Have you ever wondered why we sometimes feel unsafe or anxious for no apparent reason? Or struggled to pinpoint what helps you feel truly secure? When we feel this, nearly every part of us wants to retreat, to shut down, to isolate. And, the effects on not just our mental health, but also physical health are potentially devastating. Yet feeling unsafe, insecure, and vulnerable is the state so many of us unwittingly live in, and suffer the consequences, without realizing what’s really happening, or understanding there’s actually a lot we can do to reverse it. To feel safe, secure, at peace, connected, and alive.
The key is understanding a critical part of our nervous system known as the Vagus nerve, how it affects us, and what we can do to harness its power for good. What if understanding the hidden workings of our nervous system could reveal why we feel unsafe when there’s no objective threat, then let us rewire our responses for good? My guests today may have the answer.
Distinguished scientist, Stephen Porges, shares how his journey led him to develop the groundbreaking polyvagal theory. His son, Seth Porges, an acclaimed journalist who has explored social connection, brings these complex ideas to life in their new book, Our Polyvagal World: How Safety and Trauma Change Us. Their polyvagal theory reveals the profound ways our nervous system determines how safe or threatened we feel – and how those feelings shape our health, happiness, and ability to connect.
In simple terms, polyvagal theory shows that it’s not the objective facts around us, but the subjective experience of safety or danger interpreted by our brain and body that matters most. This invisible “neuroception” system scans for cues of safety or threat and shifts our physiology accordingly, for better or worse.
The key, they argue, lies in understanding and influencing this process – both in ourselves and in how we interact with others. When we feel safe, our body optimizes itself for growth and restoration. But when we feel unsafe, it triggers “defense” systems that impair health and function. What makes someone feel safe versus unsafe is highly individual, based on past experiences. But the skills to transmit cues of safety can be learned.
So how can we override these default survival circuits and consciously create environments – physical, social, emotional – that nurture true feelings of security? How do we become “neuroception architects” adept at transmitting cues of safety through our voice, face, and presence?
If you want to understand what drives irrational reactions and unlock your capacity for connection and growth, this conversation provides revelation and hope.
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If you actually want to activate the vagus in a way that is conducive to making us feel safe, that is conducive to positive health, that is conducive to happiness. It’s actually really simple. It is positive social interaction, being around and having conversations face to face talks with people who make you feel safe is the single most effective and best way of activating the vagus. And the reason for this is because the part of the vagus responsible for feelings of safety, the ventral vagus branch. It plugs into a part of the brainstem called the ventral visual cortex. It’s kind of a control hub where the vagus plugs into it, as well as the cranial nerves that are directly responsible for social interaction. The cranial nerves that allow us to move our face, to adjust the intonation of our voice, to shrug our shoulders, to actually be an expressive social being. They are kind of co-mingled in the brainstem with the branch of the vagus that is associated with safety. So when we feel safe, the ability for us to be expressive social creatures turns on. And when we act as expressive social creatures, it activates the part of our vagus that makes us feel safe. Creating a feedback loop.[00:01:02] Jonathan Fields
So have you ever wondered why we sometimes feel unsafe or anxious for no apparent reason? Or maybe struggle to pinpoint what helps you feel truly secure? When we feel this, nearly every part of us wants to retreat, to shut down, to isolate and the effects on not just our mental health but also physical health are potentially devastating. Yet feeling unsafe, insecure, vulnerable is the state so many of us unwittingly live in and suffer the consequences without realizing what’s really happening or understanding. There’s actually a lot we can do to reverse it, to feel safe, secure, at peace, connected and alive. The key is understanding a critical part of our nervous system known as the vagus nerve, how it affects us and what we can do to harness its power for good. So what if understanding the hidden workings of our nervous system could reveal why we feel unsafe when there’s no objective threat, then let us rewire our responses for good. Today’s guests may have the answer distinguished scientist Stephen Porges shares how his journey led him to develop the groundbreaking Polyvagal theory and his son Seth, an acclaimed journalist who has explored social connection, brings these complex ideas to life. In their new book, Our Polyvagal World. Polyvagal theory reveals the profound ways that our nervous system determines how safe or threatened we feel and how those feelings shape our health, our happiness and ability to connect. In simple terms, Polyvagal theory shows that it’s not the objective facts around us, but the subjective experience of safety or danger interpreted by our brain and body that matter most. We have this invisible neuroception system, as they describe, that scans for cues or safety or threats, and shifts our physiology accordingly, for better or for worse.[00:02:47] Jonathan Fields
The key, they argue, lies in understanding and influencing this process, both in ourselves and in how we interact with others. When we feel safe, our body optimizes itself for growth and restoration and openness and connection. But when we feel unsafe, it triggers defense systems that impair health, connection and function. What makes someone feel safe versus unsafe is highly individual based on past experiences, but the skills to transmit cues of safety can be learned. So how can we override these default survival circuits and consciously create environments physical, social, and emotional that nurture true feelings of security? How do we become neuroception architects adept at transmitting cues of safety through our voice, face and presence and feeling that same safety within ourselves? If you want to understand what drives our rational reactions and unlock your capacity for connection and growth and well-being, this conversation provides true revelation and hope. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.[00:03:56] Jonathan Fields
I’m just excited to dive in. You know, there’s a certain amount of familiarity that I’ve had with Polyvagal theory over the years, just exploring health and well-being and mindset. So I’m excited to really deepen into this.
