🧠 Let’s simplify some complicated neuroscience into accessible and easy-to-understand bites!
Did you know that understanding the intricate ways our nervous system responds to our environment can actually help us raise children who are resilient, healthy, and mindful?
Joining me today is Seth Porges. Seth co-wrote the amazing new book, Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us, along with his father, the creator of polyvagal theory, Dr. Stephen Porges. In it, this father-son duo breaks down complex science into useful, practical, and easy-to-understand (and apply) insights about just how interconnected we are. In this conversation, we take these insights and apply them to all aspects of parenthood. From helping your child to get through big emotions more easily, to helping manage the overstimulation of parenting loud and handsy little kiddos, to feeling more connected and safe in our relationships. This is definitely an episode you won’t want to miss!
The things that we like, the things that are fun are the things that make us healthier and happier. And that’s such a contrast in the way I think a lot of us grew up where you had sit down and shut up, learn rote memorization. Playing with your friends is optional, recess is optional. And now we’re beginning to realize, no. These things that we like, we like them because they’re good for us. We like them because they make us better able to learn more resilient, happier, and healthier.
Dr. Sarah (00:00:31):
So maybe you’ve heard the term polyvagal theory thrown about and maybe that is literally gibberish to you. But today in this episode, we’re going to talk about what polyvagal theory is and how understanding the basic principles of this scientific concept can be helpful for everyone, but particularly helpful for parents. So stay tuned because in this episode I’m so excited to be joined by Seth Porges. Seth’s father, Dr. Stephen Porges created polyvagal theory in the 1960s and together Seth and his father have just released a new book, Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us. In this episode, Seth is going to guide us through the fascinating world of the polyvagal system, shedding light on how it influences our emotions, our connections with our children, and the way that we respond to their needs and our own. Plus, he’s going to offer practical tips and useful strategies that you can immediately apply to work towards creating a more connected and grounded nervous system response in yourself and in your child. I’m so excited for you to listen to this episode.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights. So you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hello everyone. Welcome back to the show. Today we have a very exciting guest. So Seth Porges has just written a book with his father, Dr. Stephen Porges called Our Polyvagal World, and it is amazing and I’m so happy that you are here on the podcast. Thank you so much for coming.
Oh yeah, this is great. Happy to be here.
Dr. Sarah (00:02:33):
I really am excited to talk to you as the son of Dr. Porges. And this podcast is all about parenting and this concept of families and relationships. And to write a book with your dad, just forget that he is the guy that created polyvagal theory, but just to write a book with your dad, that process, what was that like for you?
It was amazing. It’s amazing. It’s not like we were hunched over a typewriter together. It wasn’t that kind of process. No. But the work he’s done over the years with Polyvagal theory, which we can kind of break down in real simple terms if you want. I mean it’s really, honestly, it’s important stuff and it’s stuff that has a lot of applications for a lot of people, but most of what’s been written about it is just really hard to read. It’s overly academic or really clinical. It’s not really written with human beings in mind. And that was always a shame. It kind of felt like, alright, if we don’t do this, if we, him and I don’t break this thing down into something that normal people can understand, somebody else will and they’ll probably get it wrong. So it was a real simple and honestly amazingly rewarding process to work with them. We quickly realized, I kind of picked up all this material through I guess decades of dinner table osmosis and working with him and just seeing where our voices aligned when we were writing that was really, I think kind of amazing. I think from his perspective as a dad to see words I had written and thinking that they could have come from him, that was really fun, I think for him.
Dr. Sarah (00:04:14):
Yeah, God, that’s really cool. And I just think, I have so many parents that are like, they come to me when their kids are so little to talk about creating these safe relationships with their kids. And all of it is in the service of building this lifelong relationship where we have this mutual respect and delight in one another. And I feel like when you are an adult child writing a book with your dad that really says something about what a successful lifelong building of a relationship to be able to be something, do something so collaborative together.
And to opt in to do something so collaborative together. Yeah, it was great.
Dr. Sarah (00:04:56):
That’s awesome. So yeah, tell us, I mean, for people who aren’t familiar with your father’s work, can you share a little bit about what polyvagal theory is and why this book, why breaking it down in this sort of really accessible way felt so important?
Yeah. I mean, what polyvagal theory is in the simplest of terms is a model for the nervous system that basically explains how the world around us impacts our bodies. It’s become the basis for most, I would say, approaches to trauma therapy In recent years, most trauma therapists consider themselves polyvagal informed now, and it itself is not a clinical approach to anything. It’s a model that informs other approaches. And so you’ll find polyvagal informed folks in a whole bunch of disciplines. But outside of even the world of therapy and the world of trauma, what polyvagal theory really is, is it’s a worldview honestly. It’s a way of seeing the world and seeing how the world impacts us and impacts those people around us. And if we’re going to break it down into the simple one sentence summary, which you do on the very first page of the book, it would be this. It is polyvagal theory basically says that how safe we feel and the word feels really important, is crucial to our health and happiness. It’s really that simple. And once you kind of really lock into that, the implications are enormous. When you think about, oh, what does certain people make me feel like? What does certain settings make me feel like? What does certain activities make me feel like and how does that impact my health and happiness? And realize that those feelings themselves are physical sensations, they’re not frivolous.
Dr. Sarah (00:06:43):
Yeah, I think that’s so critical. You said it again, the feeling part is so key because it’s subjective. It’s not how safe am I, objectively.
Yes. Your nervous system doesn’t know if lightning’s going to strike you at any moment. And polyvagal theory, what it really is, is the story of how humans and mammals evolved to become social creatures and how we evolved to need those around us and how within that was baked into our bodies, baked into our DNAs systems of both projecting and seeking safety in others. And key to the story of polyvagal theory is a story of co-regulation. It’s a story of how being around people who make us feel safe is physically healing. And that’s a two-way street. That’s a two-way system. So when we are healed by others, we in turn heal them too. And that’s key to understanding why I think we evolve to have the relationships we have with family members, with friends. And once you kind of see that, you see it everywhere. It’s like, oh, this is why social activity is fun.
