34: The Science of Safety with Stephen Porges

34: The Science of Safety with Stephen Porges

hello and welcome to another episode of relationship alive this is your host Neil satin have you ever wondered what exactly is happening in your body when you get triggered why do we go into rage or feel like leaving or completely shut down have you ever experienced conflict and thought something like if only my body could just calm down then I might be able to actually resolve this or have you experienced that moment of getting nowhere in a conversation with your partner because they are triggered there's a reason that we keep coming back to this issue of safety and being triggered that's because both your ability to feel safe in the container of your relationship and your ability to restore safety when inevitably you aren't feeling it is at the heart of your being able to do relationship well especially once the honeymoon stage of your relationship is over creating safety with your partner is at the heart of the work of people like John Gottman sue Johnson Harville Hendrickson helenluke Ellie hunt stant Atkin and creating safety within yourself is at the heart of the work of Peter Levine dick Schwartz Margaret Paul basically everyone that we've had on this podcast in other words we're diving deep because this understanding is key to helping you in almost every aspect of your relationship with others and your relationship with yourself today's guest is dr. Steve Porges creator of the polyvagal theory and a distinguished University scientist at the Kinsey Institute a research professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina for more than 40 years Steve has been working on this theory of how our vagus nerve works and his work has completely transformed our understanding of how we respond to obstacles adversity conflict stress and trauma how the very same nerve pathways that support our health can also be recruited for defense and create health problems if you've heard of fight flight and freeze that's all based on his work and you have some idea of what I'm talking about in today's episode we're going to not only get a better understanding of how and why the body does what it does but also get even more clear on how to come back into balance so that you can be in a state of healthy responsiveness playfulness curiosity not triggered and just trying to deal Steve Porges thank you so much for being here with us today on relationship alive Thank You Neil it's a pleasure to be here the question you asked me is you know it could take several days so we're going to try to reduce the scope of the question of explaining the polyvagal theory to shift it into some more intuitive visualizations we as humans are mammals I mean we we evolved from more primitive mammals but mammals also evolved from more primitive vertebrates and during this evolutionary history are we basically inherited some features that we can not to be totally aware of until they're recruited and one is that we actually have two defense systems and many of the people listening and many of the people that you've had on have been very focused on a primary defense system that people call fight or flight that's very much dependent on activation of the sympathetic nervous system what we forget is or have forgotten is that there's another defense system and that defense system is a total immobilization system that reptiles employ all the time and when I started to describe the polyvagal theory about having these two different neural circuits that were related to defense I was talking to trauma therapists and suddenly they their eyes opened up and they start to understand what was going on because the polyvagal theory provided a a neuro physiological understanding of the experiences that many of their clients had gone through in fact many of the therapies had gone through as well and that is to immobilize with fear in which they would dissociate or in basically not perhaps pass out perhaps defecate but basically go into a state like a reptile does to reduce metabolic needs and since they stopped breathing and stopped moving and they start looking inanimate and functionally when people are traumatized there are making an adaptive behavior to disappear to become inanimate and when you deal with clients they often use those terms so and and I'm curious as well because is there there's no conscious in input in terms of how these systems activate I think I think the discussion of consciousness implies a degree of Alishan or will or responsibility or shame so we start moving the whole way that when people experience this immobilization like being raped or being threatened the culture says why didn't you fight back why didn't you leave without respecting what I would call the implicit be activity of the body and since respecting that the body goes into these states and they're not voluntary responses they're functionally on a reflexive level and because it's not a voluntary level of responding I actually had to come up with a new construct a new word to describe the process that triggered people into these different physiological states and I used the word neuro ception because the nervous system was making this decision and creating this change in our behavior what I would call a bio behavioral state without any level of awareness or consciousness so we often are not the triggers but we are profoundly aware of the effect it has on our physiology so we if our body detects features in the environment of risk of that would be considered more like danger we might have a sympathetic excitation meaning our heart might be faster we may sweat we may be almost jumping out of our skin to try to navigate out of that place we may not know the cues that are doing that but our body is telling us something and the problem with in a psychiatric or psychological world view is that people often develop a personal narrative to justify their behavior so if they're in a sense antsy or anxious and moving along moving or jumping out of their skin they may come up with a justification of why they have to leave the room or why they don't like the person they're with or why the person is irritating them when it could be something totally different it could be they could have in a sense a sound hypersensitivity they could have shifted in terms of glucose levels they might not have eaten it might be very warm and in the place and they're sweating but their body has shifted to mobilize to get out and now they're creating the attributions the other defense system which is the critical one to people who are doing work in trauma is this life-threatening down and it means that our body might go too into that state and we may not eat we're not in control so that certain people might pass out if they're talking to doing public speaking of course they don't want to pass out and what is the life threat cues that do that well we really don't know we know that the body responded to that and now we want to flip to the other side this is really what this whole podcast is about it's about relationships and the concept of safety so we've talked briefly about two major defense circuits one of mobilization of using the sympathetic nervous system and the other one of basically shutting down which uses a very ancient when I use the word ancient meaning that we share with virtually every more permanent vertebrate that evolved and because the primary defense system for ancient vertebrates was immobilization reduced oxygen demands reduced metabolic demands and this circuit is mediated through the vagus and this creates the paradox because up until the polyvagal theory the sense the scripture was saying parasympathetic nervous system is the system of health growth and restoration and sympathetic nervous system is a fight/flight system and was misunderstanding the complexity of our autonomic nervous system and that in part they were always right the parasympathetic support health growth and restoration with all its vagal components that Vegas is the major component of the parasympathetic nervous system however the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus can be recruited for defense but it's only the more ancient vagal circuit so what I want