START OF TRANSCRIPT
I think the really the opening question here, because I think a lot of people will not have actually heard the phrase polyvagal or polyvagal theory is to really just sort of like deconstruct this a little bit and in terms that feel accessible, which I think is really what the fundamental point of this entire new book is about, like, let’s actually make these ideas and concepts accessible to more people walk me through, in a way, when we’re talking about Polyvagal theory, what are we actually talking about?[00:04:38] Seth Porges
You know, I think that was exactly the goal with this book, was take this concept that I think is intimidatingly complex, and our goal was to do exactly this, break it down into terms that were understandable, useful, accessible, shareable. And to that end, we summarize Polyvagal theory in basically one sentence right at the top of the book. It’s really simple. It is basically the idea that how safe we feel, not how safe we actually are, but how safe our body feels is crucial to our health and happiness. That’s it. When we feel safe versus when we feel threatened or traumatized, our bodies undergo a massive physiological shift that basically just changes how everything in our body operates. And only when we feel safe is our body able to enter a state that is conducive to health, growth, restoration, happiness, sociability, creativity, productivity, and all the other things we love as humans.[00:05:33] Jonathan Fields
So let’s talk about the word safe. Then, when we use the word safe, I feel like it’s this sort of a bit of an amorphous blob of a word. What are we actually talking about there?[00:05:43] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah, basically we live in a culture which defines everything outside the body. So we’re defined as being safe by crime threats. We go to airports, to metal detectors. We go to schools that have metal detectors. To quote, make kids safe. But often these are signals of threat. So the real point is our nervous system’s definition of safety doesn’t coincide with society’s definition of safety. So it’s not amorphous. And now let’s dig down in operationalize what it is to feel safe. It’s an interesting concept because low in the brain, the brain stem, there are these foundational survival circuits. And so when our body goes under a state of threat, all our physiology, all our organs change how they function. And when we say we’re anxious or we say we’re frightened or we say we’re stressed, it’s all the same concept or same function of what our body is doing. It’s disrupting the nervous system’s ability to regulate our bodily organs in a healthful way. And the word is often used as homeostasis or homeostatic functions health, growth, restoration, and even sociality. So once the system is disrupted, we are no longer sociable, we’re no longer approachable or accessible to others.[00:06:58] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Our bodies are now retuned to threat. The point is, it’s not has nothing or very little to do with our intentions. And this is where we get into when we say to people, you should feel safe now. It’s not a voluntary behavior. The body is either disrupted. So when people feel anxious, we often say, what is making you anxious? Without acknowledging that there’s something inside their physiology that is actually locked into a state of threat. And this is really where the theory comes into. It’s the in psychology, we talk about intervening variables. And literally it’s the space between the stimulus and the response. So we respond to a stimulus. We get a reaction within our body. And that reaction determines our behavioral response to the world. But we often neglect what our body is literally screaming at us. And when we feel these things in our body, the word is called interoception. We feel the body that is triggering our higher brain structures to get us the hell out of those places.[00:07:59] Seth Porges
The story of Polyvagal theory, and the story of this book is really the story of the autonomic nervous system. It’s one of those terms where everybody’s heard it, but you’re in a room and you ask somebody to define it. Very few people will actually be able to. The word autonomic basically means automatic. It’s all of our bodily functions, all of our systems, all of our organs that operate without us consciously thinking about it. Our heart does not require, in fact, does not allow us to just say, beat faster or beat slower. It just does its thing. And the vast majority of bodily systems operate in this fashion, meaning automatically outside of our conscious control. But they don’t always operate the same. Sometimes your heart beats fast, sometimes your heart beats slow, sometimes you sweat, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes your digestion works one way, sometimes it works another. And what determines the state in which your entire body operates is this question how safe does your nervous system judge you to be at any given moment? Your nervous system has this system that Dr. Porges has coined neuroception that basically scans the world, takes all available data points, sensory inputs, past experiences, whatever it may be, and basically tries to determine am I threatened or not right now? And it shifts your entire body via the autonomic nervous system, the functions of basically your entire body from a state of safety to a state of threat, or vice versa. And this is important because the nervous system can’t really do both at the same time, right? Especially back in ancient times, calories, metabolic resources, those were scarce. Your body didn’t have doesn’t have the resources to both help us evade immediate threat, immediate survival, and to put resources towards long-term health growth and restoration at the same time.
So your body has to make a determination. Am I going to focus on immediate survival, or am I going to focus on long term health, growth and restoration? And if your body is constantly or always in a state of immediate threat, immediate survival, it does not resource the systems that allow it to heal, grow and restore. And this is super, super important because in this world we all live in, we live in a world that isn’t just stressful, it’s almost optimized for stress, right? Like we have technology that evolution could never have imagined that can stress us out at any given moment in ways our bodies never could have imagined thousands of years ago. And so we live in this world in which stress is everywhere. And so these circuits, these systems that evolved for short-term evasion of immediate threat are constantly being triggered these days. And in doing so, our body de resources, the systems that allow it to heal, grow and restore, as well as suggest, think creatively to be productive, to be social. All of these systems are only resourced by the body when the nervous system feels safe. And to answer your actual question here, that has little to do with our actual safety. Your body has no way of knowing if lightning is going to strike you at any moment. If a car is going to veer off the highway at any moment. But what your body can do is scan the world around it and kind of make its best guess. And so what Dr. Porges was talking about is many of the things in our world around us that purport to keep us safe, perversely make us feel unsafe, make our nervous systems feel unsafe, and in doing so, negatively impact our health.[00:11:22] Jonathan Fields
So, I mean, the big message there is that it’s not about objective circumstances. It’s not about the fact around you. You could have five people in a room and they’re all in the exact same setting, or they’re outside in an environment where there are things happening around them, the exact same setting, exact same experience. Four of them would probably be having the time of their life. One of them maybe because of their history, maybe because of past trauma, whatever it may be, may have the feeling of being unsafe. Same objective fact. But if that one person feels that feeling of being unsafe, their internal system is going to be functioning profoundly differently.[00:12:00] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah, this is why we need to reframe when we talk about trauma, because trauma has tended to be defined by the external events. But what happens if that external event was fine for four and five, but for one, their body went into life threat? And what do we do? We humiliate the person whose body didn’t respond in a more benevolent or comfortable way. We tend to shame people or say things like, I got through it, why couldn’t you? And in psychology we use terms like adverse childhood experiences, ACEs. And this has now become a way of, in a sense, a justification for PTSD. The real issue is what if you don’t hit the criteria of adverse events but your body did, so it’s not like it’s objective outside of you. There is an objective measure, but it’s not the external environment, it’s the physiological response. So it’s not this subjective fuzzy construct. It actually is. The physiology has shifted. The physiology has shifted in a way that it disrupts the homeostatic functioning of our organs and now shifts our resources to survive. And for many people who have experienced trauma through their lives, their life is all life about being in a state of constant hypervigilance and defense. And they also have the consequences is not just behavioral and mental health issues. The consequences are irritable bowel syndrome, a lot of bodily function damage because the feedback loops within the body have been turned off or displaced by the metabolic need to mobilize or to shut down, the body went into its priorities, and that was to keep you alive.[00:13:36] Seth Porges
