Updated: Apr 23
We come out of the womb wired to connect. As mammals, we rely on this connection with our larger animals (our caretakers) to provide food, protection, and the basic requirements of life. We cannot survive without this connection.
Our primary urge is to seek safety - in our bodies, in our environment, and in our relationships to others. We depend on the adult mammals of our species for stimulation, interaction and, most important, signals of safety and acceptance - all essential ingredients for developing the fundamental skills necessary for growth and learning.
These signals arrive through eye contact, facial expression, body language, vocalization, tone of voice, and touch. In other words, our senses tell us when someone is safe and can provide the loving connection and protection we crave.
The signals reach our brain, not through any conscious activity, but by a process called "neuroception," a subcortical awareness that tells our body that it's safe or, conversely, that danger is lurking nearby. When we feel safe and connected, we have the courage to explore our surroundings and move forward in the world with confidence and a sense of belonging.
This experience is not the sole provenance of us human animals. We share this ability with fellow highly developed mammals, including our primate relatives, cats, dogs, and horses. In fact, it's wired into our nervous systems, in what we call our "social engagement system." It is the part of our nervous system designed to allow us to respond to cues of safety and to support the good feelings that come from being engaged and socially connected.
The terms "social engagement system" and "neuroception" were both coined by Dr. Stephen Porges while developing his groundbreaking "Polyvagal Theory." The Polyvagal Theory describes the evolution of the human nervous system, and is opening dramatic new possibilities for therapists and practitioners of all kinds.
A Cliff Notes Guide to the Human Nervous System *
In evolutionary terms, the social engagement system is the youngster in the development of our autonomic nervous system - the system that operates beneath our conscious control to regulate a whole array of bodily processes. It controls cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, and temperature regulation systems. It is also involved in the experience and expression of emotions.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of two branches. The sympathetic branch developed about 400 million years ago and runs through the middle section of our spinal cord. Its function is to mobilize us into action (fight or flight) when we perceive cues of danger from our environment, those around us, or our own bodies.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the other branch of the autonomic nervous system. It gives us the ability to rest, digest, and connect in conditions of safety, and to disconnect or disappear (freeze) when the body perceives extreme danger. The parasympathetic nervous system is controlled by the vagus nerve, dubbed the "wanderer," as it is the longest of the cranial nerves. This nerve oversees a vast range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses between every organ in the body and the brain.
In his Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Porges' posits that the parasympathetic nervous system is further divided into two pathways, comprising both the oldest and the youngest pathways of our nervous system. The oldest part is the "dorsal vagal" pathway, which we share with our reptilian ancestors who roamed the Earth 500 million years ago. This part of our nervous system keeps us safe from perceived danger by shutting us down into a state of collapse or immobility.
The most recent development is the "ventral vagal" pathway, which dates back a mere 200 million years with the advent of mammals who rely on social connections for survival. It is along this pathway that the functions of our social engagement system are enabled.
Our Nervous System in Action
Let's take a closer look at the social engagement system and what happens as we search for connection and safety and find it lacking.
Suppose an infant, whose survival utterly depends on a successful, safe bond with her mother or other primary caregiver, finds herself instead neglected, abandoned, or abused. The signals of safety are lacking, and attempts at connection may actually pose a threat to the child. What does she do?
Well, this is, ultimately, what our nervous system is designed to contend with. It is always there, operating just below our conscious awareness, to seek out signs of danger in our environment and make the appropriate adaptive behaviors to keep us safe.
Imagine this baby in some distress - she's hungry, or wet, or cold, or uncomfortable. Her nervous system detects a "threat" to the body. She cries, perhaps thrashing her arms and legs. Her body is in a sympathetic fight-or-flight response. She is mobilized into action, as far as her ability allows. Mother comes, relieves the discomfort, and assures baby that all is well through loving words, gentle touch, and a soft, warm gaze. Baby relaxes, and her nervous system returns to a state of calm and safety. This is the social engagement system in action, a mutual interaction of the nervous system of both mother and baby.
But what if mother is distracted or overwhelmed? Her own nervous system is in distress, and she cannot respond appropriately to the child at that moment. The child may escalate her cries, getting more desperate as the perceived danger to her wellbeing escalates.
If she continues unattended long enough that her crying begins to exhaust her (furthering the perception of danger from within), or mother responds with an angry tone (increasing perception of danger from without), baby's nervous system gets even further removed from the calm, connected state it craves. This may lead baby into a state of resignation or collapse. She stops crying and falls, exhausted, into sleep. Or she begins to dissociate - her eyes growing dull, her body listless. This is an example of the primitive part of our nervous system taking over, the part that keeps us safe by shutting us down into collapse or immobility.
Of course, mothers and other caregivers cannot be 100% available all of the time. A healthy nervous system, nurtured in an environment of care and safety, is able to adapt to changing circumstances. Danger is perceived, the body takes action. As in Scenario 1 above, safety is restored and connection is once again possible.
The Nervous System is ALWAYS on the Job!
When, for whatever reason, our body's neuroception tells us there is a threat, our nervous system automatically adapts with a whole host of physiological responses so that we can be ready to take appropriate action to respond to that threat. Problems arise, however, when our nervous system becomes stuck in habitual patterns that rob us of the flexibility to shift from one state to another.
A flexible nervous system moves easily from the calm state of safe social engagement (ventral vagal) to motivated action (sympathetic) in response to daily stressors - such as a work deadline, a difficult personal conversation, a sudden loud noise, to name a few. Once the stressor is dealt with, a supple nervous system can return to the ventral vagal state of relaxed engagement.
