This entry was posted in Blogs and tagged , , on
By Kristin Snowden MA, LMFT

Step 11

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand God, praying only for knowledge of our God’s will for us and the power to carry that out.

The Neurobiology of Staying Conscious and Connected

In my previous post on step 10, I emphasized that a conscious, connected person who’s fully cognizant of his/her actions and their consequences doesn’t tend to make horrible life choices. People like that don’t tend to relapse on drugs or have an affair or rage at their loved ones. It’s when we’re disconnected, consumed by uncomfortable feelings, in shame or fear, and hijacked by our neurobiology that we behave in ways that are incongruent to our goals and values.

Therefore, it’s imperative that we stay as conscious and connected as possible. That is the purpose of step 11. Unfortunately, that is extremely difficult to do when one is prone to addiction, living in a state of crisis and struggle, and/or struggling with the concept of a Higher Power.

This is why we need to actively work to seek a connection with a Higher Power (however each of us chooses to envision that power). Step 11 suggests the best ways to do this are through prayer and meditation, and based on both personal and professional experience, I strongly agree. Even if we don’t believe in prayer, meditation, or a Higher Power, the practice of prayer and meditation can help us connect with our values and goals, and to remember why we’ve worked so hard on the previous ten steps.

If that’s not enough to convince you of step 11’s significance, a basic education on the autonomic nervous system may create a greater appreciation for the roles that prayer, meditation, and connection can play in mental health, relationships, and stability.

Neurobiology 101

Neurobiology is at the core of addiction and other unhealthy coping skills. We are impacted by our autonomic nervous system – an unconscious, involuntary, quick-processing system housed in our brain and spine that is constantly scanning our environment to determine what is threatening or unsafe. This highly efficient system scans people, faces, places, sounds, odors, etc., sending messages to our body about what’s OK and what’s not OK.

That said, every human has different cues of safety or threat. These individualized cues are shaped by our life experiences. Any person, thing, or event could be interpreted as a potential threat to our nervous system, depending on what we’ve previously encountered.

Dr. Stephen Porges calls these cues our “neuroception.” Dr. Porges says that neuroception is the messages we receive from our unconscious neurobiology. He contrasts neuroception with “perception,” which is information driven by our conscious thoughts and feelings. Despite the fact that neuroception and perception are very separate messaging systems, we rarely realize that in the moment. Confusing the two message systems can have disastrous consequences.

There are three main states for our autonomic nervous system:

  1. The Ventral Vagal State—when a person’s body feels stable, connected to one’s thoughts/feelings, and fully present with other people, experiences, animals, etc.
  2. The Sympathetic State—when a person’s body enters a “fight or flight” state with an overwhelming need to “mobilize” or “do something” about the potential threat.
  3. The Dorsal State—when a person’s body enters an overwhelmed, shut-down, “freeze” state of hopelessness and becomes immobilized by fear.

Each of these states sends unconscious, involuntary cues to the brain, and the brain tries to make sense of the possible threat by “writing a story” about what’s happening. The story (or perception) the brain creates can trigger our defense mechanisms, firing up our “shame voices,” causing us to remember past hurts and trauma. This response can wreak havoc on our relationship dynamics.

This type of unhelpful response occurs because the prefrontal, executive functioning parts of our brain shut down or are limited during Sympathetic and Dorsal states. That means our brains will struggle to write an accurate story that will help us “defend” ourselves in a healthy way. Instead, we lash out, or flee, or freeze.

The Sympathetic and Dorsal states are helpful to our survival if we’re facing a real and serious threat of bodily harm. But most often, our threat-response system is triggered by past trauma and misinterpretation, which can push us toward emotional instability, poor coping skills, and behaviors that are incongruent with our values and goals.

Sympathetic and Dorsal “threat states” need very little oxygen and very little blood supply to hijack the executive functioning parts of our brain. It takes a ton of effort, however, for our brain to engage Ventral Vagal state where rational thought, good judgment, and impulse control are front and center. A Ventral Vagal state is necessary for our brain to properly vet decisions, weigh the potential consequences of our actions, and make good choices.

In my next post to this site, we will discuss how working step 11 helps us stay in and/or reconnect to a Ventral Vagal state.