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 stem and goes to nearly every organ in our body. If you are interested in the mind-body connection, then you are interested in the vagus nerve. Amazingly, 80% of the fibers of the vagus are used to bring information from the organs to the brainstem, the other 20% is for information being sent from brain to the body. This means that our organs really carry the majority of our bodily information. The vagus has two branches- an older branch that can be recruited for defense as it goes to the organs below the diaphragm and elicits immobilization behaviors, and another newer more evolved branch that, when functioning, keeps “fight/flight/freeze” in check, and supports our health, growth, and restoration! It is the part of our autonomic nervous system that is responsible for allowing us to connect, self-soothe, be playful, and be in relationship. This newer vagal circuit is linked to the features of the face (ears, eyes, mouth), enabling us to express our bodily state in our facial expression, in our voice, and to detect the intonation of other people’s voices to screen for safety. This newer system has myelinated nerves which respond to voice intonation, smiling faces, playfulness, social referencing, and reciprocity.
Hierarchy of defense systems: We use our three phylogenetically evolved systems of regulation in a hierarchical pattern. In an effort to create safety, we first use our most newly developed system (the myelinated vagus) to connect, when this fails we go into sympathetic mobilization (fight or flight), and if this fails we head into our most ancient defense system of parasympathetic immobilization. Our entire autonomic nervous system (ANS) is built to support health, growth, and restoration. The key way that we ensure that we are using our ANS in this way is through the vagal brake. Our newer myelinated vagus has the potential to inhibit the defensive structures of the other autonomic nervous system (ANS) pathways. This means that when we know how to recruit our vagus we can prevent ourselves from being hijacked by the more reactive and destructive patterns of either full mobilization or immobilization.
Survival through cooperation: While being a mammal is a pretty great deal, there are a few things that we do not do very well. Namely we are not wired to deal well being by ourselves, and any extended or intensive isolation is not good. Mammals evolved to co-regulate – meaning that we help each other regulate our states through caregiving and reciprocity. It is important to remember that Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest has been long misinterpreted, and that we survived due to cooperation, and not through aggression.
Observations that may indicate that your system, or your partner’s system, is being recruited for defense: Is there reciprocity in facial expressivity? Eye gaze? Intonation of voice? Also ask whether the vocalization patterns lends themselves to reciprocal dialogue or are you stepping on each other’s words? Our culture is so focused on syntax and words that we have forgotten that one of the most important ways we detect safety is through prosody (varieties in tone/timbre/rhythm) in voice. It can be incredibly helpful to keep this in mind in your relationship and interactions.
Every relationship has some minor to severe level of arguments – meaning people feel some semblance of danger and they get angry or scared. When this happens the neural tone of the muscles in the face is reduced which changes the tone of the middle ear – and literally people will have difficulty hearing you. In arguments with partners or children, it is likely the other person is having difficulty understanding you, because they are actually having difficulty hearing you!
While communicating with your partner, regularly check in with not just what you are saying, but how you are saying it – what is your tone? What is your body communicating? And is your partner is a physiological state in which they are open to engage and hear you?
It is the experience and not the event. Trauma leads to a lack of feeling, or difficulty feeling, one’s own body. Trauma histories have very little to do with the actual events that occurred, and more to do with the physiological responses that occurred. When considering your, or someone else’s trauma history, focus less on the objective events or facts of the experience, and become curious and become witness to their subjective experience. This will lead to an understanding of how and why the body is reacting in certain ways.
If we don’t feel our own body – we have difficulty related to other people’s bodies. A feature of trauma histories is the lack of feeling one’s own body. In order to get a sense of how present you, or your partner is in their body, it is helpful to look at how well are you/they playing? Does the person have the ability to be spontaneous, reciprocal, and spontaneous in the interaction? Are they responding to cues?
In addition to the question of how well you are playing, the other important question is how well are you pooping? This is important because the whole area below the diaphragm holds and reflects the effects of trauma on our bodies. Trauma is linked with IBS, constipation, and furthermore, the nerves that regulate this area also regulate the genitals. When we bottle up feelings in the subdiaphragmatic area, our sexuality is also impacted. Highly anxious or tightly wrapped individuals will have digestive systems that reflect this, and likely their sexual responses to intimacy will reflect these features as well.