Yeah. When our bodies feel threatened, they are biased towards detecting threat in the world. You know, we’ve all heard of fight or flight. This is what we’re talking about to some degree. At some times how the body shifts towards a state of mobilization or fighting as a way of defending itself. But we’re also talking about the. Save that which is what happens, what changes occur under the hood when we feel safe, and when you’re in a fight or flight state or a state of severe duress, which actually doesn’t cause you to mobilize, but to shut down and freeze. And this is something that largely wasn’t recognized by many people until somewhat recently. But when you’re in these states of defense, a whole lot of changes happen to your body. And when your state of safety, a whole lot of changes, oftentimes positive ones, happen with the body. And depending on what state you’re in, the same event can impact the same person differently. And this can change over time based on past experiences, past traumas, past associations, past anything. Really.[00:14:34] Jonathan Fields
Yeah. So when we talk about somebody feeling unsafe, we are not talking about purely the emotional state of feeling unsafe, the psychological state of feeling unsafe we’re talking about. And that may manifest in very emotional and psychological ways and symptoms. But we’re also saying what you’re saying is that this shows up in physiological ways in the body as well, and that can, in fact, then manifest in illness, in pain, in dysfunction, because of this experience of feeling unsafe.[00:15:04] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah, yeah. I’d like to emphasize and deconstruct part of what you’re saying. It’s not like the psychological or emotional feelings are not real. They’re sitting on top of a brain stem that is regulating a body to be in a state of defense. And that feedback as it percolates upward, we interpret as anxiety, stress or threat. But it has a physiological basis, and it’s simpler from looking at it from that physiological basis. Because all you need to say is my body is under a state of threat, or my autonomic nervous system is disrupted. It’s no longer supporting homeostatic functions. I mean, it’s a long operational statement, but in general, that’s what it is. So when we’re in a state of stress, basically the neural regulation of our bodily organs has taken a break to basically defend take care of us.[00:15:55] Seth Porges
Yeah, yeah. It is psychological. It is a change, but it’s also physiological. And they are very much linked. And this is really important because the way we have traditionally modeled and treated trauma has been to treat it as a purely psychological or purely psychiatric issue, which means maybe medication or talk therapy, right, as sort of the treatments of choice, which sort of ignores the larger physiological shift that occurs. And a larger cause of this, which is the body stuck into a state of defense.
Yeah. And at the same time, it’s stopping us effectively, if I’m getting this right from the positive functions, from optimizing for health, for optimizing for restoration, for optimizing for all of those things that we want and desire and that make us feel good. So it’s not just it’s sort of like facilitating the negative. It’s also keeping us from allocating resources to reach a state that we really want to be in.[00:16:47] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah, Jonathan is actually even a philosophical difference because the world, the world we are all dropped into thinks that if you have these disorders, there’s medicine and there’s surgery. Polyvagal theory says your body needs to be welcoming, even to surgery and medication. It has to welcome the interventions. If your body’s in a state of defense or threat, the interventions may not work. And we have to understand that this regulation of our physiology is really the quest. I often use the term we are on a quest to feel safe, but the neural mechanisms are on a quest to serve their functions, and that is to keep us healthy. And the interesting part about being a social mammal is that sociality and physiological homeostatic functions are interrelated to each other.[00:17:34] Jonathan Fields
Yeah, and I do want to dive into that in more detail before we get there, though. The very name of this theory is Polyvagal theory. So embedded in that is the word vagal coming from vagus nerve. So you’ve described sort of the function of the autonomic nervous system and how it plays into what we’re talking about. But more specifically, there is this thing in all of us called the vagus nerve that is central to what we’re talking about here. So walk me through it, because I think a lot of people have heard of this thing recently, and it seems like there’s also a lot of mythology and a lot of maybe misinformation.[00:18:09] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
I think there’s tremendous misinformation. I think people start to think that the vagus has executive functions and they want to, quote, hack the vagus. But I want you can think of the vagus not as having intelligence, but really being a wire, a conduit with lots of different wires in it. So it’s a cable connecting our brainstem to virtually every visceral organ in our body. And the cable has within it pathways that come from different areas of the brainstem. And those different areas of the brain stem are sending different types of signals to those various organs. So it’s really the brain-body connection is through the vagus or when the primary ones. The issue is what can we do when we start to look at that anatomy. And what we start ending up with is we say the. Is a conduit. But really the interesting part is what is the brain stem doing with the information it’s getting and sending to the organs?[00:19:04] Seth Porges
Yeah. Let’s define what the vagus here is. The vagus is a cranial nerve. It’s one of 12 nerves that are called cranial nerves that originate in the brain. And they go to different, very specific destinations in the body that offer very specific functions. So you have the optic nerve, which goes from the brain to the eyes and lets us see. Right. It’s this direct connection between the eyes and the brain. What makes the vagus different is that instead of having just one primary destination like the eyes, it runs through the entire body and it connects basically all of our bodily systems and all of our organs in this shared connection, so that when we feel like we’re in a state of safety or a state of defense, it’s not like our heart acts one way and our sweat glands act another way, and our liver acts. You know, everything acts together. This is what gives us an autonomic nervous system. It’s what allows our body to act in cohesion. It’s like the conductor of the orchestra, basically the baton that causes everything to work together. So when we feel in the state of safety, all of our body acts in a state of safety. When we feel in a state of threat, all of our body acts in a state of threat. The vagus gives us an autonomic nervous system. And this is super, super important. There has been, as you said, a lot of attention recently paid to the vagus on social media with people talking about how to hack or tone or do what, activate or whatever it is, the vagus, because scientists have known for some time that actually activating the vagus nerve itself acts as a neural brake. It calms us. It makes us cool, collected it, slows us down.[00:20:32] Seth Porges
It has positive health effects. However, a lot of the attention given in recent times to hack into vagus has been from this idea of like, hey, maybe pour cold water in your face, or do this one little trick and you’ll feel better, whatever it is. But Polyvagal theory says is sure, whatever. All that’s fine and good. Sure, maybe you’ll activate the vagus, but the real trick here, the real thing you should do if you actually want to activate the vagus in a way that is conducive to making us feel safe, that is conducive to positive health, that is conducive to happiness, is actually really simple. It is positive social interaction. Just being around and having conversations face to face talks with people who make you feel safe is the single most effective and best way of activating the vagus. And the reason for this is because the part of the vagus responsible for feelings of safety the ventral vagus branch, the part of the vagus responsible it plugs into a part of the brainstem called the ventral visual cortex. That is also, it’s kind of a control hub where the vagus plugs into it, as well as the cranial nerves that are directly responsible for social interaction, the cranial nerves that allow us to move our face, to adjust the intonation of our voice, to shrug our shoulders, to actually be an expressive social being. They are kind of co-mingled in the brainstem with the branch of the vagus that is associated with safety. So when we feel safe social interaction, the ability for us to be expressive social creatures turns on. And when we act as expressive social creatures, it activates the part of our vagus that makes us feel safe. Creating a feedback loop.