This is why going to parties is fun. This is why being around our kids or family members who we love is fun. This is why our bodies’ created built-in neurotransmitter and hormonal incentives for us to do certain activities and to be around certain people. And there’s a lot of attention paid on social media these days to the vagus nerve, which is of course crucial to polyvagal theory. The word vagal means vagus, this nerve. And people I think long have realized and more kind of mainstream people are begin to understand that activating the vagus nerve is itself a healing calming thing. But what’s happened is people on social media have taken that demean, well, let’s look for hacks or tricks or little shortcuts to activate the vagus nerve. And in doing so, enjoy its calming healing properties. What polyvagal theory says is that’s all well and good, but the most important, most powerful, strongest, most natural way of activating the vagus nerve is just to have safe social with people who make you feel safe. And that itself is so much more powerful having a conversation with somebody, hugging somebody, cuddling with somebody, all of these things are just way, way more powerful for keeping us calm, keeping us centered and keeping us healthy than any sort of fancy hack.
Dr. Sarah (00:09:14):
And I feel like there’s so much relevance to that in parenting because, and even just, it’s really funny, the way you talk about polyvagal theory makes me think about attachment theory, which is a big, big influence in the work that I do with families because I think they’re working in very similar systems. The attachment system I think is embedded in polyvagal theory in that we’re hardwired to seek out closeness and proximity to these care providers from birth. This is just something we instinctively do, and I think it’s to do exactly what you’re describing, to get close to safety, to get close to people who nurture us, who hold us, who snuggle with us, who look at us with delight.
Yeah. And polyvagal theory, the story, the implicit story of how we became the modern species we are that emerges of polyvagal theory is kind of mushy, cuddly and cute. It’s a sweet story. What polyvagal theory teaches us is that we evolved systems to survive that aren’t based in aggression or defense, but based in love and collaboration and cooperation and co-regulation. And our bodies. Our bodies are these incredibly versatile systems that are capable of aggression and defensive behaviors, but they’re also capable of true kindness, true altruism and true love. And that those themselves evolved as systems of survival, systems of defense. And that it’s not weak to be like that. That itself is not just a form of strength, but physically healing what’s crucial. But the polyvagal theory really explains is how the autonomic nervous system works. And people don’t know that simple autonomic means automatic.
It’s the nervous system. All the parts of our body that operate without our conscious control, you don’t think to yourself, you want your heart to beat or your sweat glands to work. They just sort of work. But all of these systems, they work differently based on the immediate needs. Your body has to kind of decide, am I going to put resources towards immediate survival or long-term health growth and restoration? And it can’t do both at the same time. We just don’t have enough resources. And so when we feel safe, our body shuttles all these resources to the system’s law for long-term health growth and restoration. And when we feel threatened, it’s immediate survival. And if we always feel threatened, which is unfortunately the case with many people in this crazy modern world we live in with news alerts and vibrating phones and traffic and horns and stress and screaming at all these things kind of happening to us.
Our body is always depriving itself of the resources for long-term health growth and restoration. And that has enormous impacts on things. How long does it take a wound to heal? Like real simple, measurable things? Virtually every physical or mental health malady you can think of, your body has a better outcome when it feels safe. And that is what polyvagal theory is about, is what happens when our bodies feel safe and we’re able to push resources towards health growth and restoration, but also sociability because polyvagal theory ties the systems of social interaction with the systems of health growth and restoration.
Dr. Sarah (00:12:34):
So if I’m going to try to translate what I’m hearing you say.
Do it. Yes.
Dr. Sarah (00:12:39):
You’re saying that when we’re in our state of, and I’m going to use fight or flight and rest digest because fight or flight’s going to be our autonomic, our sympathetic nervous system, the up regulator, the part that goes into that quick survival mode place, and then our parasympathetic is going to be our rest, digest, or rest, relax, or it’s called lots of different things, but it’s that down regulator. But that’s the part that needs to be kind of engaged for us to have the social and the loving and the connection. It’s not just about the internal experience of being at rest. It’s also in order to have that sort of interpersonal delight or playfulness or enjoyment with another connection, we also have to feel safe.
And this change is a physical one. I think It’s not just a psychological or psychiatric change, it’s a physical change. Literally when we feel activated, mobilized and fight or flighty, we have flatter facial affect. Our voice becomes monotone. All of these physical changes occur so that the systems, the muscles, the things that allow us to be expressive, social vocal creatures are turned off. And this is key to polyvagal theory because what polyvagal theory basically maps out is how the part of the vagus nerve and the vagus is this nerve that begins in your brain stem, it goes to your gut and it connects basically all of your bodily systems together. And this is really important so that it’s what allows your whole body to act as a system so that when you feel threatened, it’s not like your heart’s doing one thing and your lungs are doing another and your sweat clans are doing another.
Everything acts in synchrony. And because the vagus nerve is a special nerve that winds its way through your entire body, it allows the whole body to operate as a symphony to operate in concert in symphony. And so the vagus nerve is key to how our body operates with this directed goal of either immediate survival or long-term health growth restoration. And the part of the vagus nerve that is associated with the rest and digest system, the parasympathetic nervous system, the feelings of safety is part of the vagus nerve called the ventral vagus part, plugs into the brainstem in an area called the ventral vagal cortex. And that is imagine just like this control hub where you have the vagus nerve, but you also have several other cranial nerves that are very specifically associated with the muscles and movements and physical features that allow us to be social in particular.
These are a trigeminal nerve, the facial nerve, the accessory nerve, and a glass of perennial nerve. And these are the nerves that allow our facial movements to occur, allow our larynx and pharynx to be expressive when you talk, allow us to shrug our shoulders, the very physical properties of being social or activated when we feel safe and disengaged, when we feel unsafe. And this isn’t just like a cause and effect, it goes both ways. So when we feel safe, we’re better able to be social. And when we’re social, our bodies feel safe. And so everything in the body is kind of bi-directional kind of two way. The things that when we are feeling threatened, our bodies become attuned to threats that are able to pick up threats when we feel safe, our bodies become attuned to safety, more willing to pick up other signs of safety.
