The term “neural regulation” generally speaks to how our body maintains its balance and functions. The conveyance of neurotransmitters through the nervous system is to transmit information from one nerve cell to another, one network to another, and kind of keep us in action and cohesion.
In Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory, he refers to our sense of awareness, perception, and surveillance of the environment as a total sensory mapping that he calls “neuroception”.
Neuroception is the nervous system or the neurological system receiving signals, as in the term “perception”. This perceptive action of the nervous system is what we might call ‘subconscious’ or not altogether on the level of conscious awareness, it becomes kind of automatic and spontaneous.
- 1 The 3 Levels of Perception
- 2 Our Natural Neural Responses
- 3 Mastering Neural Regulation: The Surprising Power of Breath Control
- 4 The Power of Harmonious Connection: Using Hypnotic Breathwork
- 5 Breathing exercise
The 3 Levels of Perception
First things first, there are 3 levels of perception:
– Our perceptual dynamics are our perception of the outside world, what’s outside of our bodies, and that is called exteroception or external perception.
– The awareness of what’s going inside our body is called, conversely, interoception, and that is the awareness of sensations, blood flow, et cetera, that we might sense at different times.
– And then there’s another degree of perception, and that is called proprioception. This is our awareness of our body and space, sort of the bridge between where our body lets off and the external world begins and how we are oriented to it.
These three levels of perception, exteroception, interoception, and proprioception are what Dr. Stephen Porges has poetically termed “neuroception”. Inspired by this term, Timothy Trujillo chose to call the work “Neural Regulation” – and it is the total, comprehensive balancing, harmonizing of our responses to stimuli, cues, whether known consciously or subconsciously, that occur in our realm of being – and that is the external world, the internal world, and our interactions in it.
All of this is very clearly understandable by the Polyvagal Theory model, or as Dr. Porges referred to as the polyvagal perspective. We will see how to actually manage and regulate that system directly and intentionally and in time, recondition the perceptual responses, so that it becomes more of an automatic way of functioning. In a way, what we’re doing is to restructure the subconscious constructs of the mind, so that we change the responses in occurrence.
Our Natural Neural Responses
Think of the head, torso of the body, arms, legs – These are all feelers and it’s how we perceive the world around us. And one of the things that we need to shift our perception toward is the fact that even though it might feel this way, we are not separate from our environment.
To put it more simply in a culinary metaphor, we are like dumplings in stew – we are completely immersed in this world and all of the things that are going on around it.
As a consequence, there are dynamic changes that are taking place in the world. Therefore, we are constantly adjusting our reactions to the world in response to our perceptions of what is happening in our world, both our external and internal worlds.
Because of that, we have a goal and that goal is to survive. In order to survive, if we perceive a threat, we respond to it. We’re kind of surfing through life, and we’re always measuring the waves that are coming toward us and figuring out what to do, whether we duck under the wave, whether we kick over the wave or whether we paddle and catch that wave.
The Immobilization or the Freeze / Fawn Response
When we perceive a threat biologically, our first organic biological response is actually to do nothing. And that is called what Dr. Poges calls ‘immobilization’ – we also call it the “freeze response” or “fawn response”. If you look biologically and developmentally, the single cell organisms’s primary initial defense is invisibility, to not be seen. This is also the primary defense of many prey animals.
Therefore, the first thing we want to do is we want to eliminate every other signal except that signal that we picked up, and then we determine our next response.
These responses that we’re going over, there’s nothing wrong with them. They are our natural defensive, securing and surviving responses. This immobilization that takes place is mediated by our sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system, what is often called the “rest and digest”.
The Hold-Still-Weigh-Perceive Response
There is also the “hold-still-weigh-perceive” function of our nervous system. This is mediated according to the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system and the “immobilization” or “freeze” is mediated by the vagal nerve as it runs down the back, called the dorsal vagal.
Now, this dorsal vagal innervates all of the gut. Therefore, when we get into a threat, the first action is “How do I survive?” We don’t really need our digestive system functioning well at that time.
And so, we’ll see in the pathologies and the imbalances – sometimes when this comes out of balance, it will cause problems with our digestion. Also, this dorsal vagal response is connected to depression. We can see here the aspects of this dorsal vagal “immobilization” / “freeze” / “faint” response as not just depression, but also gastric distress.
In an imbalanced state of this dorsal vagal freeze, the immobilization response, is that it will cause us to become numb to the life around us. This is something that people will commonly report – they feel kind of numb, disconnected. That is always an indicator that this person has gone into a sort of freeze, faint, immobilization state.
The Mobilization Response
Going back to how we react to the world, the next response is mobilization – If we get discovered, maybe we can outrun the threat and that’s mobilization to take flight or if we can’t escape it, to try to overcome it.