Yeah. Through phylogeny, which is evolution. There’s an interesting journey that takes place in the brainstem in terms of the neurons, the cells from which the vagus controls the heart. We can literally track those through embryology and cross-comparative animals. And what you start seeing is that the journey goes ventrally. So their cardio. The neurons that slow our heart move from the dorsal area of the brainstem. They move to the ventral area, which is the front part of our body. And there they kind of co-mingle. They co-mingle with the nerves that regulate the muscles of the face and head, including larynx and pharynx. So what really happens is that we broadcast our visceral state in our voice and our face. So it’s like this. The co-mingling enabled mammals to signal to another whether their body was in a state of homeostasis or not, really where they safe to come close to or not. So our social behavior at least what we call social behavior in mammals was dependent upon the the success of that ventral migration. I’m going to give you the example of where you can literally see it. The ventral vagus controls the heart and the bronchi the laryngopharynx basically organs above the diaphragm, the dorsal vagus. It’s the organs below the diaphragm. And they have a few fibers that still go to the organs above. But primarily it’s a sub diaphragmatic system. And when that dorsal vagus gets recruited in threat which is immobilization threat, what you have you have basically you evacuate your bowel, you pass out, you have all these symptoms that are associated with people who have severe trauma histories.[00:23:40] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
But to me, the interesting model is literally to watch a crying young baby. And how what does a mother do with that? The baby’s crying. The baby is in a state of defense, red in the face, screaming and flailing with with limbs. And the mother uses this prosodic voice, this intonation, this singsong voice, and the baby calms down and literally falls asleep. And that’s the neuroception of a genetically determined signal of safety. And that is the intonation of voice calming down. And we’ve actually done research and documented that if a mother’s voice in calming her baby is less prosodic, the baby doesn’t calm down. So it’s like it’s wired into us. And we do this with not only our children, but our dogs and cats. We talk to them with a great intonation to calm them down. But the bottom line here is that we broadcast our physiological state in our face and our voice, because it is wired through through the vagus, but different pathways. And we calm down through the detection, neuroception, a detection not perception, detection of intonations, acoustic intonation that our nervous system interprets as a signal of safety.[00:24:59] Jonathan Fields
So it’s almost like we have these two different systems, the perception system and the projection system, and both of those. What’s interesting to me also, these are not sort of like conscious, willful systems like we are the neuroception system is just constantly in scan mode. Yeah. And oftentimes even if we try and sort of like hide what we’re feeling, if we’re feeling unsafe and we’re like, no, no, no, let me just like, let me fake it. Like, let me like get through this moment. It’s always fascinating to me that I feel like other people can still feel it. They can still sense it, but I’m not. I was never entirely sure what they’re picking up on. And you’re kind of describing some of that.[00:25:34] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
That neuroception is when you talk to someone and say they have a gut feeling, that gut feeling is their neuroception. Now, often it is correct, but they don’t have a language to explain why. I’ve actually talked to people who have been abducted and they will say, well, I had a gut feeling, but all the other features seemed correct. So it’s like they pick something up, but they say, oh no, I can’t, it can’t be that. And they basically get injured and what happens when people experience that type of trauma, their nervous systems retune. And what does that really mean? It means that their nervous system will never let them be accessible until they actually literally go through treatments. And the nervous system gets more normalized. But the nervous system doesn’t easily forget trauma because it’s trying to protect you to be defensive, right?[00:26:25] Seth Porges
Yeah. I mean, we’re talking about here basically what, you know, in English language, what it means to be charismatic or charming or creepy or have that, like, don’t f with me face. Right? Like, we are really good at sensing whether other people are in a state of defense or a state of safety. And that signals to our nervous system whether we too, should be in a state of safety or a state of defense. So when we’re around people who make us feel safe, we proceed to project feelings of safety back out to the world, to other people. I like to call this an autonomic echo chamber, if you will. When we are around people and things that make us feel threatened, we feel threatened and we continue to broadcast feelings of threat out to the world. And so it’s really important for our safety, for our health, for our happiness, to make sure that we actually do consciously prioritize being around people, places, things that do make us feel safe. These things actually do matter. And this is goes again to the vagus nerve. It goes again to the relationship between our autonomic state and how our body, our physiology, operates. When we feel safe, we are resourcing and activating the cranial nerves that allow us to be facially expressive, vocally expressive, to be expressive social creatures. When we’re in a state of defense, we get flat facial affect. We have a monotone voice. All of these things shift in us and other people around us read that as well. It’s something that for some people, maybe they’re good at hiding it. Maybe some good actors can do it. For many of us, it’s very difficult to hide.[00:27:52] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
I would say that our society doesn’t even explain to people that they should hide it, because a lot of people walk around emotionless or expressionless. And in fact, if we look at how society has idealized, let’s say, supermodels and we take a look at their faces, and if you come at that experience of looking at the faces of supermodels, you say, that’s a trauma face. It’s totally flat. No expression, no benevolence, not attractive. And this concept of attractiveness is really a concept of accessibility. And what we’re really saying is that when our nervous system is in a certain state, we’re not accessible, but we’re vulnerable. But if we are accessible, it broadcasts to others and they become accessible as well. I like to say that being accessible is a gift that keeps giving back to you.