Dr. Sarah (00:16:03):
And that point, I feel that you just made that the more safe we feel, the more our brain is kind of primed to notice safe cues and stay in a state of safety. And conversely, the more sort of scary experiences we have, the more our brain is kind wired to be constantly more hypervigilant, or…
Expect expectations and trauma changes the goalposts with that. Everybody’s different in terms of what feels safe or threatening to them. There’s a lot of commonalities, but the specifics, the exact place that goalpost is different for everybody. And that place shifts based on past experiences. If you were around something, maybe a fragrance or a color or a person on the worst day of your life, well that will make you feel unsafe potentially in the future. And the things that make us feel like how able we are to be primed towards safety or threat, it changes for us as individuals over the course of the day, depending on what state we’re in, when we feel threatened, these things shift. And again, these shifts are physical and they’re logical. None of these systems in our bodies, none of these states, there’s nothing moral or immoral about, there’s nothing bad about them. They all evolved with one purpose. And that’s to allow us to survive, to keep us safe. The problems that occur, especially these days occur when the system’s of defense, which are enormously resource intensive and deprive the body of the resources it would otherwise use to heal, grow, and restore when those systems are overused, which is, I believe, endemic in just this crazy anxious stressy world we live in today.
Dr. Sarah (00:17:44):
Yeah, and I think parents especially can really relate to that because I think parents hold, I mean, I know as a mom I’m like, I feel stressed all the time. And part of it is because we live in a culture that doesn’t really support parents’ nervous systems, all that well. There’s all the stuff that everybody as a human in our working, living in our society has to navigate, right? Like you were saying, the constant notifications on our phone, social media and the algorithms that just kind of feed into our worst parts of our minds.
Dr. Sarah (00:18:16):
And amplify our anxiety and our stress response. And then add onto that this whole other piece that’s very unique to parenting, which is the sort of cognitive load of constantly shifting through all the things that have to be done and all the stakes that we have perhaps assigned unfairly to ourselves, that they’re very high. Like, oh my gosh, I have to do all the laundry and make sure the lunches are packed. And if I forget that note to the teacher, my kid’s not going to get to go on the field trip and I’m going to be the worst mom ever. But then there’s also this other piece that’s really specific to parenting, which is, well, one, just the stress of knowing you have to keep your child alive. Just that little one thing.
Little, no big deal.
Dr. Sarah (00:19:07):
But also being with a child who has this kind of very early and baby developed nervous system and regulation system, so they’re going into fight or flight all the time because my four-year-old’s perception of threat is highly sensitive and is very irrational to me, and they’re going to scream and cry and grab at me and maybe even hit at me. And so my body is having to constantly assess threat that there’s just so much stimulation coming at parents all the time.
There is, and it’s really important to understand first all that when we say words like threat or safety, we’re not literally, again talking about the likelihood of harm coming to somebody. It’s your nervous system’s perception of the world around you as being threatened or safe. And to some degree, that’s something we can actually control. When you start thinking about aesthetics sounds, the environments we’re in, all of these things funnel through our brain, through our nervous system, through our ears, through our eyes, into this machine of our bodies, and they come out with an assessment of whether we’re safe or threatened. And I think as a society, we have long been dismissive of just simply how things make us feel and whether these things actually matter. I grew up in privacy at two in a time when schools were cutting recess basically saying like, oh no, it’s more important for kids to sit down quietly and stare at a chalkboard than it is to run around and play with friends.
And things like polyvagal theory force you to reevaluate these priorities and realize, you know what? Actually the most important thing that might come out of school is the ability for a kid to safely, socially interact with other kids, to develop not just those skills, but in doing so, basically exercise the nervous system, play. Play, which is so key to what it means to develop as a child, to grow up something that children do instinctively, something dogs do instinctively. Something that’s just part of being a mammal, part of being alive is to play. When I was growing up, play itself was viewed as a reward. It was viewed as frivolous. You can play with your friends when you’re done with your homework, when you eat your broccoli, whatever it might be. And polyvagal theory really forces us to understand is why are we drawn to things like play into first place?
And you think about what play is, again, let’s just look at dogs because you can get rid of the way. It’s easier when you look at dogs and remove from culture, remove from language, just see these behaviors unfold. Dogs who are playing at a dog park, they’re engaging in this behavior that kind of pulls from both our sympathetic, meaning our fight or flight systems, and our parasympathetic meaning our social and rests relax safe systems. Both of them are being engaged at the same time. They’re running around or kind of play fighting, but they’re making sure the other is safe. They’re making eye contact, they’re not actually trying to hurt each other. And what polyvagal theory pauses is that this sort of activity withdraws from both the systems of defense and the systems of safety at the same time. It’s kind of like a neural exercise that allows, the body basically trains the nervous system to be able to access the defensive states of the sympathetic nervous system without getting stuck there.
And that’s the key here. These systems, they serve a really important purpose for us. The problems occur when we get stuck there. And things like play, things like social interaction, things like co-regulation, these are all things that build resilience. They make us stronger, offer us, make us better able to handle the stresses of the world. And I think a polyvagal informed approach to parenting, and I myself am not a parent, although I was parented by parents. I think a polyvagal informed approach to parenting stresses how we can make others feel safe, make our children in particular, feel safe in a way that builds resilience so that their nervous systems are better able to handle the stresses that the world will inevitably throw at them.
Dr. Sarah (00:23:15):
Yes, I think that’s so critical, and I think that’s why I really wanted you to come onto the podcast specifically, because I think, yes, we can look at polyvagal theory as a way to understand trauma and way to understand clinical applications. And that’s great, and I love it and I use it. I use that in my clinical practice. But as a mom and as someone who works with parents specifically, I think there’s something more prophylactic about it. I don’t think we don’t need to. Having a approach to parenting or a polyvagal informed approach to parenting doesn’t mean that we only use it if there’s trauma. We use it to, like you said, why are the brain for resilience from the get-go.