The mobilization reaction is mediated by our sympathetic nervous system, sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system that is more governed by the endocrine system.
The main chemical associated with that is adrenaline. We know what being adrenalized is like and again, it’s not a bad thing. If we’re facing a threat, we actually need this. We need to get out of harm’s way, we need to be able to overcome that. In its core function, this is how we harmonize our state of being, by being able to get still when we need to, by being able to mobilize and get out of the way when we need to.
But when it comes out of balance, it can get a little over active or over regulated, and it can get persistently conditioned in that way. Then, our tendency is to always be in this state of fight or flight. And when that happens over time, we will see it in our anxiety that we might be experiencing. Part of what goes along with anxiety is when we get into a mobilization state, our senses have to go on to hyperdrive – our vision, our hearing, our radar.
Now, if we stay in that state it means that what may be a harmless stimulus because we’re over sensitized or hyper sensitized, it can be registered as a threat and keep evoking that response. And that’s where we end up stressed out because we are overdoing it, we’re over activating all of the time.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, the immobilization is Yin, which represents the passive aspect of Yin Yang. One of the sayings in the statements in Chinese medicine is Yin is stillness.
On the other hand, Yang is stirring, Yang is activation. It turns out that these activations of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system and the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system are outside of our direct conscious control. That’s why they’re called autonomic. These are your simple Yin Yang perspectives of biology.
Mastering Neural Regulation: The Surprising Power of Breath Control
We’re taught that the autonomic nervous system controls certain things like our heartbeat, our blood pressure and our breathing. And if we paused here for a minute – breathing? That’s right, breathing. It seems like breathing is within our conscious control and that’s true, we can consciously control our breathing, when we consciously do it.
But when we’re not conscious of our breathing, our breathing is automatic in response to our perceptions in the environment and our response to those perceptions, the “neuralception”. Over time, we can recondition those automatic responses through deliberate practice that is compounded with ideas or suggestions to support this responsiveness.
It turns out that the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system slows down our heart rate. When we exhale, we actually activate that parasympathetic branch. And that parasympathetic branch, they say, is sort of a break on the whole sympathetic system and it holds it back. Therefore, when we exhale, our heart rate goes down just a little bit.
And when we inhale, our heart rate goes up just a little bit. We’re actually activating that sympathetic nervous branch every time we inhale. The variation in our heart rate between the inhalation and the exhalation is called heart rate variability.
This is a huge area of study right now in health and in performance, particularly athletic performance, that individuals who condition themselves to increase the variation between the heart rate on inhalation and the heart rate on exhalation, have a more robust physical state of being.
The Power of Harmonious Connection: Using Hypnotic Breathwork
Now we know that these autonomic things happening all the time can actually be controlled and conditioned. And that’s where the hypnotic breath work element comes into this work, because now we’re going to use the breath to actually manage these systems. And in managing them, then to condition them further with suggestions.
In Dr. Porges’s Polyvagal Theory, there’s a third factor, and this is kind of the Holy grail, if you will, of the Polyvagal Theory. It’s what Porges started this whole theory from “What is the system like when it is safe?”. The Polyvagal Theory, as you know, is all about biological safety, and that biological safety is this rather advanced aspect of our neurology. It’s something that is only present in mammals.
The birds have something akin to this, but it is wholly a mammalian function, and that is called the social engagement system or the ventral vagal. It turns out that the dorsal vagal network comes down the spine, while the ventral vagal that innervates the gut, comes down and innervates the heart. Therefore, people often say when they’re in a conflict situation – “Oh, well, we need to sit down and have a heart to heart on this.”
The Chinese medicine model of the perfect balance of Yin and Yang is called harmony. We come into a state of biological harmony, we become engaged with others. This is going to increase our sense of connection to others, which is empathy.
It’s going to increase our sense of awareness and concern for others, which is conscientiousness and in the end, through our engagement with others, because we are networking organisms or what we call “pack animals”, when we are connected with others, we are actually made more fulfilled.
Now, this is itself what in hypnosis we call “rapport”. And in the polyvagal system, when we find a client who is in these dysregulated states, where constantly moving between immobilization and mobilization.
Depression and anxiety are now considered to be similar functions on the spectrum of dysfunction in harmonious engagement. Therefore, depression and anxiety are seen as a similar disorder, but only on a spectrum.
And this is what will happen – People will move between anxiety and depression or they may get stuck in one of these and just have high anxiety, fear state. How do we bring them out of it? They have become dysregulated. We first establish rapport – what does this mean exactly? Rapport is called “co-regulation” in the polyvagal model.
Co-regulation is where an outside force helps to bring balance to the system. And then in time, through conditioning, that organism can come back to its harmonious state, balancing itself, being able to regulate itself through one perceptual awareness, direct perceptual awareness of signaling outside, inside and all around.