So if Seth, as you described, there’s this echo chamber effect that can happen between people where one person feels unsafe, the other people around them perceive that they start to feel unsafe, and that reflects back. And that makes the first person feel even less safe, because now they’re projecting their own safety. And it seems like this spirals into a cycle of unsafe doom. How do you break that?[00:29:04] Seth Porges
Well, I mean, realizing that, I mean, we all, I think, recognize things that make us feel safe, whether that’s people, whether that’s environments we’re in. You know, I think this probably goes to the heart of why are we drawn to certain types of music, certain aesthetics, you know, nature. These things might make us feel safe. And I think a lot of people ignore those things, ignore their body. Telling them this makes me feel safer. This makes me unsafe, feel unsafe because we’re taught this stuff doesn’t matter. We’re taught it’s all in our head. And I like to call Polyvagal theory to some degree, a way of seeing the world. It’s a worldview. It’s a worldview that prioritizes making ourselves and making other people feel safe. It’s something that we are all naturally drawn to, but we all kind of ignore it oftentimes. And it’s as simple as saying, this person makes me feel safe. I’m going to spend more time with them. This place makes me feel safe. I’m going to spend more time with it, and I’m going to prioritize these things.[00:29:56] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah. How do you break the cycle? There are certain steps. Let’s break this down. The first step is to be aware of the state you’re in. So you start understanding by understanding where you are. If you’re physiologically more like this, you start understanding. You’re going to be more reactive and people are going to react to you. And then you start looking for strategies to change your physiology. And this is a very different priority list than you would in terms of traditional mental health work. From a polyvagal-informed mental health provider, one would say the first thing to deal with is your physiological state, not your narrative. And remember, so much of psychology and mental health therapies have been really about narratives. And the issue is once we start understanding what our body is doing, our own personal narrative changes. Because what when we’re saying that we’re locked in a state of threat and you don’t want to be there, you get angry at your body for being there. A polyvagal informed strategy really is to become aware of that, and then to start understanding what that has done for you. On the positive level. It’s kept you alive, so you see your bodily reactions as heroic attempts to keep you alive.[00:31:09] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
And then you try to get into what I call this complicated negotiation with your body, with your nervous system, in a sense, understanding that certain signals are now signals of safety. Can you give up the defensiveness? So what I’ve learned from the world of trauma is that signals of safety to those who have experienced severe trauma are signals to the nervous system of vulnerability. So you start using prosodic voices, and the bodies of individuals become like this. But once they feel that that physiological, we would call it homeostatic function, more of safety. Their narrative is get the hell out of there, because being accessible is being vulnerable. And that’s where this whole learning process of your own bodily experiences and triggers and then titration and. There are a lot of forms of psychotherapy. Somatic experience is one of them, where there’s this concept of undulation or titration of the triggers or the signals. And Polyvagal theory would support that notion. Your body needs to understand that the triggers are transitory and you need to resolve them, and they’re not really life-threatening, although your body may interpret them to be.[00:32:24] Seth Porges
Yeah, you know, we live in a world in which a lot of us feel anxious, a lot of us feel threatened pretty much nonstop. You know, things like a vibrating cell phone, traffic, what’s on the news, all of these things can kind of, you know, social media feeds can conspire to make us constantly feel under threat, constantly anxious, constantly unsafe. And those feelings of unsafety, those feelings of threat, those feelings of outrage, they can be addictive. You know, when we feel threatened, we are engaged in things. We will doomscroll through social media. We will keep staring at the news. You know, we will be doing these things. And in many ways, especially in a world in which content is sort of dictated by algorithms that only pay attention to how engaged we are, not the way these things make us, whether these things make us feel positive or negative, just pure engagement. The world is in many ways optimized to make us feel unsafe, because feeling unsafe equals engagement. It equals attention. It equals focus. It equals these things that advertisers and social media companies and politicians might actually want from us. And I think it’s important to understand that so that, you know, the conscious part of us, because we are still really smart, you know, we’re a smart species, is able to recognize this and understand, okay, you know what? Maybe I’m going to put down my phone. Maybe I’m going to create boundaries. Maybe I’m going to do these things to kind of create buffers against a reality that is designed to constantly make us feel unsafe at all times.[00:33:50] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah. Even if we think about academic world or we think about normal workplace productivity is really the bottom line. And our culture thinks of productivity as more movement. How do you get more movement? Well, you mobilize the people, you frighten them, you reward them, you threaten them. And that’s the culture we’re in, whether it’s academic or whether it’s industry. And when we want to be problem solvers, which is really whom we really are, we need not to be in states of threat. We need to be able to be in a calm, physiological state that now enables us to access those higher levels of our brain for problem-solving, and that gets distorted when we’re in states of threat. And just think about all the models that we have in our educational system, in our work environment, it’s always evaluative what happens even when we go see a physician? It’s all evaluative. It’s all threat-related.[00:34:47] Jonathan Fields
Yeah. I mean, that really is a touchstone of so much of the human experience at this point.