And for health, it’s like you want your kid to be healthy, you want your kid to be happy. Understanding the things that make all of us as humans, as mammals, happy and healthy, we can sort of deconstruct ’em. We can sort of understand them and we can sort of build them into our lives. Over the decades, the sort of standard conventional approach to parenting has shifted quite a bit and kind of pendulum, it goes in different directions over the decades at different points, parents were told to just let your kid cry it out or they were told to hug your kid. And there’s a lot of mixed messages out there. It can be very confusing. I think it’d be very overwhelming, especially when you’re dealing with multi-generational families where different members of the family were taught different things from each other. But I think it’s all kind of simple. It’s making others feel safe, also makes us feel safe. And I think a lot of time when people talk about parenting, they talk about in relationship to the child and sort of are dismissive of the impacts on the parent themselves.
Dr. Sarah (00:25:01):
And how being around a kid, this, again, it’s a two directional street, when we exhibit signs of safety ourselves, we live in what I call an autonomic echo chamber. When we exhibit signs of safety, the people around us, including our children, read those and they broadcast them back at us. And so by making our kids feel safe, it will make us feel safe. The CO is the key part of co-regulation.
Dr. Sarah (00:25:28):
It’s a two-way street. This is for the health of the parent as well. I think we are oftentimes dismissive of that when we talk about parenting. And I think that’s not fair to parents.
Dr. Sarah (00:25:40):
No, I think that that’s such a well taken point. I think that you were saying we need to be calm and create safety for our kids to feel safe. And when we create safety, our kids feel safe. But there’s a really important other piece. We can’t create safety for our kids. We can’t co-regulate with our kids if we ourselves are in a state of constant chronic stress.
Dr. Sarah (00:26:08):
And lack of safety.
We can’t hide our state, we’re really bad at that. If somebody is having in a mood or having a day, you can tell, right? And our kids can tell, our dogs can tell. We are these two-way broadcast social machines that pick up and reflect back the state of other people and think about this makes sense. Because if you’re back into caveman days or something like that, if somebody else is frightened, that’s a warning sign. That’s a signal beacon to you that maybe you should be frightened too, if somebody else is safe. Likewise, that signals to your body that maybe you’re in a place where you can calm down, rest, recuperate, and be safe too. And if your kids are around you and you yourself are constantly feeling unsafe, they’re going to pick up the signals. And so it’s really important self-care, very important to not be dismissive of your own needs in this sense as well, because it will bleed off onto your kids if you yourself are able to take care of yourself and be healthy and be safe.
And again, this is, I think oftentimes, especially a parent, when you use words like safety, the tendency is to use that term in a literal sense. And the polyvagal theory, again, it’s not about whether a bus is going to veer off the road or lightning’s going to strike you. These things could happen at anybody to anybody at any time. That’s not what we’re talking about here. And oftentimes, rather what we’re talking about is how safe the nervous system feels based on the environment. And oftentimes these two things are at odds with each other. Think about things like metal detectors at an airport or at schools. You’re going through these things for the stated purpose of keeping you safe from weapons or from bombs, but you’re barraging the nervous system with signs of fear and signs of threat. And in doing so, making the person feel unsafe.
And what polyvagal theory says is these things matter. It’s important to be in a setting where you’re not barrage with feelings of threat, with feelings of fear. And a lot of people, I think often parents for very understandable reasons or sort of grounded in this state of fear, that anything and everything can hurt you and kill you at any moment. And it’s very important to understand, yes, it’s important to stay safe, but those feelings themselves, they can actually hurt your health at the same time. And oftentimes those feelings, they may not actually be there to keep you safe. It might be just a result of, my goodness, my phone keeps vibrating all the time. I’m watching too much TV where I’m doom scrolling Twitter or something like that.
Dr. Sarah (00:28:43):
And I think, yes, I think when we talk about the big scary things, like let’s put those to the side for a second. Yes, life has those and we have to contend with them, but there is, I think for many people in our world right now, this low level chronic state of incoming stimulation that consciously or unconsciously is communicating to our nervous systems, get ready, be on alert. You’re not. And I think social media plays a huge role in that. And I think parents are particularly, I know mothers in particular, I talk to a lot of them, but just in general, I think parents are particularly vulnerable to social media.
Yeah, and their kids are too.
Dr. Sarah (00:29:28):
But I think parents, especially early on, newer parents who are kind of in their own developmental evolutionary state of matrescence or patrescence, which is basically a parental adolescence, a new developmental phase that comes once you have a kid, it’s very vulnerable. There’s tons of brain changes. You’re actually more vulnerable to going into fight or flight after you’ve had a baby after pregnancy. But when we’re more vulnerable, we tend to seek out sources of validation and reassurance, and our phones tend to be one of those places we go to. And so we’re constantly looking on Google for answers to every anxiety we have and scrolling social media for reassurance and proof that I’m doing this right. Am I okay? Is this a problem? Am I a bad parent? And I think that noise can really jack up our nervous system.
Or reading things on the internet that just fill us with fear. It’s like, oh, that’s another way my kid can die. That’s another way I can get hurt. That’s another this guy’s after me and this guy’s after me and this and all of these things. It can be nonstop. And the thing I find sad about it all is the way, once you begin to understand how social media in particular works, this isn’t an accident. It’s oftentimes optimized for this optimized to make us feel threatened because when we feel activated, when we are sympathetically activated, we’re engaged, we’re staring at screens, and if you’re looking at social media, that is algorithmically driven and it only cares about engagement. It’s very logical that the things that make people feel threatened are just going to bubble to the top always. It’s sort the inevitable end game of these sorts of systems because these systems don’t care if you’re positively or negatively engaged.