Our autonomic nervous system is there to support health, growth, and restoration! It is only when it is used chronically for defense that we begin to have dysfunctions and disorders manifest in our organs.
Repair- We have violations of expectations ALL the time! However, when you have a violation it creates an opportunity for a repair. It is important to remember that it is not the words of an apology that matter as much as it is how the apology is said: the gestures, the words, and the intonation of voice. Your partner will only respond to a valid apology when the nonverbals are in concert with the intention. It is not the words! Culturally we function so much on syntax in our culture and not enough on the intonation of the words – in your relationship shift your attention to how you are interacting and how your body, and your partner’s body is responding to intonation. Remember to ask – how am I creating safety in this interaction? Am I speaking with prosody in my voice that will create comfort for my partner?
Be more playful! Using gestures of engagement, and more playfulness, helps to regulate each other’s physiological state. The notion of connectedness is a biological imperative. The goal as mammals, and as good spouses, is to interact in a way that regulates each other’s physiology. It is a responsibility for individuals to interact to make each other feel safe. It is not just healing, and enjoyable, but it has great impact on our mental and physical health because it supports the circuits of health, growth, and restoration!
Somatic experiencing: In efforts to recover from trauma, it is critical that we learn how to separate physiology from events. This occurs when we have the opportunity to be in the same physiological state in which we experienced the trauma, however in a way in which we have the control we did not have when we were in original event. It will not happen by telling someone to not get upset or not worry when they are triggered, but instead letting them experience their body reacting, but this time in a safe context. Doing this begins to take power away from the implicit body memories.
Change your breathing pattern: Have you noticed how when you are upset with your partner, you begin to huff and puff? This is your body physically preparing to mobilize for a fight or to run. Can can change your physiological state towards social engagement through shifting your breathing. Long inhalations removes what is called the vagal brake and it allows us to get more mobilized. In an effort to slow down, we need to have long exhalations. Try extending your exhalations through intentional breathing and through singing. Singing is wonderful because it uses muscles of social engagement system. Another way to play with voice in your relationship is to improvise songs, and use gibberish in moments of tension to help change your intonation and move the focus away from the meaning of words, and towards how the voice can help build repair and closeness.
Escalation is not coregulation! In most relationship conflicts, both individuals feel like victims – in order to de-escalate a situation and move in the direction of play and connection, one person must step up and take charge of noticing the pattern, and changing the way of engagement. This means meeting your partner on their level – often through touch, gentleness, and a prosodic voice. Hug your partner – not in an effort to fix, but rather in an effort to connect and bring back safety.
Be respectful of your physiological state: Respect your body’s behaviors without judgement, and without justifying or making personal narratives. Our bodies are constantly sending us information about the world – be respectful of your body shifts, even in moments when your body is reacting in a way that feels exaggerated or maladaptive. Also be respectful of how your body state shifts affect those around you – knowing they are going to react to your shifts, whether you intended for that or not. Taking responsibility for your physiological state is not only about learning how to downregulate your system, but it is about communicating your state to those around you. We are human, and are not always going to be able to perfectly respond in a situation that triggers us, but what we can learn to do is to verbalize what is happening in our body to others! If you are angry about something that happened, or feel the signs of being triggered, share this out loud. This will help your family, your spouse, your partner be able to not take the visual and bodily cues you are sending personally. This will SAVE your relationship!
Last bits of advice: Remember to change the prosody of your voice, bring in gentle touch, and see yourself as a vehicle for healing and safety for you and your partner! Before you react, listen! Don’t use the physiological state you are in as the motivator for behavior, just pause for a moment and get a better evaluation of the context. Add in a few long exhalations, and you will be more able to stay present and get back to a physiological state that allows you to be responsive, engaged, and connecting with your partner and those in your life!
Visit Stephen’s website for more information, a list of public speaking events, and links to previous interviews!
If you want to gain an in depth understanding of Polyvagal Theory, read Stephen’s book The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation
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