Yeah. Interesting. Jonathan, the part that I like to emphasize is that our own evolutionary history prepares us for a different type of life, and that I use the term claiming our evolutionary heritage. We have the onboard tools to be safe with others. So this reactivity to be under a state of defense is not our default. Our default is to be a loving, compassionate, trusting species. It’s really paradoxical. We’re not a default threat machine that we inherited. The threat machine is low in our brainstem. It’s evolutionarily old, but we inherited a newer modification of those systems. So we can use mobilization for play dancing. And we can shut down in safety. And we call that moments of intimacy. So all these things have been remodeled by this remarkable new brain that evolved with social mammals.[00:35:48] Jonathan Fields
Yeah. And the operating environment that we find ourselves in, which to a certain extent becomes increasingly predatory to sort of like these systems.[00:35:56] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah. You’re forcing a question. And that is, can a society be polyvagal informed? And the answer is, hypothetically, the issue is we have to shift our goals from innocence, acquiring more stuff to greater creativity. So we have to shift values, creativity, problem- solving. We’re this wonderful species that is benevolent to others and amazingly creative when not in states of threat. Yeah.[00:36:25] Jonathan Fields
When you describe social interaction as really one of, if not the primary way to help us come back to a place of calm to find safety again, and then you reflect on the state of not just the last three years, where I think everybody looks at the last three years and they say, well, there was incredible amounts of isolation, of loneliness, but this is not a new problem, actually. Like, I think a lot of people look at the last three years. But the reality is, like if you looked at research that was coming in the decade before that, levels of people reporting loneliness. And not having a single best friend. Being isolated, they’ve been ratcheting up for a lot longer than that. So I wonder how not just the state of the world, not just the state of actual risks and like global pandemic and all these different things, but just this pervasive, long-growing sense of isolation and loneliness has been affecting our systems and also making it harder and harder for us to actually hit that reset button.[00:37:32] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
I would totally agree. But step back for a moment and look at where we’ve come from in terms of the people around you, in terms of they bring all of us bring a trans-generational trauma to the table. I mean, that’s the immigration pattern of the United States. And if they weren’t immigrated, there is trauma for those who were originally from here. The issue is that we carry with us a narrative of tentativeness, of interacting with others, that we’re going to get hurt. And in fact, if we start thinking about how the shift in housing to larger homes, more isolated from others larger estates, as opposed to this urban worldview where you’re in an apartment next to someone else and there’s kind of like a connection and a surveillance. So what has always, I should say, has shocked me recently when I started to understand what was happening in terms of risk of abuse within a rural community versus urban communities, we tend to idealize rural. But in rural communities, there’s in a sense the male in general, the male owns the spouse and owns the children, and what happens in that is under his control. And you start seeing lots of things that are literally surprising. And when you live in a denser population, literally all your neighbors are eyes of what’s happening to you as well.[00:38:57] Jonathan Fields
When you think about where we are right now in culture, also, because I want to tease out the distinction between, I guess what I’m really curious about here is what is the fundamental nature of social interaction that matters, because a lot of people are very, quote, connected right now. Right. And you got a lot of followers here and you got your DMing people and texting people. But my sense is that’s not what we’re talking about.[00:39:24] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
What we’re talking about is a trusted other, and we’re not for many people who may have followers or connections, whether they’re on Facebook or whatever social media they’re closest or the one they trust the most might be their dog. So in fact, a lot of people who can’t have difficulty trusting people like horses and dogs, they can trust them. But these are the issues that when we’re in an environment where this is highly evaluative, the magic word here is chronic evaluation, whether it’s social evaluation or any other form is really the same thing as saying, I’m putting your body into a state of threat. So evaluation literally equals a body being in a state of defense. And we have to understand what is the consequence of that. And you start to say a couple of things earlier that are very important. And that is literally we’ve always had threat. I think you starting to really allude to that. And the answer is yes. But we also had moments of time in which we were safe enough with trusted others. So it’s not like we can’t deal with threat. That’s not an issue. We’re very well-designed and evolved to deal with threat, but our nervous systems need some downtime. We need some time to feel safe with another.
Yeah, the nature of how we’re capable of interacting with people socially has changed dramatically in the past couple of years. Never mind the thousands and millions of years that evolution shaped us into who we are. And so in our bodies, we evolved to be social creatures as a way of of transit, emitting, projecting, receiving signs of safety. So our bodies knew that we were safe enough to shut down our defenses so we could heal, grow and restore. And in order to kind of get that signal that our bodies are safe, a sort of invisible dance occurs of a nervous system dance between you and somebody else. Right. And key to that dance is face-to-face interaction. Because when we, you know, through the 99.999% of human evolution, the only way to be social with somebody was face-to-face interaction. Of course, in recent years and centuries, you know, you had the written word, you had phone calls, and then you eventually had the internet, which basically teases our social nervous system. It teases our brains, it excites us because this feels like this, you know, simulacrum of the sort of social interaction our bodies evolved to rely on, but without actual face-to-face interaction. Our nervous system doesn’t really give us the same credit for it. It doesn’t give us the same sense of satiety. It doesn’t give us the same sense of healing. And the trick these days is to understand that just because we don’t literally need to be face to face with somebody in order to have social interaction, we still need to sort of kiss the ring of our evolution. We still need to honor and respect what our evolution requires in order to give us credit for the social interaction in order to heal. And that’s really, really important when we have all of these easy alternatives so readily available to us.[00:42:28] Jonathan Fields
So among those alternatives, one of the questions and you write to this is addiction. If you don’t have the level of trusted social relationships that we can turn to to help, help us come back to this place where the, you know, the negative systems calmed down and the positive systems come online and become optimized, which a lot of people don’t. And we may be kind of fooling ourselves and thinking that the nature of the relationships that we have actually are enough, but they’re actually not. So we stay in this state. We need to then try and cope in different ways. And it sounds like one of the things that you explore is the notion of the relationship of this state and people turning to substances as an alternative way to just try and get through the moment.[00:43:13] Seth Porges
Yeah, when we feel dysregulated, like when we feel out of control, when we feel unsafe, our bodies will do almost anything they can to get us out of that state. It becomes this driving primal force behind our behavior, behind our emotions and behind our actions. They will do anything to feel regulated. And if you feel chronically dysregulated, self-medication is a very common way of attempting to deal with it. Addiction rarely occurs without trauma, and that might be a controversial statement, but it’s I think the research shows it to be true. Addiction very rarely occurs without. From when you feel stuck into a heightened state of mobilization, as is common for people who might kind of chronically feel threatened. The idea of taking a downer, it’ll make you feel normal. And that feeling of normalcy is what’s addictive. And if you’re stuck into a downshift, that state of shutdown, which is also common with people with trauma, then an upper might make you feel normal. And that feeling of normalcy, that feeling of temporary regulation, that’s what is addictive.[00:44:29] Jonathan Fields