to get to the other side is that we have a newer vagal circuit which one this one is functioning it basically keeps that sympathetic arousal fight/flight system and the other vagal system it keeps them in the realm of supporting health growth and restoration both of them and it this newer vagal circuit is linked to the features is linked to the neuro regulation of the face so it enables us to express our bodily state in our facial expression express our bodily state in the intonation of her voice and it enables us to detect the intonation of other people's voices to determine whether we think that worth they're safe or not so the ancient features that our body still has is that we detect safety primarily believe it or not through the intonation of another person's voice or in its sounds in the background our body responds to that and our culture is so functionally linked to words or syntax it forgets the importance of intonation of voice or prosody as the mediator of how we feel that was a lot I know so you can unpack it yeah great and there's yeah there's a lot there the first thing that comes to mind is just just to revisit the mechanics for a moment just for people who like when we talk about the Vegas what are we talking about what is that the Vegas is the largest it's a it's a large nerve in our body it's a cranial nerve meaning that it is it comes out of our brainstem and goes to virtually every organ within our body cavity so it is that people are interested in mind body or brain body relationships they're interested in the vagus because not only does it influence these organs but these organs are sending information about the body back to the brain so about 80% of the fibers in the vagus are sensory so they're really a surveillance it's a surveillance cable conduit bringing all the information about your organs to the brainstem and it has actually two primary branches one that goes to organs above the diaphragm and the other that goes to organs below the diaphragm when I say primarily so they're the issues of one that goes to the organs below the diaphragm is the one that is usually can be recruited in this life threat defense so that's what happens when people get totally frightened they defecate but it also has some fibers still going to the heart and that can slow your heart rate and drop our blood pressure so people can pass out and the newer Vegas is in the brainstem linked to the nerves that regulate all these structures the face and head all the muscles and this one has an inhibitory action on our sympathetics and the other Vegas so in terms of polyvagal theory there are two important principles that that were embedded in what I was saying the first principle was that there were basically three phylogenetic branches the autonomic nervous system and phylogeny is really our evolutionary history and those final phylogenetically evolved systems actually create a hierarchy because we use our newest circuits first and when they don't serve in our quest for safety we start using older circuits so the newer circuit is the one which has the mild late Vegas that creates prosonic voice Invitational voice it creates smiling faces and in your own words it would I think use words like playfulness mm-hmm the playfulness is coming for that mildly Vegas and it requires or it involves a lot of face to face and voice to voice interactions a lot of social referencing and let some of the other people on your podcasts are probably mentioned that for a strong relationship you have to have a degree of reciprocity reciprocal behavior and this is the system that does that and can you also touch on the relationship between the the facial facial muscle it muscles and your middle ear and its effect on hearing because oh yeah that's carried it's bit well it's curious but it's also very useful at dinner parties if you ask well if you were to find a fossil how would you know if that fossil was a mammal it's a necessity you have to go in the context of how important middle ear bones and middle ear muscles are well you can identify a fossil as being a mammal by having detached middle ear bones and what that enabled mammals to do enable them to detect acoustic sounds at higher frequencies that were air airborne so if the bones weren't detached they would be still stuck to the jawbone which meant that to hear sounds you're basically having bone conduction at low frequencies so you could hear Rumble and this is how reptiles are basically here they hear through bone conduction so if you're walking along a path and there's a snake what do you say how do you say that there's a snake in front of you do you use a high pitched voice or a low pitch voice and you get the solution to this from monkeys monkeys if they see snakes are squealing at a very high-pitched voice you know they're basically articulating a vocalization in the frequency demand that the snakes can hear so the middle ear muscles enabled mammals to communicate in a frequency band that was not detectable reptiles now here is the most interesting issue that if we get scared or mobilize or going to a state of fight flight the intention to the middle ear muscles are is reduced we can actually look at people's faces and get clues on that if someone is mobilized or angry or scared I'm not saying immobilize but in a sense you can see their state changing by their behavior you notice that the upper part of the face and loses the exuberance loses the playfulness meaning that the muscle around the eye is basically going flat in the upper part of the face the muscle tone is flat and we use words like flat effect to describe that when the person's face is going flat their neural tone to the middle ear structures are also getting reduced so now they can hear Rumble or predator sounds low frequency sounds but not understand human voice and again if you're dealing with relationships every relationship has some minor to severe level of arguments meaning people get they start feeling a lack of safety in the relationship and they function to get angry or scared and when that occurs the muscles the neural tone to the muscles of the upper part of the face that muscle tone is reduced so the person's upper part of the face is no longer attractive no longer comforting and when that occurs the neural tone to the middle ear muscles changes and now that person can't hear literally what you're saying they're having difficulty understanding and when people are in arguments or even if you have children and you're trying to write and you reprimand your child it's very questionable whether the child can even process what you're saying yeah and I'm I'm thinking of couples you know where they're in in anger or rage and one of them says to the other literally I can't even hear you right now right right I think that's being extraordinarily honest and the part the problem with that is when the person makes that statement what's the visceral response of the person to whom they made that statement it is a personnel I understand I'm very accepting right right it doesn't occur that way because that person's voice has already lost any level of regulating the other right and and so actually I'd like to move this conversation a little bit to kind of do a little integration so that we don't lose too many people okay the issue is being a mammal is something very special and mammals do a couple things very poorly they don't deal well by being by themselves and they don't in any level of isolation or any metaphor of being isolated and of course that's part of what happens in couples and couples therapy is that the couple no longer feels safe with each other and that's because safety is so important for a mammal because mammals never evolved to be isolates they evolve to Co regulate so Co regulation is the ability to of two individuals or whether we're talking about dogs or a dog with a human or two humans to help regulate each other state so we use words like caregiving and we really don't mean caregiving we mean something like care reciprocity so if you're a mother or father with a child and you're supporting that child if the child kind of smiles back and conforms to your body they're giving back to you and you're feeling very comfortable if the child gets rigid