is seeking safety. Parents scream with the intention of eliminating the perceived threat they experience when they hear or see something they dislike. The downside of this is that the parent’s behavior creates a totally unsafe environment for the kid! So how can this be reconciled? 

Reconciliation is possible when we learn the skill of pausing and observing what’s going on within us. It’s helpful to do a self-check to see where we are as described in the building analogy; on the first floor or the bunker? Learning about our own biology can be helpful to recognize that during difficult moments, the angry thoughts or the resigning thoughts that come to us are our nervous system’s way of protecting us and it doesn’t mean anything about our ability to parent. This objective observation helps us bring some self-compassion for ourselves. This could take seconds, minutes, or hours depending on which autonomic survival state we are sheltered within. With self-compassion, we can start to feel calm and we can start to build the capacity to co-regulate. What is co-regulation? Simply put, it’s providing a sense of safety and connection to our kids. No amount of  ‘logical explaining’ can provide this safety to kids unless your demeanor, tonal quality, and content demonstrates safety to kids.  

An important thing to keep in mind is that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Looping through reciprocity, rupture, and repair are signs of a healthy relationship. We suffer when rupture occurs and it’s not repaired. Ultimately, we are a species that has evolved to survive through connection. Hope this article can help you see yourself and your kids in a different light. Happy parenting!

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