They just want you to be engaged. In fact, a lot of market research companies, some of them will use sensors to kind of measure engagement, and the sensors they use are called GSR, GIC Skin Response. This basically measures sweat activity. This is literally a measurement of our fight or flight state. It is what it’s, and so they look at that and they will show you an advertisement and a focus group, and they’ll measure it and they go, well, this person’s really engaged. They’re really just measuring, oh, that person actually feels a little unsafe and a little threat. And that becomes sort of the natural result then of all this media we consume is towards one of engagement. And engagement oftentimes is just feeling threatened.
Dr. Sarah (00:32:06):
Yeah, it’s been conflated. And I think that when we reduce our human complex human responses to something as simple as a data point for a market researcher to say, push this button harder, we get into a lot of trouble. I think obviously parents can use this information to inform how they approach social media access for their own kids, but just for us as parents, going back to this idea that if according to polyvagal theory, our ability to be in a state of relaxation and safety is going to help us parent, it’s going to help us raise healthier kids, it’s going to help our kids to develop emotion regulation and resilience and all other kinds of valuable things. We can agree it’s good. We want to be able to access a state of rest and relaxation when we can. We don’t want to be in a chronic state of fight or flight. And yet here we are talking about all these ways that our world that we as it exists today, has kind of been constructed to activate our fight or flight response. What is parents or as just human beings can we do to counter it using what we know? I think something that’s kind of amazing about polyvagal theory is we talk about all the automatic responses, but there’s kind of a manual override that you have access to.
Yeah. I mean, well, first it’s just understanding some of these things are unavoidable, but not all of ’em are unavoidable. And there’s so things you can do to counter them. Thinking about creating an environment perhaps at home that is calming, that maybe doesn’t have a TV blasting cable news on all the time, thinking about how social media is. I’m not in a position to tell parents what they should or shouldn’t let their kids look at, but understanding that looking at these things is probably going to make people feel activated. What does that do? Providing opportunities for your kids to socialize with other kids, to play with other kids, and viewing that as an important part of the nervous system, exercising itself to build resilience, right?
Understanding how things like creative arts are actually vagal triggers. Over the years, we’ve all seen the studies that are like, oh, music education, arts, education helps with math. And it’s like, well, what doesn’t make any sense? But once you begin to think of these things as tapping into the parts of the nervous system that are really only there when we feel safe, the parts of creativity, of sociability, all of these things, and realizing like, oh, this is actually a positive vagal trigger that turns the brain on in a way where it’s better able to learn. And this is so important because only when we feel safe for our body’s actually to learn the parts of the brains, the parts of the nervous system that are associated with new knowledge, with intaking, with creativity, all of those things basically require us to feel safe. Your brain isn’t going to be in a place where it can even think about being creative if immediate survival is its immediate focus.
And so understanding that you want your kid to do well in school, arts, creativity, sociability, all of these things are probably going to be way more impactful than rote memorization over the long term.
Dr. Sarah (00:35:23):
Yes. I think that’s so important. You said something earlier too about play. We were talking about dogs and how it’s a process of, it’s a neural exercise where you’re kind of being able to build that flexible integration of being able to move and forth kind of fluidly between the sort of fight or flight and the rest digest social piece. And it made me think of rough and tumble play, which is something that a lot of parents do with their kids, but it’s very common in dads to do it with their sons and their daughters. But there’s a lot of research on dads and rough and tumble play and how that is so actually, a lot of people are like, oh, no, that’s aggressive. We shouldn’t do that. Or don’t rile ’em up right before bedtime. But rough and tumble play, there’s a lot of studies that have shown that it helps increase social skills and increase emotional regulation skills, kind of like a lot of what you were talking about, because activating both of those systems at the same time, and it’s building that sort of sophisticated ability to move swiftly and fluidly back and forth between them.
Yeah. I am always hesitant to talk about things when studies are mentioned that I haven’t seen the study, but that’s logical to me. That makes sense to me. I mean, again, you’ve seen that’s how dogs play at a dog park, and they couldn’t be happier to see the dog the next time. There’s no real threat going on here. And it is important to, again, view our nervous system as this system that moves between these states. These states are kind of autopilot software programs for our body that change how everything in our body operates based on how safe we feel, how well we’re able to learn and think creatively and independently, how well we are able for our bodies to heal, how able we are to be social with each other. All these things that we want in this world basically require the nervous system to feel safe.
And I think especially with parents, the desire, the need to feel safe oftentimes results in almost a permanent state of fear. And that’s something that I think we need to push back against and look at how oftentimes those feelings of fear are cynically engineered by other people who may just want us to stare at our computer screens so we watch more advertisements, for example, or things like that. And that’s really, really important. Our nervous systems are very, very resilient. We weren’t designed for this world we live in. It’s just we’re aliens here. We evolved for a world that no longer exists, and these ancient neural pathways, these ancient circuits, these ancient systems are just constantly being co-opted, hijacked by a world that may not necessarily care or understand the impact it has on us.
Dr. Sarah (00:38:17):
Yeah. That’s hard though. I feel like, and I think to what you were saying earlier when I was saying, what can we do? You’re like, well, some of it’s unavoidable and we should talk about how to cope with what’s unavoidable. But like you said, a lot of it is in our control.
Thinking about how, okay, so we’re valuing the significance of what we perceive on its impact on our nervous system. We’re saying that our eyes, our ears, our skin, every sensory system in our body is taking in information, and our brain is kind of decoding it to say, safe or dangerous, safe or dangerous. So we have to value our sensory surroundings. We have to say, okay, what helps me to feel calm when I walk in the door and I’ve got 10 people screaming at me to give them this, that can be really overwhelming. So maybe if I know I’m going to walk into the house after coming home from work, and I’m going to have kids jumping at me or a partner being like, where’s the delivery guy thing? Or whatever, to just know, okay, before I open that door, I have to remember that my nervous system matters and I’ve got to just reset a little bit, check in, get ready for what’s going to happen, bring it down a bit, and so that when I open the door and I’ve got all this incoming stimuli coming at me, I’m not as shocked. My system isn’t going into, whoa, what the hell is going on? It’s like, okay, I am anticipating this. It makes sense. It’s like we can’t always prevent our environments from being overstimulating, but when we feel prepared for that stimulation and can contextualize it, it doesn’t feel as threatening to our system.