throws to head back and starts to cry it's not very pleasant and so the whole issue is the reciprocity and I actually want to go back one step further on this okay because we're in the political arena now we're in the political time with the primaries going on and we're dealing with a lot of issues on public media and on the television we're bombarded with cues of danger and one thing we forget is that the survival of mammals and this means all mammals not just humans was due to cooperation and not to so-called survival of the fittest was not through aggression it was through cooperation and there's a I can't spell his name Bob Dobbs insky was a evolutionary biologist and he was basically emphasizing and arguing that people have misinterpreted Darwin and basically used this notion of survival to fitness to talk about aggressive behavior and he's saying that the survival was through cooperation so I just wanted to put that on the table and if we go back to the previous speakers that you've had who talked about relationships as a form of healing we have to put the biology right on the table and that co-regulation is the recruitment of each individual's the two people who are in the relationship it's recruiting the reciprocal support of what I call their social engagement systems the social engagement systems are what you see you see the face you hear the voice and you see the posture and I gesture but underlying that is this newer myelinated vagus which helps regulate the other parts of your anomic nervous system to support health growth and restoration so the point that polyvagal theory makes is that the neural physiology of social engagement behaviors is the same it recruits the same neural circuits that are required to support health growth and restoration so even though your speakers were talking about mental health the system is also linked to physical health so on that level what are what are symptoms for lack of a better word that someone might observe about themselves or their partner that might indicate that their systems are being recruited for defense instead of all in alignment for health growth and vitality so I would first look at whether there's reciprocity in facial expressivity high gaze intonation of voice I would also ask the question or try to observe whether the vocalizations pattern London landed that landed them to reciprocal dialogue or were people stepping on each other's words yeah how about in terms of what you one might sense within their own body or and that could be a sensation in their body or it could be what they're noticing about what their body is doing or is not doing okay so okay so if we focus on this issue of understanding bodily feelings and being aware of that and we also lean on what we already know from the trauma literature and that is traumatic experiences or let's say the the perception or the it's the experience is not the event let's first start off by saying that trauma histories may have very little to do with the physical event and a lot to do with the fit with a physiological response and once we get to that level we're less concerned about the objective characteristics of the event and more focused on the subjective experience so it's clearly witnessing the experience as opposed to documenting the objective aspects of the event I think we're making a very very poor decision in how we treat people who have trauma experiences we basically treat them as as a legalistic procedure to try to document and and go after the perpetrator and we don't really witness the subjective experience of the victim so the the first thing is this ability to understand one's own body and feel one's own body and if we don't feel our own body if we don't have the sense of our own body we have difficulty relating to other people's bodies and I think you know we had purely being on I'm sure you had a lot of discussion about those that aspect exactly yeah a feature of trauma histories is the lack of feeling one's own body so there are a lot of cues but I in terms of the manifestation of behavioral cues I the simple thing is well as a person play it may sound silly but does the person have this ability to be spontaneous and reciprocal in the interactions meaning can they read the cues and if they don't read the cues it's like playing in a chaotic field and where you're doing behaviors and the behaviors are not contingent and this gets people feeling very bad about the relationship yeah and knowing what I know about your work I was this just popped into my head it's like there's this question of how well are you playing yeah and then pardon me of this sounds a little crass but on the other end it's like how well are you pooping like that there's no oh okay so thank you for bringing that up yeah so so the issue is this whole area below the diaphragm and this goes into very powerful into terms of relationships so what you find out is linked with trauma is that you have basically GI problems you have irritable bowel you have constipation or you have diarrhea or oscillating between the two but those are also giveaways in terms of flags telling you about sexual relationships or sexual performance and literally accessibility to bodily feelings in the genitalia so these become very important because the nerves regulating that sub diaphoretic area are also regulating your new genitals so just to speak more concretely like let's say one person in a relationship is always constipated and it sounds like what you're saying is that that is probably I mean apart from just they probably don't feel very comfortable that that there's something that's connecting that to an actual disconnection with their the feeling and sensation that would lead to being more sensual with them let's basically deconstruct and do very simple adaptive behaviors when is it optimal to be literally to inhibit your now move it when is it important to inhibit it when you're running away right when you mobilize so fight/flight inhibits digestion and what I often say in my talks is I basically ask people what did their mothers tell them after they had lunch and they want to go swimming and the answer is universal after you eat wait an hour right and the comment of that is how did your mother know the polyvagal theory because if you're going to run or swim or do things you're going to hit it digestion if you inhibit digestion when you have a lot of food there it's gonna cause some problems you can have cramps and other issues because the blood is going in since your resources are being recruited to digest so eating food is a metabolically caustic I shouldn't say eating food digesting food is metabolically costly and so if we want to facilitate digestion we have to in a sense not run or move around so if you're dealing with people who are highly anxious or before would be tightly wrapped high probability is that their digestive system is going to reflect the same thing if the digestive system is reflecting it is also probably that there are sexual and responses or they're behavioral responses to intimacy are going to reflect those features as well so one thing that's interesting to me and a little confusing is you've mentioned that there's a hierarchy that goes on in terms of how these systems relate to each other and that the myelinated vagus so in other words the the the part of our nervous system that's contributing to social behavior and play and reciprocity that that inhibits or has the potential to inhibit the defensive structures of the other systems but so where it gets confusing to me is how does it work or do they are they partially online that you know you could be sort because obviously if you're you're still functioning you're still living and breathing and yet you're in this you're carrying around a fight flight okay let's let's let re interpret what our autonomic nervous system is great the what you were doing was basically assuming that a major component of the autonomic nervous system is there to support defense and I'm really saying that that's not what it's for it's for supporting health growth and restoration and it's only when it's used for defense that interrupts the health growth restoration basically when we utilize our autonomic nervous system for defense