On the other hand, if stressful or threatening conditions are prolonged or frequent, our body learns to accommodate to adaptive fight-or-flight responses and we can get stuck in an endless loop of hyper-arousal. This can lead to states of anxiety, muscular tension, hyper-vigilance, and disregulation.
If perceived danger persists beyond our capacity to take effective action, or if we live in a state of fear that is outside of our control, we run the risk of moving further down the autonomic ladder into a dorsal vagal state of immobilization. We might try to disappear, hiding under the covers and unable to move.
We all get to this point from time to time and, as you are probably aware, it is much more difficult to make our way up the ladder from this immobilized state. We are stuck. At these times, we actually need to activate our sympathetic nervous system to give us the necessary boost to move out of collapse. And sometimes we need a little helping hand to move out of an entrenched state of immobility. Eventually, with guidance when necessary, we can work our way back to the top of the autonomic ladder where we can enjoy the ventral vagal state of being both safe and socially connected.
Signs of a Dysregulated Nervous System
When our nervous system is poorly regulated and loses its flexibility to move from one state to another, it can lead to an array of emotional, mental and physical symptoms. These include, but are not limited to:
Persistent social anxiety
Inability to read social cues, disconnection, lack of intimacy
Depressed, anxious or combative mood
Lack of interest in daily activities
Forgetfulness, lack of focus and concentration
Sensitivity to sound, startled by loud noises
Chronic muscle tension and pain
Lashing out or feeling out of control
Blood pressure issues
Problems breathing or swallowing
Maybe It's Not YOU - Maybe It's Your Nervous System
I've worked with numerous clients who have spent years bravely tracking down the sources of their emotional wounding, believing it to be the cause of their distress. While this can be worthwhile, it can also lead us down a rabbit hole to which there is no end. When viewed from a polyvagal perspective, however, we may find solutions come more easily when we address the underlying dysregulation of the nervous system.
Safe and Sound
Fortunately for those of us who come equipped with a nervous system, Dr. Porges has created the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP). SSP is a non-invasive, five-day listening intervention designed to reduce stress and auditory sensitivity while enhancing social engagement and resilience. Based on Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, this powerful listening technology helps both children and adults make dramatic gains in calmness, attention, social communication, and learning.
SSP involves listening to music specifically processed to retune the nervous system to the frequencies of the human voice, introducing a sense of safety and the ability to socially engage. This allows clients to better interpret not only human speech but, importantly, the emotional meaning of language. Once interpersonal interactions improve, spontaneous social behaviors and an enhanced ability to learn, self-regulate and engage are often seen.
Emotional and physiological state are critical to how we approach the task at hand. So when we have better state control, not only can we be more socially engaged, we are more open to change and learning, and better therapeutic outcomes. Since a calm autonomic/physiological state is necessary for health, growth and restoration, achieving it becomes the foundation of an effective therapy.
Safe and Sound in Action
Since adding this program to our repertoire at the Vestibule Center for Sound Living, many clients have seen significant decreases in anxiety, as well as consistent improvements in learning, attention, connection, and social communication.
Some of our success stories include:
A 61-year old woman called in describing an immobilized state of trauma. She described a persistent feeling of homelessness after facing a recent eviction. During the course of the program, she reconnected to a traumatic experience as an infant confined to an isolation unit during the first months of her life. During the five days of the program, she was able to find herself a stable living situation and felt herself "rebirthed and ready to re-enter life."
A normally high-functioning autistic 16-year old teen was suffering from acute anxiety -causing sleeplessness, isolation from his peers, and extreme loneliness. After the five-day program his mother reported that he was sleeping through the night, waking calm and organized, and had resumed normal social activities. On Day 4, she reported with tears of joy that her son told her spontaneously, "Mom, you know I do love you."
A 53-year old man with a history of untreated auditory processing issues and age-related hearing loss noticed a marked decrease in hyper-vigilance after the program. His muscle tone went from hyper-tonic to relaxed, and his upright posture reflected more comfort in himself and his surroundings. Weeks after completing the program, he reported that his hearing improved, especially in noisy environments, and that he had to repeat himself much less often.
The mother of a 7-year old girl suffering from frequent meltdowns reported more emotional stability and compliance both during and after the 5-day program. When asked to stop playing and get ready for school the day after completion of the program, she readily complied without her customary tears. She is now making good progress with another longer-term therapeutic listening program.
A 47-year old Chinese-American woman with a complicated history of separation from her family, her country, and her native tongue, was experiencing anxiety and extreme sensitivity to sound. After Day 1 she reported, "I feel different. More relaxed...less anxious than usual" and "I haven't felt like this in a long time - the sweetness I felt as a little girl, watching a beautiful yellow butterfly in the garden." Months later, she continues to report much less reactivity to loud noises and a noticeable decrease in her startle response.
* She Explains It WAY Better Than Me
For a brief, easy-to-read, and extremely illuminating primer on the nervous system and how it determines our habitual patterns of response, I refer you to the Beginner's Guide to Polyvagal Theory, written by Deb Dana, LCSW. Deb is an accomplished therapist who has furthered Dr. Porges' groundbreaking work by making it accessible in simple language to therapists and lay people alike. This invaluable guide gives us a roadmap for how, "using a polyvagal perspective, we can let go of self-criticism and bring an open heart to exploring the "ways and whys" of our daily experience."