Stef (firecat) wrote,

New theory about social anxiety/spectrum behavior

(Well actually it's from 2006 so I don't know how new it is.)
"How your nervous system sabotages your ability to relate: An interview with Stephen Porges about his polyvagal theory" by Ravi Dykema

The bad: The title of this article sucks, and some of the language is annoying and patronizing, and there's some sexism and heterocentrism, and there's a "Dos and don'ts" graphic that completely misses the point.

The good: Stephen Porges has come up with a theory that explains what a lot of people who have anxiety issues and difficulty with in-person socializing (because of being non-neurotypical or having PTSD or other reasons) already know: it works better if we feel safe, and a lot of us tend feel safer in quiet environments and in environments where we are not constantly pressured to engage in eye contact.

A lot of his conclusions aren't going to be news to people who have these issues, but I figure it could be a good thing that someone is trying to sort out some neurochemical reasons for this stuff, especially because Porges seems to be saying that the same mechanisms operate in people who have "diagnosable disorder" levels of difficulty and people who are anxious in some social situations but it doesn't get to the level of a disorder.

polyvagal theory. It is a study of the evolution of the human nervous system and the origins of brain structures, and it assumes that more of our social behaviors and emotional disorders are biological—that is, they are “hard wired” into us—than we usually think. Based on the theory, Porges and his colleagues have developed treatment techniques that can help people communicate better and relate better to others.
[In] several psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders, borderline personality, bipolar, autism and hyperactivity. The neural system that regulates both bodily state and the muscles of the face goes off-line. Thus, people with these disorders often lack affect in their faces and are jittery, because their nervous system is not providing information to calm them down.
Once we understand the mechanisms mediating the disorder, there will be ways to treat it. For example, you would no longer say “sit still” or punish a person because they can't sit still. You would never say, “Why aren’t you smiling?" or “Try to listen better” or “Look in my eyes,” when these behaviors are absent. Often treatment programs attempt to teach clients to make eye contact. But teaching someone to make eye contact is often virtually impossible when the individual has a disorder, such as autism or bipolar disorder, because the neural system controlling spontaneous eye gaze is turned off. This newer, social engagement system can only be expressed when the nervous system detects the environment as safe.
Traditional strategies would be to reason with her, to tell her she’s not in a dangerous situation, to negotiate with her, to reinforce her, to punish her if she doesn’t respond as directed. In other words, we try to get the behavior under control. But this approach doesn’t work very well with social engagement behaviors, because they appear to be driven by the body’s visceral state. Our current knowledge based on the polyvagal theory leads us to a better approach. Thus, to make people calmer, we talk to them softly, modulate our voices and tones to trigger listening behaviors, and ensure that the individual is in a quieter environment in which there are no loud background noises.
these feelings are physiological events, triggered by specific neural circuits, and we need to figure out how to recruit the neural circuits that promote social behavior. That's the important part of the research--we can actually recruit these neural circuits through a variety of techniques: intonation, reducing the amount of stimulation in the environment, listening, and presenting familiar faces and familiar people.
I note in the last part of my quote particularly the extent to which the so-called treatment of the person with social anxiety involves changing the behavior and assumptions of the less-anxious people trying to interact with them.
when you ask, “How can we use this knowledge,” the answer is that we have to re-understand what it is to be a human being.

Part of being a human is to be dependent upon another human. Not all the time, of course. Similar to most mammals, we come into the world with great dependence on our caregivers, and that need to connect and be connected to others remains throughout our lives. As we mature, we need to find safe environments....The point of these strategies is to create an environment in which we no longer need to be hypervigilant, and to allow us to participate in the life processes that require “safe” environments. Social engagement behaviors—making eye contact, listening to people—require that we give up our hypervigilance.
I'm curious what you think.

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