We’re going through this conditioning over time, so that we come into a balanced function of these systems.
Consequently, at any time that we move into that imbalanced state, we become automatically aware of it and we have something to do about it. What do we do about it? We train the system for self-regulation, it got that way through training in the first place.
Next, we’re going to learn how to breathe. And as you learn how to breathe, you’re going to learn how to connect with your awareness in your world through the breath work.
Where you’re sitting, just go ahead and let your feet relax comfortably on the floor. It’s really good for this exercise to let the soles of your feet be on the floor. Your palms can be resting on your lap or on the arm of the chair and sit kind of upright and close your eyes and with your eyes closed now just focus on your breathing.
Observe your breathing. Make no effort to control the breathing. Simply experience it and observe the air as it enters the lungs. Observe the air as it exits the lungs.
Now, turn your attention toward your exhalation. And as you exhale, soon you’ll feel this natural tendency and natural response to exhalation, to relax a little bit. So now, each time you exhale, feel the body, experience the body relaxing just a little bit. One of the things that happens, the shoulders relax, the arms relax.
And pretty soon, as you exhale, you may feel that relaxation moving into the lower part of your body, perhaps into your lower abdomen or into your legs.
As you continue to exhale, feel that settling effect, that resting effect in the lower part of the body, in the Yin aspect of the body. As you relax and as you settle in this way, feel that energy move all the way into the soles of your feet. Feel the Earth below you, feel your connection to the Earth below you.
Each time you exhale, feel as though you are exhaling into the Earth and feeling like roots reaching and securing you to the nurturing Earth below, the Earth that we call sometimes Mother Earth. Connect with that sense of “heart of Earth” with each exhalation.
This exhalation also turns off inflammation in the body. Exhalation through relaxation reduces the signaling of pain in the body.
And now, as you’re ready, turn your attention to your inhalation. And as you inhale, feel your awareness move to the upper part of your body, perhaps your upper chest, your shoulders, forehead, or your crown. Feel a kind of uplifting that takes place when you inhale.
This is the domain of Yang, of activation. And each time you inhale, you can feel yourself being somewhat activated and energized, uplifted and connected to the sky above, heart of Sky, Father Sky, Yang.
You might feel your mind even becoming a little more clear as you focus on your inhalation and receive illumination. Because when you inhale, you’re bringing in so much power. Every inhalation contains enough molecules, the atomic potential of which could power this whole planet.
So, each time you inhale, feel that energized feeling, but feel it in a wonderful possessive way that it’s your power being received. And now balance that with the exhalation and allow yourself to move between the exhalation of rooted and reaching and relaxing into stillness.
And each time you inhale, feel yourself connecting to the domain above the sky above, activation.
And in between the two, you’ll feel that energy meeting right in the center of your chest. As you feel that energy of Yin and Yang meeting in that harmonious space in your heart zone, now feel yourself connecting to the Earth plane, to all that is around you.
Feel connected to the walls of the room, the objects in the room, the objects in your world, the people that you encounter, the others who are a part of your tribe, the tribe called Human.
And as you go through your day, at any time that you become mindful or aware of your breathing, you can automatically tune in, be aware of what you’re experiencing, where you are experiencing it in your body.
You carry this tool with you at all times. It serves you.
And through continued practice and conditioning, you are in control of your biology. Your biology guides you to your knowing. Your knowing guides you to your understanding. And your understanding empowers you in all your ways.
It is always accessible and always available simply in the act of breathing.
Therefore, take your time and as you’re ready, engage again with the environment. Maybe take a couple of cycles through the exhalation and the inhalation.
And then as you’re ready, simply allow your eyes to open and be here now.
As You Incorporate this Breathwork into Your Life
Remember you can always take control by adjusting your breath.
▪️ If you feel fatigued or down, you can inhale a couple of times and bring a little Yang in to balance that out.
▪️ If you feel too activated, then you can simply exhale a couple of times and enter into that stillness zone.
▪️ If you feel disconnected, you can bring the energy back into your heart zone, follow the cycles of the breath and feel the expansion and collapsed relaxation of the chest, and feel that you’re expanding into your world and contracting, engaging and gathering with each cycle of the breath.
About Timothy Trujillo
Timothy L. Trujillo is a Mind Body Healing Arts Practitioner, Educator, and Author. Skilled in hypnotherapy, acupuncture, reiki, reflexology, and aromatherapy, he integrates these methods into a comprehensive system, rooted in self-care training. Pain relief, trauma recovery, and chronic or immune-related health management are his specialties. He has been teaching these methods to both public and practitioner audiences for over twenty-five years. His courses on Trauma Recovery and Immune Disorder Management are specialty certification programs for both The American Council of Hypnotists Examiners and the American Hypnosis Association.
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