then we start having manifestations of areas disorders in those target organs so the the if you visualize it in a different way and you think of this newer myelinated vagus as creating as a controlling circuit that enables those other parts of the autonomic nervous systems and sympathetic and that older on myelinated vagus that is primarily regulating your organs below a diaphragm that when you have the newer Vegas in functionally working those other parts are doing their job to support homeostasis support health growth and restoration but if we pull off our myelinated vagus which is part of our social in our social system then we're vulnerable for using the autonomic nervous system for defense and when we go there then we have all these other problems yeah so I think to clarify what I was asking it was how does that mechanism work where those systems are being recruited for defense and yet they're still doing their job not necessarily doing their job so so the issue is if you're in a high sympathetic state you're going okay if you don't have them if you view this hierarchically then start things start making sense right and if you retract that newer myelinated vagus and now recruit the sympathetics for fight flight it's going to inhibit that subtype Radek vegas is going to interfere with your digestion okay so it's still happening but it's not happening as efficiently well it's removing it I would say yet not efficiently but you let's say you now have constant you're constipated is that saying it's still working but not working real well and you then then you start taking it goes into irritable bowel is that working but not working real well the bottom line is that when these systems are in there when the autonomic nervous system is in more chronic modes of Defense you can then start a manifestation we evolved to deal extraordinarily well with acute short-term mobilization defense sympathetic defense and rapidly calm down with a vocalization from another conspecific another one of our species that's how mammals evolved triggering defense and then calming down and in fact if you start looking at the games that children play especially mothers with babies like peekaboo you try to trigger a defense and then you bring a smiling face to calm down this is a functionally a neural exercise of moving back and forth between two bodily feelings and not letting them get overwhelmed by it but if we were chronically with a mother who is hiding her face and not giving any reassurance to the baby what's gonna happen to the baby's physiology right it's going to be stuck in that state oh yeah or yeah it's gonna be stuck somewhere that is not the same it's not going to be in a sense have the resilience have the experience and no term I use now as neural exercises that create a expectancy that if you go into the state door rapidly come out of it hmm okay so when you're dealing with couples and when they go into a state and they can't come out of it it's telling you something about their ability to be resilient with each other right and it and that may or may not have any bearing on each other if I mean they may as individuals not have the skills right place to oh yeah I think would be careful with the word skill that already is attributing a responsibility to an individual let's say that their neuro physiological state doesn't quite have the capacity at this point in time to deal with these challenges so it would change therapy from a basic learning mode to a more experiential one and where the nervous system is basically being moved through different states where gains expectancies of being able to Co regulate or calm down so it's like almost like riding a bike or being on a treadmill the first time you get on it you don't know why you're on it and then your physiology adapts to the demands and then when you get off at your physiology adapts to not being on it and it's that challenges to the physiology that creates a neural exercise we have the same thing in terms of our social interactions I'm thinking about John Gottman's work and his focus on that it's not so much the conflict but it's the repair that happens after the conflict and I'm wondering if you would take it a step further that because to talk about repair that seems to suggest like how we're navigating through language the you know apologizing and you know understanding and all of that and I wonder if there's this level of repairing that couples need to experience that's purely purely physiological oh I think it's totally the repair first of all we have violations of expectancies occurring all the time so in a sense our body is functionally being injured when people walk by without saying a low or they walk by us all these things occur multiple times and and they're part of what it is to be alive however when when you have a violation it creates an opportunity for repair and we do this frequently we will interrupt people while they're talking to someone else and we'll say but we'll repair was they are very sorry to interrupt you will an intention of of understanding so the part that I want to really clarify what you said as an example is it's not the words of apology it's how they are said with the gestures and the intonation of the words that the partners responds to as being a valid apology or merely an explicit word so the person has to feel that it's an apology it's a totally subjective aspect it's not the words so it's not the words it's how the words are being used and we function so much in our society on the syntax and not enough on the intonation and understanding of our body's response to the sounds of words yeah we actually the episode that's coming out today though by the time people hear this it won't be today it will have been two weeks ago was an interview with Marty Babbitt's and he's talking about a context for communication that involves the meaning it involves the way things are said and then it also involves this meta level of thinking am i creating safety in this conversation see I think that's all true but there's a very very simple set of biological antecedents and that is bodies respond to intonation of vocalizations if you have a dog it's very very obvious it's obvious that dogs functional vocabulary or understanding the their ability to understand language is not many words but they understand the intonation of the voice so if you talk to your dog in a low frequency monotone dog detects that is predator did something wrong goes right down to the ground becomes submissive if you talk to the dog like you would talk to a baby with a hyper prasat ik intonation what we call motherese the dog's tail starts to wag and it looks like the dog is smiling and you have dogs right I don't currently have a dog but I have a long career in the dog world so yeah so you understand what I'm saying exactly it's only when we get to couples or to children or do you know human interaction that we tend to say it's not how we say the words it's the words themselves so I'm really saying treat it treat each other more like you treat your dog and maybe life would be better I mean it's a very strange set of words to use but if we were more playful if we used intonation voice facial expressivity and more gestures of of engagement we would be regulating each other's physiological state and this brings me to another comment that I'd like to make and that that is the notion of connectedness or the ability to Co regulate our biological States I see that as a biological imperative I see that as the goal that that we have to do as mammals we have to interact in a way to regulate each other's physiology and that I think is really what you're interested in in terms of dealing with couples and relationships is bringing it really and putting it out there and saying it's a responsibility for individuals to interact to make each other feel safe and the consequences of that is not merely it's enjoyable or it's healing but it has great effect on our mental and physical health because it supports those circuits of health growth and restoration yeah and I'm curious also think about what or to experience what that would be like if you are really focusing on that in terms of your interactions with everyone in the world if you're