Feeling Safe and Parkinson’s Disease — Out-Thinking Parkinson’s

This article seeks to convey pragmatic and applicable knowledge of the human nervous system to people affected by Parkinson’s Disease and those involved in providing healthcare and caregiving, as well as to try to summarize for myself my own current understandings of these concepts. In particular, we explore the role of people, attitudes and relationships in the lived experience of people with PD.

The human Nervous Systems constantly evaluates whether the current situation and environment is safe or dangerous. The biological mechanism of scanning the environment for signs and portents of safety versus danger/threat, and for making snap decisions based on these, is via a fast subconscious process known as “neuroception”. Physiological shifts then occur according to the neuroceptive evaluation, and these physiological responses include three fundamental outcomes, as well as admixtures of these.

Upon evaluation that the current environment is safe, the body is able to relax, the mind to quieten, and the whole able to be in connection with other people in healthy and restorative, socially engaged ways. This state of safety is mediated by the activation of a group of important cranial nerves that are connected to the muscles of the face, neck, lungs and heart, and which form part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

However, when a threat is subsequently detected, then a shift in physiology occurs, which prepares the body for mobilized defensive behaviours, e.g. to fight or flee, via activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System. When so mobilized for defence, the bodily functions required for safe connection with other people are downgraded, so we become socially disengaged, less empathic and more selfish.

When neuroception deems mobilization is not enough to escape the danger, another shift in physiology occurs and we shutdown, freeze, play dead or otherwise immobilize. This occurs through activation of another part of the Parasympathetic Nervous system called the dorsal or sub-diaphragmatic Vagus Nerve. In this shutdown state, all but the most fundamental systems required for survival are significantly downgraded, especially those of healthy social interactions, and this continues until our neuroception deems the danger has passed.

Neuroception gathers its input from many of other senses in order to make its evaluation, including detecting movement, sounds, smells, touch, imminent falls or trips, and so forth, as well as taking in information from various parts of the Nervous System, including the “second brain” of the enteric Nervous System, from which gut instincts arise, and also accounting for emotions and feelings that generated, in part, from the “third brain”-like neuronal clustering of the heart.

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