Feeling Safe is Fundamental to Every Human Interaction


Just imagine for a moment that it’s a late evening and you’ve just landed at the airport.

You’re eager to return home.  But, first you have to go to the parking lot to pick up your car. The shuttle bus drops you off at the edge of the parking lot. With your backpack slung across your shoulder, pulling your carry-on suitcase, you head for the spot where you remember parking your car. It’s dark and the only light falling on the lot comes from a few lamps on the periphery of the fence.  As you slowly make your way to the space where you believe your car is parked….you see that it’s not there.

What are you feeling in that moment? Not thinking – but feeling?

If you’ve ever had a similar experience you triggered a fight/flight/freeze response – whether alone or with another person – activating your sympathetic nervous system. It’s the system that stimulates the body for action, such as increasing the heart rate, increasing the release of sugar from the liver into the blood, and other responses that serve to fight off or retreat from danger.

Our emotional responses can arise from feelings (physiological responses) in our organs and intestines, as much as any direct cognitive input. What we feel in our “gut” is transmitted via the vagus nerve (responsible for social engagement strategy) to a region of the brain called the anterior insular cortex, which is involved in consciousness and functions usually linked to emotion or the regulation of the body’s homeostasis.

Let’s get back to the parking lot for a minute.

So…there you are in the parking lot – staring at the empty space where you thought your car was parked, feeling an increase in heart rate, anxious and perhaps full of fear — when suddenly you see the smiling face and hear the calming voice of the security guard who leads you to your car.

Turns out you must have called out the wrong section of the lot when you got into the shuttle van. It was late and you’re tired – these things happen. It’s at that moment you experience the unconscious shift in your physiology – all’s well, you’re safe.  Your vagal nerve has just put the brake on your fight/flight response, physiologically calming your heart.

Seat of Safety

The vagus is the major nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system with two major branches. The primitive branch elicits immobilization behaviors (e.g., feigning death) and the more evolved branch is associated with social communication and self-soothing behaviors. It’s linked to the cranial nerves that control facial expression and vocalization. Each branch is associated with a different, inhibitory adaptive behavioral strategy via the parasympathetic nervous system.

The polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, Director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggests that many of our relational and communication problems can be attributed to an unconscious automatic reaction in our bodies to how people communicate with each other through facial expressions, vocal behavior and environmental conditions (e.g. ambient sound).

Essentially, this theory proposes that the vagus nerve communicates between the brain and heart rate rhythm and affects how we respond to situations we perceive as safe or unsafe, as well as situations involving social engagement and bonding.

The concept of safety is idiosyncratic. What is safe for one person in a given interaction – might trigger a threat response in someone else. The bottom line is that our nervous system is constantly and automatically evaluating risk and sensing whether we’re safe or not.

Since we are constantly on alert – every interaction can trigger a response.

The polyvagal theory describes three layers of responses to situations that can be perceived as threats to our safety. The more primitive response is to freeze (feigning death in animals, or fainting in humans) when we are immobilized and unable to escape the situation.

The middle layer is a more evolved response. If our brains perceive a potentially escapable threat, the vagus nerve will shut down this primitive system and activate the autonomic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response.

At the highest level of development, if our brains detect that the environment is safe (through the complex subsystem that involves heart, larynx, sinus, ears and facial muscles) the vagus will shut down the fight or flight response and activate the prefrontal cortex.

This sends a message to the subcortical brain centers – we are safe – triggering the social engagement system that allows us to be physiologically receptive to contact and communication with others. If activated, the social engagement system will turn off the autonomic nervous system and the heart rate should become smoother and more variable.

Conscious Awareness is Key

The more conscious we are of our non-verbal behavior (body language, eye contact, facial expressions) and vocal patterns ( tone, pitch, tempo, volume, inflection) and understand how they can affect feelings of safety or threat in others, the more we are at our best in terms of how we communicate and respond to others.

This is also the case for our personal triggers. Often we know just what pushes our buttons from others’ behaviors – especially with those close to us.  Greater cognitive awareness of our physiological triggers strengthens our ability to consciously respond rather than impulsively react to the stimulus we identify as triggering.

This information is not random or esoteric – it’s universal and governs all human dynamics. While the norms and subtleties of culture mitigate our internal responses, we can be sure that how we communicate is setting the tone for the outcome of every interaction.

The workplace is especially ripe with opportunities to set off threat alarms. In their Harvard Business Review article, The Neurochemistry of Positive Conversations, authors Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser point out the workplace relationships are a veritable minefield for potential feelings of attack and defense, “A critique from a boss, a disagreement with a colleague, a fight with a friend – the sting from any of these can make you forget a month’s worth of praise or accord. If you’ve been called lazy, careless, or a disappointment, you’re likely to remember and internalize it. It’s somehow easier to forget, or discount, all the times people have said you’re talented or conscientious or that you make them proud. When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior.”

In addition, with the release of higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline there is a simultaneous diminution of pre-frontal functions, which includes decision-making, logical thinking, and working memory. In other words, we become more impulsive and emotionally protective. When we trigger these automatic, autonomic responses (vagal responses) in others there are neurochemical consequences. Higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline are released that de-activate the thinking center (pre-frontal cortex) of the brain and activate protection (safety) behaviors. Logical thinking, decision-making and the ability to concentrate are diminished.

Understanding how the heart and head work together can significantly change the way we respond to others – and what kinds of reactions we elicit in others.

Recent years have seen remarkable advances in our understanding of how the nervous system is wired and how it functions. This knowledge should change the ways in which we communicate with others. Doing otherwise, seem counter-productive. If we want to bring out the best in others, taking responsibility for fundamentals like our tone of voice and facial gestures is one important place to start. Communication, it seems, can no longer be business-as-usual.

When asked how knowledge of the polyvagal theory is useful, Dr. Porges responded, “The answer is that we have to re-understand what it is to be a human being.”


Thanks for reading!

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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