interacting in a way that's creating that kind of safety co-regulation with every interaction you have well I think you'd have to ask the question do you want to be safe and interact with everyone you know it's like well there's some people you probably aren't safe with so there are some people you don't want to be safe with right so I mean we are selective and that's and part of that selectivity is in part based upon the cues that the other person throws at us even though they may not know they're throwing it so the intonation of a person's voice their their presence in the room how they look at you the upper part especially the upper part of the face will determine whether you feel safe enough to great dialog yeah and I'm I mean I'm just remembering I think one of your interviews that I heard where you were talking about Bill Clinton and his ability to talk to you know his arch enemies the Republicans and get them to agree and you know have spectacular progress even though they would leave not knowing what they had exactly agreed to right right and that was I think I think he had other people leaving his presence not knowing what they agreed to as well but I think he was a very charming person he he and again if we remove the politics of Clinton and understand you know it even didn't go through his developmental history his need to Co regulate was great and he came from you know his early childhood experiences were not supportive and not helpful in many ways got optimal at least and so his whole life was about you know regulating with others yeah so I want to get to that but before we do I have one more question around the phenomena that we experience in our bodies and that is where does shaking or trembling fit in tree there's actually on YouTube david Vercelli interviewed me to ask me to explain that but Peter Levine stuff also the transitioning that he uses as a metaphor for mammals that go into a life-threatening mobilization as they wake up I see let's deal with the notion of the tremble yeah it part of it has to do nor biologically with a loss of blood flow to the peripheral muscles you can simulate that by doing an isometric if you push your arms against the wall long enough and actually that's what purselley does as a treatment for trauma he actually gets people to get the physiological feedback that they're in a sense their muscles are no longer under voluntary control but he is a very supportive in charming person with a wonderful wonderful wonderfully prosonic voice and basically people can now experience the physiology feel safe in that and this is where we're saying the implicit feeling is now I'll basically put into a context of safety so the explicit aspect of it is safe and now you can physiologically feel this and kind of describe it without going into the panic that that would normally do Peter Levine strategies are very similar and I've known Peter for over 30 years and I'm gonna actually relay the story about Peter which is goes into some of these features many years ago Peter was very interested in co2 breathing now co2 breathing is a way of creating a physiological state where a lot of people would go into a state of panic okay so Peter was doing co2 breathing with enough oxygen it was like you're going to be hypoxic but in a safe context and I did this with Peter in the late 1970s it's quite an amazing phenomenon because suddenly you're no longer controlling your breathing because the carbon dioxide the co2 is triggering the respiratory centers and you're basically sitting there and you're observing your chest wall moving and you're not making it move it's just moving and I think this is similar to what tremor is all about the notion is can we be in a physiological state in which we can experience those implicit bodily feelings without them triggering what they had been previously associated with so we're in a sense able to separate the physiology from those events and once we can do that then the events lose their power and this is where I think somatic experiencing is about and other some maduk therapies it's about taking away the power of those implicit body memories and it's not by telling people that you shouldn't get upset you shouldn't be worried about that it's about allowing the person to have that bodily feeling in a safe context so it becomes a neuro exercise right so that would be why simply telling yourself I'm safe isn't necessarily gonna do anything in those contexts however telling yourself you're safe and changing your breathing pattern may great so let's talk about that because I think everyone listening at this point is probably thinking ok I get it and what do I do what do I do when I'm clearly being triggered by my partner by something in the world and and how are what are some strategies that I can incorporate into how I behave and how I interact with my partners that will foster the the social engagement safety mechanisms okay but remember everyone is human and which means that even knowing what to do doesn't mean that you're gonna do it because your body goes into those states and I'll just give you a few examples you know so you know I'm on a academic and academics are live in the I don't yeah they live in a hostile environment okay they live an environment that's constantly about evaluation and I we still remember this because one day I got a review back on the grandpa pulse or something that didn't make me feel happy and I walked into my lab and I told my lab I said listen you're going to be receiving cues from my face don't it's not about you it's about me today so the idea was to separate initially separate let them know that something else was going on that they wouldn't interpret my lack of affect my lack of reciprocity as being caused by them you can say that but it's not always going to work especially if you're in a leadership or responsibility position because people want from you that caring and a sense of presence that you're there for them and I had to tell my staff that I wasn't really there for them that day anyway so the the first part is that yeah we can be aware of our own implicit or bodily feelings and we have to be respectful of our own feelings what use is a word like we need to be self compassionate or compassion of our own body mean to feel bad about something that's not wrong but we also have to be aware that if we feel this way it's going to in a sense emanate it's going to affect others around us so we have to be respectful of how people respond to us now what I was going to give you was sense some basic strategies the first one I want to tell you is we can help get that social engagement system back on board through breathing because if we can get that myelinated vagus circuit there to down regulate the other components of the autonomic nervous system from being recruited in defense then we have the chance of again Co regulating with others now there's a construct that I call the vagal brake the vehicle brake really refers to this hierarchical inhibitory action of this new myelinated vagus on the other components of the autonomic nervous system to prevent or to limit them being used in defense okay okay so but here is the clue the clue is that that myelin in Vegas becomes potentiated during slow exhalations and during slow inhalations we're literally removing that vagal brake and allowing us to get more mobilized so if you're like a sprinter or any athlete or a weightlifter where you want to get mobilized before you do this event you'll shift your breathing patterns spontaneously to doing longer inspirations and shorter expirations but if you want to calm down you shift it the other direction it's longer exhalations now I will ask you if you know this is a projective test on you when do you exhale slowest Winsor tricks it's a trick question probably when I'm giving attention it's on my breath not necessarily so when you're talking if you extend the duration of your phrases you are extending the duration of your exhalation oh sure indefinitely when I'm singing yes exactly and singing is the perfect one because it's utilizing muscles other muscles of the social engagement system in terms of the articulation and the breath but also you're listening to get the intonation so using middle