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Neuroception: What Happens When Our Safety/Danger Programming Goes Awry

Dear EFT Community, 

Chiropractor and EFT Universe trainer Craig Weiner, DC, explains in clear language for the layperson the concept of neuroception (how the brain tells the difference between what is safe and what is dangerous) and its significance and application in the practice of EFT. For locations and times of the EFT Universe classes that Craig teaches with certified EFT practitioner Alina Frank, click here.

-EFT Universe

By Craig Weiner, DC

One of my great passions in life is integrating information from diverse fields regarding how and why people act or react the way they do in a variety of life situations.

I enjoy writing about EFT research and sharing it with the world, as well as getting great satisfaction from culling relevant ideas from the worlds of neuroscience and trauma and offering it in an easy to understand manner to the world of tapping practitioners.

I believe that every practitioner that utilizes meridian tapping modalities would benefit from being exposed to and learning from the ideas generated by researchers and authors such as Dan Siegel, Robert Scaer, Belleruth Naprasek, Allan Schore, Stephen Levine, and Stephen W. Porges. 

In this article, I intend to do my best to offer a fundamental explanation of the theory of “neuroception,” a concept developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, of the University of Illinois at Chicago. This will provide a foundation of understanding necessary for going on to explain his groundbreaking Polyvagal Theory, a transformative explanation that describes the three developmental stages of a mammal’s autonomic nervous system and has profound implications on the repercussions of the fight, flight, and freeze responses.

If you don’t mind, picture this. You have decided to spend a summer evening walking your favorite trail before sunset. You set off from the trailhead parking where there are no other cars and you are happy to have avoided the summer crowds. As far as you can tell, you have the trail all to yourself. As you walk, you become aware of the scent of the local cedar trees. You lose yourself in the beauty of the colors of the setting sun though the trees. The softness of the earth beneath your feet beckons you to forget everything else.

Time loses relevance. 

As you look up to the bend in the trail just ahead, you are jolted into the realization that there is a man turning the corner and walking swiftly directly toward you, and now is only maybe 10 feet away from you and is carrying something in his hand that appears to be sharp and is reflecting the sunlight. How does your body react even just imagining this scene? Do you feel your heart begin to speed up? Are you holding your breath? Do you imagine yourself to be scanning the scene and looking for a way to somehow escape the oncoming unknown?

How we each process information about our environment, especially about other people, is a process of risk evaluation. Our brains are designed to evaluate risk, danger, and safety. In all new situations, our sensory organs immediately begin an observational process that makes a determination of whether it is safe to engage or whether we should get out of Dodge. T

his process is initiated by our sense organs, which then communicate with lightning speed to our brain/central nervous system and peripheral nervous system, which then inform the rest of our body through electrical signals and chemical messengers, directing us toward the next action required to keep us safe. Stephen Porges has termed this process of perception and evaluation “neuroception.” He defines this process as “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life threatening.”

This rapid-response hardware and software integration takes place in the reptilian parts of our brain that work at a subconscious level. 

It is easy to observe this process when approaching a small child. When you approach a baby or infant, they might sense your presence, turn and look at you, and react with a broad playful smile or they might scream in terror. I recently had both the joy and heartbreak of receiving both responses from my one-year-old niece! Though the times she screamed bloody murder, I was been providing no real threat when I kneeled down in front of her, her nervous system chose to inform her otherwise. 

While the idea of a toddler feeling threatened by a stranger is easy to comprehend, the same reaction in an adult is more problematic. When you imagined yourself walking on the wooded trail, suddenly surprised by seeing the stranger, your brain’s amygdala immediately fired and you may have recalled a similar scene from a scary movie, or quickly imagined it to be a knife, alerting your sympathetic nervous system to activate so that you were ready to fight or flee.

Your brain may have responded like the robot in Lost in Space, saying “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” (I am definitely dating myself with that reference!) Even if within a few seconds, you saw that the shiny object was simply a tin can piece of garbage that the man had picked up along the trail, your body might have continued to feel the racing, pulsing feelings for a while after the event was over.

If our nervous systems are designed to constantly seek safety from danger and threat, how do we manage to live harmoniously in a world full of new people and situations? How do we connect and establish relationships without freezing up or shutting down? How many of us do not, for example, feel safe or comfortable in a crowd of strangers? How do we mitigate and subdue that neurological and physiological response every time we meet a new person so that we do not feel and act defensively, or even worse? 