And our bodies are really resilient. Our nervous system’s really resilient. It’s inevitable that we’re going to be spending most of our days dealing with work or family, whatever, all these things that could stress us out. But being able to take even just a small time, a small piece of time in order to give your body the opportunity to breathe recuperate is going to build resilience. It will. And there are specific things being a little, we can get more specific here about things like strategies, things you can do. We talk about breathing quite a bit in the book because, and everybody talks about breathing and it’s good reason we talk about breathing because breathing is just this really simple, quick, actionable way. You can downregulate your nervous system, you can move your nervous system into a state of safety. And I think a lot of people don’t understand how slow breathing works.
I think it’s something that people have done for thousands of years with yoga and other kind of ancient traditions, but now we kind of understand at a scientific level what’s actually happening here. And it’s really simple. Again, our autonomic nervous system is this whole system that works together to either mobilize us for safety or shut us down either in the face of trauma or safety. We should talk about that in a second too. And it all kind of works together, and all of it works automatically, like your heartbeats actually thinking about it. The one major autonomic system, autonomic process that we’re able to consciously control is our breathing. If we think about our breathing, we can control it. If we don’t think about it, we’ll still breathe. And because of that, it allows us to sort of get in the middle of this automatic system.
And if we slow down our breathing, what we’re basically telling our body is we’re not actually running for our life right now. And that in turn slows down the rest of our autonomic nervous system and the rest of our body by sending that signal that, wait a second. If I have the time to breathe slowly, particularly slow, exhalations, what’s key to the process? Not the inhalation, but the exhalation part. If I have time to slowly exhale, well, I’m not actually in danger and my body can kind of calm down, and that’s how breathing works. It is a vagal trigger. But the one thing I want to say also is we’ve talked about activation mobilization as the body’s response to threat and response to fear. It’s really important to understand that yes, that is often the case, but that’s not always the case. Oftentimes, when people are in severe duress, severely traumatic incidences, the body doesn’t mobilize or activate.
It freezes and it shuts down. And this is really, really important because when this occurs, people oftentimes are left very confused about either the response they had or somebody else had and say, well, why wasn’t there a struggle? Why wasn’t somebody running? Why wasn’t somebody fighting back? Not understanding that the nervous system kind of takes over and shuts you down at times. And it’s not an ideal scenario, especially with sort of the narratives we spin around these instances. But it’s a natural one, it’s a common one. And just because there was no fight doesn’t mean somebody wasn’t traumatized.
Dr. Sarah (00:43:11):
And I think to even try to translate this to more life and non sort ofac, acute trauma things, I know sometimes when my kids are doing something that I perceive as a threat, and again, we’re talking about they’re fighting with each other or they’re screaming at me. So my nervous system is just reading all this incoming stimulation is threatening, not they’re waving a knife at me, but my kids are fighting. I’m overstimulated, I’m overwhelmed. Sometimes I scream at them. Sometimes I go into fight or flight and I’m just like, stop fighting. God, I lose it. That’s my fight or flight response. Sometimes I also will go just off. I just disconnect.
I’m done. I’m done.
Dr. Sarah (00:44:04):
And I think that there’s a little bit of that same thing you’re describing of like, yes, we can say to ourselves, I’m not screaming at them. I’m not fighting with my kids yet. I don’t feel safe or connected, and they’re not diffusing anything. And it just always feels icky. And a lot of times when I’m working with parents who are like, things are not going well at that. My kids are, their emotions and their behaviors are out of control, overwhelming to me. What I often find is those parents may not actually be screaming at their kids. They’re shutting down. They’re kind of going into the state of hypo arousal where they’re like, they’re just checked out. They’re going on their phone or they’re just kind of dissociated.
And that’s what dissociation is. You see this response, which we call the dorsal vagal response, this kind of shutdown response, and it’s an ancient one. It’s one that we inherited from the earliest vertebraes, basically even before reptiles. Oftentimes it’s called reptilian response. It’s before reptiles. And when the body is in severe duress, it can often just shut down or dissociate. And oftentimes we think of these responses very negatively in effect, they can be very negative experiences, but the shutdown response itself, it’s important to understand is the body doing its best to protect itself in that moment? We shouldn’t feel shame or guilt or anything like that when that response happens. I think that’s really important. Something else I want to talk about here, actually thinking about parents’ experiences and polyvagal theory, what polyvagal theory actually spends, we spend actually quite a bit writing about in a book.
And one of the more, I think, fascinating implications of polyvagal theory just comes down to how parents speak to their, especially newborns, but young children and how sort of embedded in vocalizations, embedded in our voice is a signal of safety. When we speak with melody and prosody, there’s something natural about a way a mother might sing a lullaby to a child that makes the kid feel very safe. And polyvagal theory offers a physiological explanation for this. One of my favorite things to do to kind of demonstrate this is to go up to a friendly dog. And if you say to that dog who’s a good boy or who’s a good boy, the tail will either wag or not wag just on how you say it, right? The words mean nothing. It’s how you say it. The same system is built into all of our mammals.
We have middle ear muscles, the tiniest muscles in the entire body. His job, it is to basically filter out the sounds of human speech from the air. But those muscles and our ability to filter out these specific wavelengths of sounds are only really activated when we feel safe. And these muscles are basically triggered by an activated by what we call vocal prosody, which is this melodic sing songy who’s a good boy. I love you so much. Kind of like baby talk way of speaking. And that triggers these middle ear muscles, which trigger the safety part of our autonomic nervous system, which makes babies. And basically any mammal feel safe. Dogs too, as we just said, makes them feel safe. And so thinking about just the behaviors that feel very natural that occur oftentimes to parents understanding that these are actually very much hardwired into us, like the signal of safety that comes from melodic prosodic, lullaby, vocalizations, and these auditory features. My father, Dr. Porges, created polyvagal theory is basically able to sort of distill this auditory essence of trust and safety, if you will, into an audio-based treatment that’s now being delivered by some three or 4,000 practitioners out in the country called SSP or Safe and Sound Protocol.