ear structures so singing is wonderful and now I have to tell you that there there were so many times as I was researching for this interview where I would have these little like yes moments because I there these are reflects some things that my partner and I use and that we also used in our coaching with clients one of them being to to sing at your partner like in moments of anger to like improvise songs that are about whatever is happening in your environment and then another is to actually just use gibberish so you don't even have to worry about the content but you can use the gibberish to to be vocalizing we didn't really know what we were like why it was working why it was so helpful but it felt like like this gave us a perfect pathway into oh that that could be why that works so well is that we're actually down-regulating are our Vegas through through just speaking sweet gibberish to each other in moments of being triggered absolutely I think the gibberish is actually very insightful because you take the the syntax the kind of the actual words are removed so it's all that sounds yeah exactly exactly especially when words themselves can be so triggering in yeah through associations exactly so know that I think that's very insightful but couples you know couples are always especially when they get defensive or being triggered by very subtle things and the issue the metaphor is always going to be around am i safe which is really saying can i co regulate which is really saying can I get a hug to calm down and repair or is body contact now aversive is it too dangerous for me to be around you right so the so you have to do things before contact is actually safe or taken by your neuro ception as a safe yeah yeah I I think it's I think the the ontogeny the development of safety or the development of danger of how our bodies respond is totally profound in terms of how we our relationships evolve or how they deteriorate because they're not words I mean it's really do you feel comfortable I use a picture of bodies conforming you know hugging and then I show a ace on one of my slides a Hallmark card of basically cartoon figures and you know that they're love each other or care each other cuz their bodies are basically conforming they're not making face to face and not looking at each other but their bodies are basically conforming on the sides of leaning into each other and so are when we see that we know couples feel safe which with each other these are triggers that we already know what they mean they're iconic so and when you were suggesting the the extended exhalation and you are suggesting also that an extended inhalation is counterproductive so it sounds like you would want to breathe rapidly in and then slow down your exhale is what you can see with couples who are not getting along well they will they will basically huff and puff that's the word huffing and puffing is they're extending the duration of inhalations they're getting themselves mobilized you can see the muscle tension in their hands so they're actually getting themselves physiologically set to have a physical fight which may get manifested in running crying or whatever it is but it's a a true defensive structure you can get that physiological state to shift if they can shift their breathing patterns and you can even make it work better if when they do their breathing that they push down on their diaphragm and so they can incense and inhale more air so singers or musicians do a lot of dynamic breathing or in the clinical world they called belly breathing and belly breathing is not only extending the duration of the exhalation it's also stimulating the after it's a sensory part of the diaphragm that's sending signals back to the vagus so it's working on both levels this effort of the motor signal from the vagus and also the sensory signal to the central nervous system to enhance vagal activity now since we're Co regulating each other how do we how do we make it more likely that we will Co regulate in the direction of play or social engagement versus Co regulating in the other direction of escalating states of being in danger because escalation is not Co regulation so it's disruption of regulation so I guess to make it more concrete here's the classic example of a couple is in bed and one of them wants to have sex and so they make in advance and and everything feels like it's good except something happens that kind of breaks the moment and the other partner goes into a state of being triggered and they're not really they're not into it in that moment so in an ideal world the the partner who was taking the initiative may stop and realize that this is a moment to create safety with their partner but what most often happens is that person their own safety issues kept triggered and then they're off to the races so III think you're absolutely right on that and the answer is this I so the it's again now you have two victims and in the funny way one has to be a more mature victim and say I see the pattern can I break the pattern so it's not symmetrical mmm so the cue of engagement I guess what one might say is to change the way of engaging and that is proximity hugging an arm around in a sense go to the level that that person's body needs mm that person's body needs to feel safe now to have sexual activity there's multiple levels of that the person has to feel safe before they can actually have sex and there are people who have severe trauma histories who want to have sex but when they try to I'm talking about females they defecate their sub diaphragmatic organs see this as a danger cue even though there isn't cognitive desires want to be amorous want to be hugged want to do that so the the cues would be you have to be more prasada got to be more gentle you have to allow the person to feel safe so issues have to become more emergent and spontaneous and not seen as a sense of responsibility and where does the role of movement play in because movement could represent being like your body being recruited in fight or flight and movement is also being recruited happening when you're reaching out to hold your partner well you see it's the difference between play and fight or play and fight flight behaviors play involves mobilization but it also involves face to face or least voice so if voices use as the guide if you continually talk and use brasonic voice or gesture then the movement is seen in a different way but historically humans have used surrogates for voice and they call that music so let's put some muse god it's like though it music is they're not putting rap music on to have an intimate moment they're putting on certain vocal vocal music or music with instruments that are duplicating functionally female voices or tenor male voices they're not using low bass voices they're creating a the the same acoustic features that you would use to talk to your dog to calm your dog down or hear the baby the calm your babies down but they're using it with with music or listening to it as music yeah that was something I was wondering about actually because you you do talk about how the the lower frequencies represent danger and predator and higher frequencies being safety and social engagement and then I was thinking about well why do people like to dance to music that has a really low bone vibrating bass well let me clarify it's not high frequencies high frequencies are squeals and their danger it's something in the middle that we find in terms of intonation of voice and vocalizations is actually well defined frequency band that we hear and feel safe and can communicate with now the other question you're bringing up is it's not necessarily the low frequencies it's the issue of the rhythm and we're immobilized then dancing the you're talking about is social dancing I think social dancing with the low frequency is giving you the rhythm and you're moving with that and you're maintaining face to face so it's playing dancing is mobilization it's play and slow dancing you is different than fast dancing slow dancing you lose the face to face and you now body contact it's it's it's very predictable in terms of what the features are but if you were slow dancing and a lot of deep bass music came in and then the rhythm