When we look at the way that safety does or doesn’t show up in everyday situations, and if people are listening to this conversation, one of the questions they’re going to have is, how do I become not just a safety-seeking being, but maybe a part of an equation which is safety creating in different contexts in life. So if we walk through some of these contexts, I think a very common one, and we’ve sort of referenced it earlier, is caregiving, parenting, if we understand that, that one of the fundamental roles of being a caregiver is to create safety for others. If we’re in the role of actually having the opportunity to do that, what do we want to keep in mind?[00:45:14] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
First, we want to keep in mind that we broadcast cues of safety to the other. So it’s very important that if your body is in a tense state and your voice is is high-pitched squeal, it’s going to affect the other person. So we want, in a sense, to be aware of our physiological state. And let’s go back for a moment and use look at the word caregiver. And a part of that I don’t like about that word is that if you treat it as just giving to the other, it doesn’t work, because this is where you start seeing burnout in caregivers, burnout in the mental health profession and medical profession. And that’s because they’re no longer getting the reciprocity of a co-regulatory relationship. So with a baby, when the baby calms down, when you’re supporting them, how do you feel? And if you see my cat, my cat feels safe enough in my presence to give up all her hypervigilance and now she can enjoy the day. The point is, we give up our defenses when we get sufficient cues of safety.[00:46:16] Jonathan Fields
So the question is, what are those cues like if I want to transmit those cues to somebody else? Well.[00:46:23] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
You see, you have to think in a different way, because if you say, what are those cues? I’m now going to broadcast those cues. Well, maybe you can and maybe you can’t. It’s this issue about what used to be said about what’s a good therapist that didn’t really matter what they were trained in, it was whether they had empathic and it was basically their presence. And there’s a lot of interest in therapeutic presence. And we’re really talking with Polyvagal theory, the physiology of being present, the physiology of being a good witness, the physiology of supporting another, not by just being there, but by being there in a physiological state that is sending cues to the other, that their body can give up its vigilance. And this means that the responsibility is not just to come, to show up. The responsibility is to be in a physiological state of accessibility to another. And that’s much more, I’m going to say, difficult if you don’t understand your own body. So as a therapist or a human being, or for my role as a parent, it took me decades to realize that my physiological state impacted on my kids, impacted on my students, on my laboratory. Yeah.
Then beyond that, there is, I think, the ability to at least some degree have some conscious intent about how and when we show up for people. Right? If we’re in a state of rage and anger and whatever it is, maybe that’s not a good time to be around somebody who’s relying on you. You can kind of shield them from that to some degree, you know, and then think about when you talk to them, when you’re around them, are you listening? Are you vocalizing? Are you being expressive? Are you doing all of these things? Are you engaged in the invisible dance of the nervous system we call co-regulation, in which you are projecting feelings of safety to other people, understanding what those actions are? What are those cues that they pick up? It could be the way you talk to them. It could be just being engaged, listening, non-judgmental. All of those things make other people feel safe. It could be the environment you’re in with them. Are you in a calming place or one that riles you up and makes you feel unsafe and is full of loud noises and bright fluorescent lights? All of those sorts of things, right? All of these things matter. And there is. So there is. I think there’s two parts to this. One is the innate, unchangeable fact of whether or not you yourself feel unsafe that is going to some degree be projected to people. But then there’s people out there who are remarkably good at shielding their children from their own struggles, and their children may not know until they grow up what their parents went through while they’re raising them, and I commend those parents for having the conscious intent and wherewithal to understand the way they may be impacting their kids at certain points, and shielding them from that to some degree, so that their kids can feel safety, even if the parent themselves doesn’t always feel safe.[00:49:13] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
What Seth is really describing, a parent with a resilient nervous system, a person who can change the setting and even though there’s a lot going on, can be accessible to the child or to the spouse. Now let’s flip back as if there’s a lot of therapists on board, and they want to learn to be co-regulatory of their clients. And the issue is, maybe it can’t be manualized in the way that a lot of therapies are taught. Maybe we have to have a better understanding of what we bring to the therapeutic setting, or what we bring to every interaction, and that is our own physiological state. So it requires a degree of self-awareness. And that may not be part of a lot of the trainings or the developmental sequence that we as human beings go through in our journey of sociality and education. So we know when we’re young that some kids are marginalized and some are engaged, but we never deconstruct it and say, well, those that are marginalized, they may not be sending the same signals to others. So Polyvagal theory starts off by being a theory of explanation. And then with the brilliant therapists, it becomes an understanding that they take to develop methods to shift those physiological states. So from my perspective, my job was merely to explain how and why these systems work. And I’ve sat back and learned from the brilliant therapists out there, especially those working in the world of trauma and their clients. Their clients have taught me so much about that recovery of feeling safe enough. And the word is not safe, but safe enough to be comfortable in the arms of another.[00:50:58] Jonathan Fields
Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting also because the way you describe it, you know, on the one hand, part of my brain is saying, well, it would be increasingly difficult to help somebody feel safe in your presence if you felt personally unsafe. But then part of what you’re saying also is that you can also develop a skill set around being able to present in a certain way where that person still feels safe, even when you’re dealing with your own stuff. But there’s got to be a cost to that also.[00:51:25] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
Yeah, what I’m saying is you become aware of your own and you move into another space. It’s like if you’re going into surgery and what is it that you want to do? You don’t want to be in a state of fright when you go into surgery. You want to have a positive visualization. So people might think of their wives or their kids that kind of enable them to be welcoming even to, you know, drastic interventions. And I think in a way, we have to treat clinical settings in the same way that we can have a lot going on in our lives, but we have to carry a visual image with us that moves us into a more accessible physiological state to be present with the person we’re engaging with.[00:52:08] Jonathan Fields
Yeah. I mean, understanding that we’re effectively beacons in any given interaction, whether we realize that or not, I think is an interesting notion. And this extends beyond caregiving. When you think about the workplace, when you think about education, when we think about schools and teachers and health care, it’s the same thing, like any time you’re working in somebody else, and especially if there is a perceived difference. I don’t want to say necessarily inequity, but there’s a perceived difference in status in power that’s going to affect this dynamic. I have to imagine.[00:52:45] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
So when you mentioned that, it just made me think about my early days as a faculty member. My age was very close to the graduate students. And you wanted at least I wanted a separation in the status. And you do that in a sense by not being accessible. So you’re not vulnerable. So it’s almost like you’re starting the world as a faculty member. You go through your transitions from grad student and now you’re a professor and now you have to relate to graduate students who are basically your age. And you now have to, in a sense, give them the advice of a parent without being accessible like a peer. It’s a very complicated bit, but if I were to do it all over again, I would do it very differently because I now have the polyvagal theory to kind of understand what I was doing and trying to better understand them, as opposed to basically trying to create separation. I started off with this belief that, like everyone or many of us, that motivation is really about mobilization. You want people to try harder and we forget that trying harder can shift. Our physiology. We want to try harder because we want to learn. We want to discover. We want the curiosity to be the driving force and not a stick. It’s not the fear we want the beauty of the journey to be our motivation.