Porges responds to this when he explains that we must learn how to switch effectively from a defensive posture/attitude response to a successful strategy of positive “social engagement.” This requires us to be able to do two things: to assess risk accurately, and if the environment appears safe, to learn to inhibit our primitive defensive reactions to fight, flee, or freeze. 

What can go wrong with this two-step process is that many of us have developed faulty neuroception wiring. As a result, we encounter new situations with inaccurate assessments of safety versus danger. This is maladaptive physiological reactivity, and causes us to either over- or under-respond in such a situation. Someone looks at us in a particular way that feels condescending, disrespectful, or judgmental, and we may walk away, feel our stomach tighten, prepare a verbal response in case they say something to us, and all along, they may only be the victim of a facial twitch. A personal history of having been treated in condescending, disrespectful, and judging ways primes the pump for just such a situation to be a hyperreactive response.

A faulty response mechanism can look like someone overreacting in a safe environment or not reacting appropriately in a dangerous situation.

When we sense risk when no real danger exists, we may be strongly influenced by past traumas that look and feel like current situations. A past mugging may, for example, make us feel unsafe anytime we are visiting the city where it occurred, or feel our hearts race when we are near anyone wearing a leather jacket that reminds us subconsciously of the attire of the mugger, even decades after the fact. 

When we feel safe, we are able to dampen automatic body reactions that are mediated by the sympathetic nervous system. Our body is able to respond automatically and stop the survival-based preprogrammed release of adrenaline and cortisol stress hormones, which would have resulted in increased blood pressure, quickened heart rate, faster and shallower breathing, etc.

In addition, when we perceive safety, our bodies are also able to override the possibility of a parasympathetic driven freeze response that can occur when we feel threatened and helpless and unable to fight or flee. This ability to override subconscious preprogrammed danger signals is dependent on our access to perceiving safety and being free of the feeling of threat.

So how do our brain and body make the determination if something is safe or not? Imaging technologies such as functional MRIs are helping us better understand the mechanisms of risk detection. These technologies are able to detect subtle changes in parts of the brain, such as the amygdala, that light up when activated in the case of perceived danger. 

Imaging studies have also elucidated areas in the temporal lobe of the neocortex that light up upon sensory recognition of things familiar, especially with regard to faces and voices. Porges describes what he calls the “biological movements of face and limbs,” which offer significant data in evaluating how a person responds in their unique determination of safety versus danger.

Elements such as voice prosody (tone and fluctuation), facial gestures controlled by specific facial muscles, gaze direction, and upper body limb positions and gestures all allow for a hastening or dampening of the fight, flight, or freeze response. Without deactivation, a triggering of an alarm response will initiate the body’s response in creating a protective defensive or aggressive reaction.

What is the take-away from understanding neuroception? I think that such a comprehension allows us to gain insight into how we behave with others when we find ourselves moving toward or away from another person or situation.

Do we automatically engage or pull back as we meet our new boss at work?

We can begin to notice our automatic body reactions as we enter these situations and witness the possible opposing responses between our cognitive thoughts and our body’s response. Neuroception can also offer practitioners insight when working with clients who continue to experience repetitive situations in which they “overreact” emotionally to even mildly stressful situations and offer clues into why individuals may “misread” certain situations. This maladaptive response is often based on their particular set of risk factor programming, uniquely influenced by their personal history. 

EFT tapping is a methodology that allows us to play sleuth and recognize neuroceptive conditioning based on previous negative experiences and traumas that can significantly affect what external stimuli (though internal physiological states/body sensations can also trigger hyperreactive states) can trigger our body’s alarm system.

A plethora of past harm-inducing experiences can summate in such a way that makes it extremely difficult for a person to be able to override or dampen the stress programming once an environmental stimulus triggers it and the program has been initiated. Theoretically, tapping work, especially doing something like the Personal Peace Procedure (a step-by-step procedure in which an individual works proactively by tapping on all past disturbing life events), lowers the number of and strength of neuroceptive triggers that can throw a person into maladaptive responses and reactions in a wide variety of life situations.

An appreciation of the role of neuroception as a neurobiologically programmed set of pro- or antisocial behaviors can offer great insight into understanding behavior and perhaps offer a window into how to reset such programming to help resolve faulty neuroception when developed in response to stressful and traumatic experiences.


Porges, S. W. (2004, May). Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three, 24(5), 19—24.