went up and he tried to keep slow dancing it would be incompatible your body wouldn't wouldn't like that it wants to move right I think what I was what I was wondering is if that low bass actually is part of what evokes your mobilization response but then because you're hopefully in a safe environment then that becomes expressed through play and doubts I think that's very insightful I think we do if we're comfortable the low frequencies that would have naturally caused a triggered predator responses are playful so I often talk about Barry White who gives us very low melodic low voice which is very sexual but it's done not in a public arena it's music that is played in a very private safe place the interesting part of his actual songs because I actually went to listen to them as he does the introduction in his very deep low voice but when he's singing the frequency goes up to a higher pitch so it goes moves into this other realm the master composers of classical music they would always start the symphonies with music that was emulating a female vocal so there's gonna be violence flutes it's going to be in a certain frequency range and then when you felt comfortable with the melody they would be handed off to lower frequency instruments until all the instruments were involved in it and you felt comfortable with all of them hmm wow it's amazing so I can see how the way that our the way that we experience music could be directly related to how we find our feelings of safety and absolutely think of some of the second movements of classical music music where there's an impending storm where there's a low bass string basses within a monotone or then the high frequency also monotone violins you start getting all the anxiety from the sounds of that because they're duplicating human voices and physiologically our own experiences to threat danger and the unpredictable yeah or in like the modern film there's nothing quite as ominous as that big low rumble followed by silence and it's like you can feel the whole theater just you know be ready to to fight or flee at that point absolutely they're not in a sense the people who are giving you music backgrounds for movies are very trained very skilled and very understanding of all these features I'm wondering Steve first of all I want to just appreciate you for showing up and being so generous with your time and you know what we've talked about in the past our represents the past 40 years of your your life's work right and probably even prior to that so um thank you for making it real for us and giving us a sense of how it actually works for us in our lives and and just for your contribution to the field of human wellness I really appreciate that well thank you Neil and opportunity is like talking to you provide me with the challenge of making what I've spent my life on accessible to – to the real world well and on that note I'm wondering if there are any last little tidbits that you would like to leave our listeners with we've talked about prosody in your voice so making your voice more musical we've talked about the power of touch and seeing yourself as a vehicle for creating safety with your partner and I'm just wondering if there are any other things that that jump out at you is like oh yeah that's that's one gem well I think what we need to do is be very respectful of our body's own responses because our feelings our body is responding is manifested in our behavior so we can't really fake it as what I'm saying and the idea is to be very respectful in your body shift state to be respectful that and to be respectful of the other person in your environment because they're a they're gonna be reacting to your bodily changes even though that may not be your motivation you know this bring me brings up one last question for you which is what we were talking about earlier was how you shouldn't necessarily make meaning out of the response that you should trust your body and and honor what's happening with your body but you shouldn't necessarily make meaning out of it and yet there might be a time when it does make sense to make some meaning out of it so I'm wondering if you have any insight on the distinction there well I think the first part is respecting the body's response without justifying I think everyone gets into trouble when they justify their behaviors which are often riding on top of their physiological state shifts so if they get anxious and they start acting out or going to rage rather than seeing what happened to their body and seeing the manifestation of their behavior as literally riding on this physiological state they want to make it justified they want to be a good person they want to say that the other person did this and therefore they're entitled and not necessarily entitled but their behavior is justified so I think we need to basically stand back before we go into any level of that personal narrative and understand that the personal narrative in couples or any relationship is you know it may not be true it may be what we're doing to hold together to justify what our behavior is but it may not be the the real process the process can be that there's a physiological state shift and we're functionally acting out and we have to be respectful of that right and it strikes me that if you at least focus your initial attention on regulating and then Co regulating then you're at least in a position where you can have better information about what's really happening in your relationship yeah I think if I were to give one piece of advice and that I would say before you react listen it's I was like they don't use the physiological state you're in as the motivator for behavior just hold it for a moment and get a better evaluation of the context hmm yeah maybe with a few long exhalations ah see now you're developing an integrated therapy yeah it's what I do Steve well thank you so much for your time today on relationship alive and if our listeners will have links of course to your your website and your work but if you if there are special ways that you'd like listeners to find out more about what you do what could they do well actually the web page is fine and there's also they there's also a place to send certain types of questions or information there that's that's fine and then there's a list of where and when I'm talking that I try to keep relatively up-to-date right and also to let our listeners know there are lots of opportunities to get more information from Steve he post links to all all the interviews he's done or at least many of them which can be found on YouTube or other podcasts he's very generous with sharing his information so thank you so much for coming on the show today Steve well thank you deal I thank you it was a very interesting hour I appreciate it thanks thank you for listening to another episode of relationship alive if you like what you've heard and want to make it easier for other people to find out about us please take a moment to subscribe to our podcast and to rate and review us on iTunes if you have questions or comments or want to continue the conversation you can always join our relationship alive community Facebook group and for more information about today's episode visit us online at Neal satin comm slash podcast or you can always text the word passion PA SS IO n to the number three three four four four for more information finally do you have a burning question that you're hoping we can have answered here on relationship alive either for a future or past guests let me know and I'll see what I can do take care and see you next time


  1. I do not agree with the suggestion, for example, of trying Gibberish with your partner or singing (i.e. using non verbal expression, prosody of voice to express one's emotions/affect states more directly – or rather to be quite frank in my view more indirectly) as to not "trigger the other" but to express nonetheless how you are feeling to your partner. In other words, attempting to cultivate an atmosphere of safety for the other by still attempting to maintain honesty and authenticity in terms of expressive underlying feelings, by trying singing out how you feeling, gibberish, etc. is to me and in my life and practice a bit adolescent or infantile!

