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How Our Autonomic Nervous Systems Pull Us Out of Connection and Into Protection

Have you been in a situation recently where you were feeling close, or just OK in the presence of a friend/acquaintance/family member, and then suddenly, out of the blue, you aren’t feeling close and OK? Instead you find yourself feeling irritated, or bored, or upset in some way with this person?

Perhaps they said something that made you feel unsafe (not physically per se, but emotionally), which then led to a form of irritation towards them, or even a desire to cut off contact, briefly, or for some time?

In this article we’re going to look at how our autonomic nervous systems create patterns that bring us into deep CONNECTION. Or alternatively, move us out of connection into PROTECTION.

This can happen when cues of danger are perceived, either consciously or not, that pull us away from feeling safe and anchored in our lives. Also when the cues of safety that help us to feel connected in our world are hidden or not accessible to our nervous systems.

Our autonomic nervous systems are shaped through the experiences of the environment in which we inhabit and the people we are in relationship with. These interactions shape the nervous system into patterns of connection and patterns of protection. Depending on the ways we’ve been met, and how we move through the world, our systems have been shaped over the years towards connection or away from connection towards protection.


How were you met when you came into the world?

How have you been met since then?

Do you have a sense of how you move through the world?

Take a moment and consider your personal profile of connection and protection.

Do you tend to lean more towards connection or protection?

Do you usually meet the world and the people in it with curiosity and readiness to engage? Or do you find that you’re more often on guard?

Remember as with all these practices, we want to bring curiosity and self compassion or kindness into our exploration.

In addition to leaning more towards either protection or connection, we also tend to carry our own personal autonomic protection profiles.

We all have a “home” in our Ventral Vagal Complex, especially in he VAGUS NERVE, the tenth cranial nerve, and primary nerve in the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system which we use to down-regulate (come back into peace and harmony when we feel out-of-sorts (dysregulated) in the world.

The Ventral Vagal Complex is where our patterns of connection bring us physical as well as psychological well-being (see picture below). When we get triggered in some way, we tend to protect ourselves either through a sympathetic/mobilised fight-flight response, or a dorsal vagal collapse (see picture below). If not a full-on collapse, there is often some flavour of disappearing involved in this process. 




















Habitual patterns of protection bring us to places which we call our “home away from home“. 

My home away from home is a pattern of protection rooted in sympathetic fight-flight. More the fight than the flight part for me, but my nervous system uses both these modes of protection quite regularly. Sometimes in helpful, necessary ways. Often not.

When I am in this place, I am either fighting with myself in some way, in conflict with the various parts of my psyche, or I’m fighting against my circumstances, or other people. In this state, I experience myself as irritated or frustrated, out-of-sorts and disconnected.

Thanks to therapy and emotional regulation work, this is no longer an extreme response in the way it used to be, and often it goes unnoticed by other people, but it nevertheless takes me out of the ability for deep connection. And I feel that loss.


Take a moment and consider where your home away from home is. When you leave connection, and your nervous system activates a pattern of protection, where do you go?

Can you look up at your home away from home and see how their place of sheltered you? Protected you?

Can you send a message of gratitude to the ways you have been protected there?


Understanding the biology of connection and protection, brings us hope. Our earliest experiences shape our systems, but our ongoing experiences continue to shape us. We can discover what present-day experiences shapes our system towards connection, we can do more of that, and we can deepen into that pattern

When we think about moving into protection, into a survival response, it might be helpful to add the word “adaptive”. It might be good to remind ourselves that this is an adaptive survival response. As crazy, or incongruous, or inexplicable as an action may seem, every autonomic action is enacted to ensure our survival.

Whether it makes a cognitive sense or not, our nervous systems sense a need and take action, often without asking us whether the action is useful or helpful to our lives and relationships. These are adaptive survival responses, and when we can look through that lens, at our own responses, and at the responses of the people around us, we can stay in curiosity, out of criticism, and in compassion.


Think of a recent response you felt, a moment of protection that brought the mobilisation of your sympathetic nervous system, or or the disappearing/collapse of your dorsal system. See if you can bring some curiosity to that reflection. Curiosity is our starting point. It’s much easier to find curiosity and feel that, than compassion. Curiosity can also open the door to compassion.

So now, from a place of curiosity, can you look with the eyes of compassion at the same memory.

Spend a moment and notice the adaptive survival response.

And now think of a recent response of someone around you, and do the same.

Bring some curiosity about what was going on for them.

And now try to see them with a bit of compassion.

Compassion is often the more challenging experience to invite. This may be one of the experiences that benefits from the word YET.

Can you see them with compassion now? No? That’s OK, maybe not…yet

Can you bring curiosity to what is happening for you? No? OK, maybe not…yet.

When we can see actions as based on our biology, it helps us to remember that the only motivation is an autonomic intention for survival. We humans make moral meaning and assign motivation, but the autonomic nervous system doesn’t think good or bad. It’s simply acts in  service of survival.


Think of how different it feels to know that the person you want to be in connection with, and who has just stopped listening to you, has been taken away by their dorsal vagal system into a state of numbing.

It’s not that they don’t want to be there listening and connecting, it’s that their biology makes it impossible in this moment to do that.

Think about the times your child doesn’t listen, and see if you can look at them not as being defiant, but rather as struggling to regulate. When we look at people through the lens of their nervous system, we can be moved, in time, to offer connection rather than responding from our own pattern of protection.


Take a moment, think about a person in your life, who you struggle to be in connection with. See if you can look at them through the eyes of their nervous system, first with curiosity, and then maybe with a little bit of compassion.