When we have poor vagal tone, we have higher sensitivity to perceived threats in our environment, which overactivates the body’s stress response and leads to reduced emotional and attentional regulation overall. Those of you who experience the discomfort of social anxiety might recognize this disconnect. Imagine walking into a party filled with strangers. You might have obsessed over what to wear to the party, planning every detail, every possible conversation topic, or you may have felt totally neutral about the party—no warning signs that you might feel uncomfortable and act accordingly. Either way, none of it matters once you actually walk into the room. Suddenly, all eyes are on you. Your face grows hot and red when you hear laughter, which you’re certain is about your outfit or your hair. Someone brushes past you, and you feel claustrophobic. All the strangers seem to be leering. Even if you know rationally that this is not a hostile place, that no one is looking at or judging you (and if they are, who cares?), it’s nearly impossible to shake the feeling once you’re trapped in it. That’s because your subconscious perceives a threat (using your nervous system’s sixth sense of neuroception) in a nonthreatening environment (the party) and has activated your body, putting you into a state of fight (argue with anyone and everyone), flight (leave the party), or freeze (don’t say a word). The social world has become a space filled with threat. Unfortunately, this kind of nervous system dysregulation is self-confirming. While it is activated, anything that doesn’t confirm your suspicions (a friendly face) will be ignored by your neuroception in favor of things that do (the stray laugh you felt was directed at you). Social cues that would be seen as friendly when you were in social engagement mode—such as a pause in the conversation for you to enter, eye contact, a smile—will be either misinterpreted or ignored.
Nicole LePera (How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Your Self)