Creating Support and Connection in Our Partnerships with Autonomic Nervous System Check-ins
Updated: May 17, 2020
Because our experience of well-being is impacted by the well-being of our partner, and our ANS is unconsciously continuing to read our environment for cues of safety vs. danger (neuroception), we can benefit from sharing a bit about where our own ANS is at on a given day, as well as understanding what our partner is experiencing in their ANS.
Given that we are social creatures, we look to our tribe to assure everything is okay.
In historic times, this was particularly useful. Often a tribe member’s system would detect a threat before other members of the tribe, providing useful survival information to the group (e.g. A tribe member’s system may have spotted a bear, or some other potential threat). In such a context, tribe members observing the person on alert would neurocept a threat through a look on the activated member’s face, the posture of their body, an action, a vocalization or lack thereof, etc. This ability to neurocept has been, and at times, continues to be vital to our survival responses.
In today’s world, however, the things that your system may be experiencing as activating or threatening often involves situations that require a less immediate response. For example, you may be stressed/ experience activation in your ANS about finances, or an upcoming presentation at work. You may experience activation because you are feeling disconnected from your partner and uncertain if your partnership is on steady ground. These types of threats do not require that same fight/flight/freeze or collapse response as what was helpful in earlier times, and yet our ANS takes us where it does. If our ANS senses a threat, it mobilizes or collapses according to its belief that we are in danger.
Individually, we can become aware of the states and state patterns in our ANS, so we become empowered to make mindful shifts that support our highest good in relation to the situation or circumstance at hand. For example, if my boss seems irritated with me, and my system moves deep into a sympathetic state, I may have an impulse to hit him. This does not mean there is something wrong with me or I am a ‘violent person,’ it simply means my ANS neurocepted danger and is preparing to secure my safety. Of course, it is precisely these types of situations where understanding what my ANS believes is occurring vs. what is occurring will be important.
If I become aware that my system has moved into the deep end of a sympathetic response, and it is not needing to immediately fight or flee to stay safe, I may want to explore how I can shift into a state of greater felt safety so I can better solve my problem. Keep in mind, many of today’s problems are best solved in a ventral vagal (calm) state due to the fact that this is the state that allows our higher level thinking and our ability to cooperate, collaborate and care for others to come online.
In addition to becoming aware of our own ANS experiences, we can benefit from understanding what is happening in the ANS of our partner or family members’ systems. When we become aware of our own systems, and share this information with our partner, we often work to reduce misunderstandings. If I understand that my partner is stressed about a work project, I may be less likely to read the serious qualities of their facial expressions, etc. as reflecting anything about me, our relationship, or a threat in our environment. In understanding what is happening for my partner, I may even be able to offer meaningful support (a hug, an encouraging text message, honoring their need for alone time, or a coffee brought to their office). When I send cues of safety and support to my partner’s system, their system may begin finding natural shifts toward safety/well-being through a neuroception of connection/ co-regulation. In this way, your system can cue your partner’s system not just of potential threats, but of safety, connection, okayness. Our systems look to know that ‘I’m okay; you’re okay; we’re okay.’
Given that many of us currently have increased stressors in the context of COVID-19, and are also living in close proximity to one another, it may be particularly important that we do ANS check-ins. Use the map below to share a bit about what is happening in your system, ideas you have for how you will bring cues of safety/ well-being into your system, generate ideas for how your partner may help you, and how you may help your partner.
ANS MAP The states listed below are just a starting point. Everyone will find their own patterns.
Common states: Happy, hopeful, energized, enjoying, relaxed, sharing, grateful, motivated
Common states: Frustrated, irritated, anxious, fearful, guarded, angry attacking, racing thoughts, frozen
Common States: Withdrawn, giving up, alone, isolated, in shame, depressed, collapsed
Questions for check-in:
*Where are you on your map today?
*What thoughts, feelings, experiences or events seem to be contributing to that energy in your system?
*What comfort, assurances, resources would help your system move toward or maintain well-being today?
*What can you do to help yourself?
*What can your partner do to support you?
*What can you offer to support your partner?
Keep in mind it is okay to have days where we don’t have a lot to give. That said, what we offer does not always have to be ‘big’ to be meaningful. Simple words of encouragement and appreciation, taking care of a small household task, a smile, a glass of water for our partner when we’re grabbing one for our self. At other times, we may have more to offer.
Feeling secure in relationship works best with routine Accessibility, Responsiveness, Engagement- there is no ‘right’ way to do this though through check-ins we can learn what our ANS desires, and what our partner’s system desires. We can, then, build patterns of predictability for remaining supported and connected.
(A.R.E.- Sue Johnson’s couples work)