34: The Science of Safety with Stephen Porges

Posted on August 17, 2016 by Therapist Nicki
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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 Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt, and Stan Tatkin – and creating safety within yourself is at the heart of the work of Peter Levine, Dick Schwartz, and Margaret Paul. 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 and 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, 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, and curiosity – not triggered and just trying to deal.
Developing a neurophysiological understanding of our defense systems.  A basic understanding of our autonomic nervous system provides insight into why we react the way we do in conflict and crisis, while also laying the framework for what we can do to help bring ourselves back into a physiological state in which we are available for connection, love, and intimacy. To begin, it is helpful to know that as humans we have developed (through our evolutionary history) two different major autonomic defense circuits:
Sympathetic nervous system: The mobilization defense system is dependent on the activation of our sympathetic nervous system which is responsible the fight or flight response we know so well.
The immobilization response- Our most ancient (meaning we share it with virtually every other vertebrate that has evolved) defense system is that of immobilization and shut down in the face of fear. This physiological state is regulated by the vagus and includes reduced oxygen demands, reduced metabolic demands, and can include dissociation, passing out, and defecation.  Immobilizing in the face of fear is an adaptive behavior that allows us to disappear. Those who have experienced, or work with others who have experienced trauma, know this state well.
There is no conscious input in how these systems activate- the concept of consciousness in this context can be very damaging because it suggests a degree of volition that can lead people who experience major trauma like rape, threat, or force, to feel ashamed of how their bodies reacted. Unfortunately our culture sometimes asks questions like “why didn’t you fight?”, or, “why didn’t you leave?” These questions do not respect the implicit and reflexive activity of the body to defend itself by freezing – based on these inherited circuits.
Neuroception- Neuroception the term that Steve Porges created to describe how our body can sense something and react to it without it necessarily entering our conscious awareness. Our nervous system makes decisions and changes our biobehavior without any level of conscious awareness- despite the fact that we are profoundly aware of the impact on our physiology we are rarely aware of the triggers causing these state shifts. If our body detects risk or danger features in the environment we might have a sympathetic excitation (sweat, jumping out of our skin, etc)- we might not be aware of the cues, but our body is informing us!
What is the vagus nerve? The vagus nerve (a major component of our parasympathetic nervous system) is a large nerve in our body that originates in our brain…

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