Why do we speed up our speech or raise our pitch when we are nervous? And why does it seem like all of this happens outside of our conscious control? It is worth knowing that your body’s slightest sense of unsafety can change your voice, even if you are not consciously feeling unsafe.
The first thing you should understand is this: the idea that the mind and body are separate is out of step with our current scientific understanding. All of our personal experiences and means of expressions are complex interactions between mind, brain and body—which are all parts of one system. This means our psychological, physical and behavioral responses are all dependent on our physiological state. This is the basic argument of Stephen W. Porges’ polyvagal theory. According to Porges, the state of our body and our organs has a major impact on brain processes, whereas the impact is lesser in reverse, going from the brain to our organs.
At the core of Porges’ work is the concept of safety. His most important message is that feeling safe is emphatically not just about the absence of threat; it is about being able to engage socially. Our sense of safety therefore depends on cues we get from our environment and relationships—mostly facial and bodily expressions and tone of voice. If the prosody (rhythm, intonation etc.) of our voice communicates safety, others are drawn to connect with us and listen to us. Our bodies are processing this type of information constantly, but mostly subconsciously. As we interact with others, we learn who we can trust and who might be a threat. If the cues we get are friendly and positive, our defense system gets deactivated. We detect that we are safe, and this makes us able to engage with others in a relaxing way.
Our nervous system is a complex structure that gathers information from all over our bodies and uses it to coordinate activity. The autonomic nervous system (ANS), situated in the brainstem, is a part of our nervous system that works involuntarily. You might know it as the “reptile brain.” The ANS controls processes such as breathing and our heartbeat without our conscious efforts, carrying on while we are asleep or unconscious. It also helps us scan, interpret and respond to danger cues.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
When we experience danger, stress or heavy emotions, the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system gets activated and we enter fight-or-flight mode. This indispensable feature of the body keeps us safe when we are threatened. When we’re injured, this system minimizes our pain, prevents our blood from draining, and sends extra blood to our brain and muscles so we can focus and flee from danger. It’s like hitting the gas pedal in a car.
There’s just one problem with the ANS: it treats every stressful event as equally dangerous. This means that fight-or-flight mode will be activated not only when someone tries to murder you, but also when you have to give a speech at your best friend’s wedding. To the ANS, it doesn’t matter that in the first situation your life is truly in danger, and in the second situation there is no real threat (apart from the possibility that no one will laugh at your jokes). Stress is stress, and your sympathetic nervous system will supply you in both these situations with all the tools to fight or flee as if your life depends on it. In fight-or-flight mode, your heart rate and blood pressure rise, you get sweaty palms and your mouth gets dry.
Our voice reveals this state, too. When we’re in fight mode, we become defensive and louder. In flight mode, we either speed up our speech because we want to get out of the situation as quickly as possible, or we speak softer, with less diction and intonation, as if we want to disappear. Our breathing gets faster, shallower and higher in the chest.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
Along with the sympathetic nervous system—that is, the gas pedal—the ANS has a second mode that can get activated. This is the parasympathetic nervous system, and functions as the brake. This system activates after stress or danger have disappeared—for instance, after your speech at your best friend’s wedding is safely behind you. The parasympathetic nervous system stimulates relaxation and restoration. The nervous system now gives your organs messages that your heart rate and breathing can slow down. Your muscles relax, veins get wider and the digestive system is activated. Your emotions become calmer we are more open for social engagement and our voice no longer sounds strained.
In parasympathetic mode, the nervous system tells our lungs that now it is safe to start breathing slower and deeper again, into the lower lobes of the lungs. This even works bidirectional: by deliberately breathing deep, low and slow, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The deeper and softer we inhale and the slower we exhale, the more our heart rate slows down and the calmer we get.
This is all happening because of the vagus nerve. This very long cranial nerve is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system, and goes all the way from the brain stem to the abdomen. It connects with the nerves in our face, neck and throat and travels down through the heart, lungs, and bowel system. There are two branches to this vagus nerve: the dorsal, which runs down the back of our bodies, and the ventral, which runs down the front. These two branches run down through our bodies and have the widest distribution of any of our nerves. This facilitates bidirectional travel of sensory information: bodily sensations influence the brain (and consequently how we respond to our environment), and brain processes influence our internal organs.
So that’s a basic explanation of the ANS—but only that. However, the parasympathetic nervous system can also get activated by danger cues. And this slightly more complicated understanding matters when we’re working on our voices, as I’ll explain next.
Detecting Threats and Safety Without Awareness
In the polyvagal theory, neuroception refers to the subconscious process by which our ANS detects signs of threat or safety. It responds to cues from inside – our bodies – and cues from outside – our environment and what happens between us and others. Since detection is being executed by our ANS, it is involuntary; we are not even aware it’s happening.
In this process, both branches of our vagus nerve can be stimulated to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – and each responds differently. The ventral branch of the vagus nerve responds to cues of safety in our environment and interactions. Thereby it supports feelings of physical safety and being safely emotionally connected to others in our social environment.
The dorsal branch of the vagus also activates the parasympathetic nervous system, but in a totally different way than the ventral branch. And this is where it gets complicated. The dorsal branch doesn’t respond to cues of safety, but to cues of danger. Just like the sympathetic nervous system. When you are in danger, your ANS initially wants to activate a sympathetic response, to fight or flight. When you cannot fight or flight however, your nervous system might choose to freeze instead. Freezing is the result of a parasympathetic response from the dorsal branch. In this state you are pulled away from connection, out of awareness, and into a state of self-protection, like blackout. shutdown or collapse. If you have ever experienced a threatening situation that left you feeling frozen or dissociated, this indicates that your dorsal vagal system has taken over.
How You Can Influence Your ANS
Although there’s no such a thing as a quick fix for nerves or anxiety, there are some things you can do to calm your ANS and activate its safety mode when we’re feeling stressed, anxious or frozen. First, you must recognize the response state you are in. Are you safe, in fight, flight or freeze? What are the signs from inside your body that give you information about this state? How do you feel, what do you think and how do you behave? It is also helpful to be able to recognize the response states in others.
The next step in this process is to identify what your personal cues of safety are, and actively invite them into your life. The following activities are generally beneficial for most people to regulate fight-or-flight mode:
- Eating or drinking
- Shaking all parts of your body to loosen up
- Breathing slowly into the belly
- Listening to a socially engaged, calming voice
- Listening to slow, relaxed music
- Taking walks in nature
- Focusing on sensory experience (What do you hear, see and smell?)
- Being playful, laughing, and having fun
- Dancing slowly; moving your body from side to side as if you are being cradled
- Social contact such as hugging, cuddling, eye contact
- Petting animals
The polyvagal theory has made clear how our bodies, more than our minds, determine how we feel. Moreover, posture, facial expression and vocal expression play a key role in relationships with others—how they make us feel and how we make them feel. These cues convey a huge amount of subtle—but essential— information about our state of being, in ways that we often fail to realize. The quality of your voice is about so much more than coming across as engaging, decisive and persuasive. It is the key to intimate, honest connection to your fellow human beings. And this connection with others is your key to feeling safe.
This article is an abridgment of one of the chapters from my book, expected to come out in 2022.
Stephen W. Porges The Pocket Guide To The Polyvagal – The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe 2017, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York
Deb Dana De Polyvagaaltheorie in Therapie – Het Ritme van Regulatie 2021, Uitgeverij Mens!, Eeserveen