What it is basically is just listening to a couple hours of especially filtered music that’s gone through some algorithms so that they trigger these middle ear muscles and make the nervous system feel safer. And in doing so, you see really interesting results. You see behavior changes, you see auditory processing issues transform. You see all sorts of things that happen when the nervous system, especially nervous systems that might be stuck in a state of threat are allowed to feel safe for perhaps the first time.
Dr. Sarah (00:48:49):
That’s so cool. Yeah. I actually have a therapist in my group practice that’s trained in the safe sound protocol, and it’s really interesting, and I love the way that it could be used, and I would definitely want to ask you more about that, but also when you were talking about the middle ear muscles and the posity versus the lower tones, immediately where my mind goes to is like, okay, so remember you were saying before that if you want your child to learn something, they need to be in a state of safety.
Dr. Sarah (00:49:19):
And also if you want your child to be able to hear the words that you are saying and actually process them as language, they also need to be in a state of safety.
Dr. Sarah (00:49:31):
And then I also think of how many times when our kid is doing a, let’s say, what we might call bad behavior or aggressive behavior or destructive behavior or dysregulated behavior. And we feel so compelled in that moment as a parent to teach them not to do that behavior. And what do we then do? We very rarely say, Hey, you really can’t do that thing right now. That’s not safe. I’m not going to let you do that. Usually we say, stop it. Whatcha doing? That’s not safe. Our voices get low, they get loud, they activate a totally different part of the brain. But the goal in the moment of that parent, I believe that parent’s intention is to try to teach their kids to not do that thing or to feel as though they have to parent in that moment. And one of the things I’m always trying to teach parents when our kid is in a dysregulated state, that’s not the time to teach. It’s the time to contain. And then if we want them to learn not to do that behavior again, we need to do that later, we need to do that when they’re feeling connected and cuddly and safe with us. That’s when we go back and we debrief and we say, Hey, earlier today, that thing that you were doing, help me understand what was going on for you. How can we do it differently?
Yeah. I mean, you can certainly act in a more poignant, aggressive way, and you’ll kind of get the electric fence approach to teaching somebody new behavior, which is their body will associate it with bad things and negativity and threats, and maybe you’ll get that behavior change, but there’s a cost to that, and that cost is, it doesn’t feel safe, and you’re not really teaching them. You’re scaring them. And is the truth? Yes. Our nervous system, only when it’s in the state of safety is it really capable of learning, of socializing, of doing all these things. And you think about what that means for schooling, for example, and the different approaches we over the years have had towards schools and discipline at schools or collaboration at schools, whether the format is more discussive and conversive and seminar-based or sit down and shut up and stare at a chalkboard.
Huge implications there. It also, I think is really big implications when you think about, well, why is it that kids who might come from abusive households or even just unsafe or highly polluted neighborhoods or suffer from malnourishment, malnutrition, they have a deck stacked against them. When it comes to things like school, it’s really difficult. It’s not to say they can’t overcome, it’s just, it’s harder because if your nervous system is in a state of threat, it’s hard for you to learn things. The odds are stacked against you. And I think once you kind of really pull those threads, the emergent empathy that I think kind of unfolds from that is really powerful. Once you begin to realize that maybe, hey, the reason somebody’s in the state they’re in is because of where they are at home or what they’re dealing with or what their nervous system is dealing with outside of school too. They’re not stupid. They’re just in a state of threat, kind of that whole idea.
Dr. Sarah (00:52:52):
Yeah. And similarly, if our kids are, I usually use the term dysregulated because I think it’s more accurate, but a lot of times parents will come to me being like, my child is totally misbehaving. They won’t cooperate, they never listen to me. They’re out of control. Those are often the descriptors that I hear parents use to describe their kids’ behaviors. And a lot of the work I do with parents is help them just look at it from a different angle, which is informed by polyvagal theory on my end. But how do we see a behavior, an outward, objectively destructive behavior as a cue that something isn’t feeling okay on the inside? And instead of trying to focus solely on getting that behavior to stop, to moving more towards creating that sense of safety in the kid. And you’ll see the behavior stop. And you were talking about co-regulation earlier, and I think that’s a critically useful tool. Could you talk a little bit more about out what co-regulation is and how we can use it maybe in the context of deactivating, a hot tantrumy moment with our kids?
Yeah. I mean, polyvagal theory posits that co-regulation is nothing short of a biological imperative. Something as hardwired and baked into our bodies as a capital end need as much as food or water or sleep or shelter. We evolve to need it without it. We wither think about what loneliness is. Loneliness is our bodies telling us, get around somebody else. What happens to people when they’re put in solitary confinement? They go crazy. Our bodies evolved to need the safe social healing presence of others. And when we’re young, that other oftentimes is of course our parents when we feel safe. And the process of co-regulation is basically the body and the nervous system, both interpreting from others that they are in a safe place and then rebroadcasting that signal back. So it’s this two-way, bi-directional broadcast effectively. And the results of that broadcast back and forth is that the body picks up the signal that it’s safe enough to shut off its defensive systems so that it can heal, grow, and restore.
It’s basically giving all clear, we can turn off our defensive systems so that our more of a cooperative healing, learning social systems can turn on. Co-regulation is so key to that. And the way co-regulation works is kind of think about a flow chart or a process where when we feel safe, we’re able to achieve proximity. We can actually be in the physical presence of others, and when we are in the physical presence of others, we can actually develop bonds that can lead to intimacy, and our body can sort of fulfill this process and really shut off its defensive systems. You think about this in the way social interaction can occur in this modern world. We’re doing this over, not zoom, but something like zoom right now that’s also modern and so new. When our bodies and our nervous systems evolved to need collaboration and sociability as a sign of safety, the only way the body could achieve it was face-to-face.
