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Conflict is All in the Mind–or is it?

I think that there is a lot of confusion in the field about how the vagal nerve and our instinctual responses affect us when we are in conflict–specifically how does the vagal nerve respond when we are scared?

How much choice do you have when you are triggered? That depends, may be your answer. It depends on how in that moment your polyvagus nerve reacts. Your nervous system, according to the Polyvagal Theory developed by Steven Porges in 1995, will prompt a reaction of threat or safety. Threat can be a red light signalling a state of freeze, or an orange light signalling a state of fight and flight activating mobility or you could also get a reaction of welcome familiarity, signalling a green light of safety. It depends, relates to the conditions within your body as well as the conditions in the environment. Triggers can come from within the body or from outside. The triggers can be imagined or real. Just watch a horror movie, TV news, or have a nightmare to see how the body’s reaction works in the virtual and the real world, your body doesn’t make a distinction. Glimmers create the opposite reaction, glimmers are those reactions that lighten up your joy, your sense of engagement with beauty. Both triggers and glimmers affect our mood and our body.

What Steven Porges has revealed in his Polyvagal Theory is now being confirmed by various other studies. Most recently in a paper titled ‘Maps of Subjective Feelings’ a research paper by Lauri Nummenmaa, Riitta Hari, Jari K. Hietanen and Enrico Glerean confirms that our emotions actually activate our body’s feeling in various places and this is universal, not culturally dependent. Our subjective feelings are our energy in motion, the energy is flowing in our body. This has great implications for mental health, for conflict resolution, for human relatedness. The implication is that our emotions are not just subjective thoughts floating consciously or unconsciously inside us, that we can avoid, take notice of or deny. In fact what we now are finding in research is what traditional knowledge has been telling indigenous people for thousands of years, our body’s are sacred carriers of our spirits, our body’s actually have sensory receptors and this energy sends messages to our body cells creating frequencies that become our emotion, energy in motions relating to various parts of our bodies.

The Indian people knew this as Charkras, the Jewish Kabbalah knows this as Sephirot, and the Hawaiians know this as na’au.

So what does this mean? In the world of psychology it is massive. It means that it is not enough to talk with clients to work in a healing way. It is now recognised that there is an embodiment that has taken place, the emotions have been emobodied somewhere, taken hold of muscles habits. So the sense of fear not only signals the vagal nerve response of red light sensing present danger, but that fear is traveling in our body. That red light is redirecting our blood flow, opening up and closing vessels and shutting down our thinking. The orange light of fight and flight is mobilising our adrenals, sending messages of action to our limbs and also cutting off pathways of calm, peace and kind regard. It is the green light of warmth and friendliness that activates our eyes, ears, and cheeks, sending hormones of connection, blood flowing all through our body, especially our head.

So next time you facilitate a mediation, know that it isn’t enough to set the ground rules, and warn the clients of alternative to a cooperative agreement will be an imposed judgement. That is not the condition that will actively begin the journey of open mindedness, or kind regard. If you really want to offer a process that is oriented towards resolution, to mutual respect and collaboration, you need to create the ambience, the authentic experience of ‘you are cared for here, I like you, I am here as an alternative to the cold conditioning of law and order.’

You can do it, you were designed for caring, for compassion and for connecting. It is just about reminding those muscles, and then you can be a mirror for reminding your clients that they too have muscles designed for wholeheartedness – wholeheartedness that is born and nurtured from vulnerability.


Michelle Brenner

Michelle Brenner PGDip Conflict Resolution (Macq.Univ.) was one of the first to receive post-graduate qualifications in Conflict Resolution within Australia in 1994. Since then she has been a pioneer in the practice and development of the field. She was a forerunner in mediation in local government, being the first full… MORE >

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