    Triggerring is a GOOD THING! To be TRIGGERED is an opportunity to grow, as long as we are mature enough to co-repair, which can naturally take time; and come to understand (and understanably it is difficult for many) that ALL our natural unadulterated knock down drag out dramatic verbal/non-verbal (not symbolically teased out and made safe by secondary or tertiarty means) is an opportunity if we can (e.g., in therapy guided) allow and learn to hear behind the hearing. In other words, if we can spontaneously express nakedly whatever spews forth and then (learn to become concurrently safe) and thus pause, reflect discuss and go deeper.

    Then, we don't have to (unconsciously) guard ourselves by using adolescent tertiary or secondry means (i.e., gibberish or singing out to the other) but rather use the FULL natural vehicles, the inter-exchange of our human bodily-based emotional selves (affect expression); our unwatched, unadulterated, however "scary" (initially trigerring) voice,, our words; the full panaply of our emotional demeanors through whatever angry, hurtful, etc words emerge. This requires pause, down regulatating and listening after moments of "triggering." . In other words, learn how to be "safe" with whatever words/expression is exchanged , listen behind the surface meaning of the words and thus obtain deeper, meaningful and integrated communication without fight, flight or earlier parasympathic freeze/shut down!

  2. the back ground music is very distracting from your excellent information..please consider not having such an addition to allow those of us who are particularly noise sensitive to enjoy our most generous free education.
    thank you very much

  3. Very good, I've had issues with my partner when we may be in an argument and she says I am speaking in a booming manner, when to me that isn't happening, she imitates what she hears and it seems only the lowest frequency is being heard. I had felt I was being accused of speaking in a manner which I was not, this gives me a much deeper understanding of what may be going on.

  4. Celiac may hurt the gut lining so less nutrients absorb…then cells are not made right to work right in the brain/body and personality is affected. Stress uses up Zn/B vitamins and progesterone. The adrenals use progesterone to make cortisol. No gluten/dairy/soy/sugar/GMO/food with a label…taking vitamins/good oils/minerals…probiotic…LDN..detoxing may help. Tests may not work to diagnose Celiac. Vit B12 methylcobalamin with intrinsic factor may help fear/stage fright etc. Zn/Mg/fish oil 2000mg/Vit D3 5000IU/sunlight/lecithin/evening primrose oil/Orthobiotic before a meal/HCl and enyzymes with a meal/Osteoprocare instead of dairy/coenyzme Q10/rhodiola/Nature's Plus- Source of life multiple/Vit C/Vit A 10,000IU/Vit E/exercise and more may help. Constipation maybe due to low thyroid. Gluten may make antibodies to the thryoid. Zn/Se/enough iron/probiotic may help T4 convert to T3 for thyroid and Amour thyroid may help not by TSH. Gluten may hurt all glands. Gluten is wheat/barley/rye..oats/corn/rice. Rice is low in gluten. Wild rice has no gluten…is a grass. LDN helps block hidden gluten. Antidepression medicine may block thyroid with Fluorine and make worse depression/suicidal thoughts. Low oxygen in the brain may cause depression/anxiety/no sleep/obsessing/panic/suicidal thoughts. No gluten may help intestines absorb more nutrients…rebuild cells to burn oxygen which may help stop these symptoms.

  5. What a fantastic interview!! This is what I had been seeking for, for a good while. It answered many things I had been wishing to clarify. Thanks!

  6. WHY THE BACKGROUND MUSIC??? see, this to me shows a brushing off of a core brain issue: our brain can only focus on one thing at a time. If you play music while you speak, my attention is divided. Notice how it becomes optimal when Porges begins to speak and the annoying music is gone. Please stop doing this, video makers!!!! who wants to be overwhelmed? only the unconscious ones among us.

  7. yes thanks you for posting, just found Dr Porges, his sci. aligns with Gabor Mate and Nortan Hadler… clearly correct, why can't we get their ideas implemented into action in care giving, education, IT management…

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