The internet didn’t exist, the written word didn’t exist, the telephone didn’t exist. And so baked into our body is sort of a scorecard about us, whether we are fulfilling this ancient need to be around others in a safe context, whether we are fulfilling this ancient need of co-regulation that is baked into our bodies, and that scorecard is only really tallied when we’re in face-to-face in person interactions. You get a little of it. I’m not saying there’s no benefits from talking to people on Zoom or on the phone, but really this invisible two-way dance that occurs where we’re reading subtle facial muscles and vocal twinges and all of these things, this is something that evolved to occur in person and something that when you’re dealing with a kid, a particularly young kid is very physical as well. You’re hugging, you’re cuddling, you’re sleeping with them, you’re doing these things that signal to the body that it can shut off.
And again, look at dogs. Dogs, which I just love is this perfect vessel for these mammalian instincts outside of culture, outside of language, outside of learning. A dog will instinctively, if it loves you and feels safe, just lay its head on you in that physical contact. And what it’s doing is it’s allowing itself to feel safe, to shut off its defense systems, to show you and to feel your breathing even, right. The feeling of the breathing, the way the body moves, the stomach moves. These are all things that go through the body and signal safety and again, co-regulation.
Dr. Sarah (00:57:45):
Yeah. Much like how when we have a baby, a newborn, they tell you when you’re in the hospital with your newborn baby, they’re like, put the baby skin to skin. Lay the baby on your chest. Let it feel your heartbeat. Let it feel the warmth of your skin. That skin to skin contact is the essence of co-regulation.
Yeah. You can’t do that on the internet. Yeah, no.
Dr. Sarah (00:58:08):
But then I think as parents, we sometimes kind of the word of co-regulation, at least in the parenting world, can get used in a lot of different ways. So what I’m hearing you say is just in life within our relationship with our children, we’re always trying to communicate, even not trying, just unconsciously, we are communicating a sense of safety and affection and an ability for both of us to let down our defenses. It’s the things like when you tussle your kid’s hair, when you’re walking past ’em, right. Or they scrape their knee and you get down next to them. But I think we also use co-regulation in parenting a lot around, or at least I do, in when our kids are having a meltdown, when our kids are having a tantrum, when our kids are exploding, right? We can use co-regulation rather than sort of yelling at them or teaching them in that moment discipline, if you will. And there’s lots of ways you can discipline. It could be aggressive or calm, but that’s the teaching part. A lot of times parents, they put co-regulation. It doesn’t come to mind immediately. What comes to mind urgently is the discipline piece. I’ve got to stop this behavior. I’ve got to teach my kid not to do this. I think that that’s a societally constructed idea that we’ve internalized over generations of needing to be in control of our children.
But I think there’s this movement to co-regulate with our kids when they’re dysregulated, when they’re hot, and to actively use that as a tool to communicate safety to their nervous system to say, Hey, you’re mad. I get it. It’s okay. Let’s move back into safety first. Then you can do the disciplining part, then you could do the teaching part. But I think another thing that people don’t often realize who are more familiar with this idea and who are trying to co-regulate with their kids, that some kids are really receptive to co-regulation and want to be hugged and soothed in that physical touch way. But when you have a kid who’s 10 out of 10, furious, livid, lost, totally flipped their lid, that kind of physical touch and soothing voice might not, might just be overstimulating to them in that moment. I just think that people don’t understand. Sometimes I think a myth about co-regulation is that effective co-regulation necessarily means a calm child. And I think we could co-regulate and not necessarily see an immediate effect…
Dr. Sarah (01:00:50):
On our child’s state.
Yeah, everybody’s different is the truth. And I think that’s really important for us to, I think the generational differences here, I think become when you’re parenting, you’re taking what you learned from a prior generation oftentimes and doing the best you can. And you might be fighting against the things you learned as a kid just from being raised in a different world. Again, in world when technology was different, when parenting style is different, when our knowledge was different. But everybody is different is the truth when it comes to children, when it comes to adults, when it comes to what our baselines are. I was raised, I think, at a time in which there were the good kids and the bad kids, right? The good kids acted one way, the bad kids acted the other way. And I was probably one of the bad kids. I had a hard time staying still in class.
I wasn’t raising my hand as much. All of these sorts of things, and those behaviors were mistaken for ill intent for being. It was like little Bart Simpson at the time, right? Nowadays we look at Bart Simpson and say, oh, he’s ADHD or something. Back then they would’ve called him little demon child and little Dennis the Menace, whatever. And I think that we are rightfully beginning to understand just the fact that everybody kind of responds to the world differently. Everybody’s different. You have a litter of dogs. Some have just different personalities and ways of navigating through the world. And the best we can do, honestly, as parents, as friends, as civilians, is to just be as safe as we can for other people to be there, to be accepting and make them feel safe more than anything in the world. Because a kid who feels safe is a kid who will do better in school, who will do better with friends, who will be better able to handle the stresses that the world is going to throw at them, better able to handle potentially traumatic incidences in the future without it negatively impacting them in a long-term and permanent way to just better be able to walk through this crazy stressy world we live in and be their best and happiest selves.
And what I love about all this is that these things, the things that we like, the things that are fun are the things that make us healthier and happier and learn it and all of these things. And that’s such a contrast in the way I think a lot of us grew up where you had sit down and shut up, learn rote memorization, playing with your friends is optional, recess is optional. And now we’re beginning to realize, no, these things that we like, we like them because they’re good for us. We like them because they make us better able to learn more resilient, happier, and healthier.
Dr. Sarah (01:03:24):
Yeah, I think that’s such a hopeful message. And I love how this theory and this book really, which is makes this what is often a very complex theory, feel really accessible to a lay audience. So I feel like if anyone has gotten this far in this episode and is like, I want to understand this better, this book is a really, really good resource. If people want to find it, follow you, follow your father’s work, where can they go?
Yeah. The book’s called Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us by Stephen Porges and Seth Porges. You can find it anywhere, really. It’s out now from Norton Press. It’s been a lot of fun here.
Dr. Sarah (01:04:07):
Thank you so much. This is wonderful.
Yeah, I appreciate it.
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