When we zoom the lens out around this idea a bit, one of the big things that I’m really taking from this is to just be very aware of how you step into any interaction. And again, if you’re a parent, a caregiver, a leader or a manager in work, a teacher, whatever it is. But if you’re in a position where you have a regular opportunity to affect the physiological and psychological status, the perceived safety of another being, and that you want to, that you want to actually affect it in a meaningful and positive way, that we really need to start with our own psychology and physiology, because that it’s going to be increasingly difficult to have the effect that we want to have to help in the way that we want to help. If at some point we don’t deal with it, even if we gain the skills to kind of mask it and present it in a certain amount. I can’t imagine that that for us as individuals, is healthy or sustainable over a long window of time.[00:55:14] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
When we fake it. We’re turning off our own feedback loops, and we’re creating disease in our own body. So when we aren’t listening to our body, those feedback loops get dampened and we start getting end organ dysfunction, or what they now call functional disorders like irritable bowel syndrome. So all these things literally come out.[00:55:33] Seth Porges
Yeah. And also I would say yes, it’s obviously very, very important to prioritize your own sense of safety. You know, the whole put your oxygen mask on before you can help somebody else idea. But at the same time, I want to be careful with giving people excuses to be selfish. You know, it doesn’t mean only prioritize your own sense of well-being, your own sense of safety. And, you know, I imagine some people might hear some of this and say them and use it kind of as an excuse to blame other people because they themselves feel bad. And it’s very important to understand that because you feel bad is not necessarily the fault, nor intention, nor action nor doing of somebody else. And it is not everybody else’s responsibility to kind of always be prioritizing your feelings just as it is, just as you need to prioritize your own feelings. Other people need to make sure they take care of theirs as well. So I want to make sure people don’t interpret it as an excuse for selfishness. At the same time.[00:56:29] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
I want to give an example. This is a true-life example. When I was running my laboratory, I had maybe 30 people working for me, and one day I didn’t get a grant or something like that. And I remember telling them I basically apologized to them because my face, you know, that they would sense that something was wrong. And I basically said, nothing is wrong with it’s what’s going through me. And I was very aware of my body reaction and concerned that I was broadcasting signals to them. Now, I will tell you that even with telling people it’s not enough. So it’s like they’re still picking it up. But it’s part of this dialogue that we start developing. And when we become aware and I was aware that I had was changing under that state, but I also had the sense of the responsibility in my leadership role of the impacting on others.[00:57:19] Jonathan Fields
Yeah. It’s interesting as you’re describing that this instant. I speak a fair amount. And at some point when I was like learning and training and one of the things that I was taught was, you know, stories are a really important thing that connects us, and it’s compelling and often useful to tell a story that is personal and vulnerable. And when there is a bit of a hero’s journey, or when there is struggle, when there’s challenge that is in the middle of it, but there’s a line. And this is how it was described to me, which was that you can tell the story in a powerful and a real and an open and honest way, but you can’t ever do it in a way that makes the audience feel unsafe, because the moment that you do, no matter how compelling the story is or riveting it is, even if it’s a great outcome, they basically it’s over. Like they functionally they’re no longer there with you, and they may even themselves start to feel unsafe and completely tune out the experience.[00:58:15] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
This was the issue in writing the book, because all my good friends and colleagues who write about trauma use a formula. They talk about their clinical experiences, and that has consequences. A lot of people read those clinical experiences in those books. And now I’m going to give to Seth what happens.[00:58:31] Seth Porges
Oftentimes if you’re if you’re reading that and you yourself have been traumatized, it can make you feel unsafe while you’re reading the book. And it can be something you may not necessarily finish or it may you may not be open to the wisdom within.[00:58:43] Stephen Porges, Ph.D.
And this goes to our writing of the book. Seth had told me that he had some of his friends read the book, and they were really, you know, they could read through it. And they said, unlike the other books on. Trauma. They couldn’t get through those books because the stories, the the personal case studies were triggers, and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t triggering the reader. And this was interesting even in scoping the book and outlining it, because editors want those stories. And we didn’t want any of those types of stories put into the book.[00:59:17] Jonathan Fields
I mean, it’s an interesting quandary, but, you know, at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is always how do we be most of service to the people who are saying yes to giving us our time with this? It feels a good place for us to actually come full circle in our conversation. So I always wrap with the same question. So I’m going to ask both of you in the container of Good Life Project. If I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?[00:59:40] Seth Porges
Project feelings of safety to other people and be safe to yourself.
So my view is that the only way to optimize the human experience, which is the term I use, is to enable your body to feel safe. So we’re at the same place.[00:59:55] Jonathan Fields
Thank you.[00:59:57] Jonathan Fields
Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode,safe bet you’ll also love the conversation we had with Judd Brewer about anxiety, safety, and habits. You’ll find a link to Judd’s episode in the show notes. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields signing off for Good Life Project.