This week’s conversation is with Dr. Stephen Porges, a distinguished university scientist at Indiana University, where he is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. 

Stephen is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. 

His more than 350 peer‐reviewed scientific papers, published across several disciplines, have been cited in approximately 40,000 peer-reviewed papers. 

Stephen holds several patents involved in monitoring and regulating autonomic state and originated the polyvagal theory, which emphasizes the importance of physiological state in the expression of behavioral, mental, and health problems related to traumatic experiences. 

So at its core, this conversation is about the triggers that either prompt us to feel threatened or safe… and why social connection or lack thereof plays such an integral role in which state we gravitate towards.

Stephen is a legend in the field so I can’t wait for you to learn from him.

“Even though we can be re-tuned to be defensive, we can recover and be re-tuned to be optimistic and connected.”

In This Episode:

How does he think about the chapters of his life?

I couldn’t give you the headings, I’d give you the theme. And the theme is, my work is who I am. And if we approach life in that way, where we can enable our work to be an expression of who we are, our core, not merely our passion, but our core, then it’s no longer work. It’s a personal experience of growth. And more than that, it’s an experience of connection with others. If your work is what it is to be a human being, then it’s all about your work is about connecting with humanity. And I’m going to translate into your terms, it’s all about enabling humans to flourish, because they don’t flourish unless they are able to connect with others.

How he defines “stress”

If we throw out the word stress, and replace it with a simple word, simple description, say our bodies under a state of threat, then you start understanding what your body, your nervous system is doing. When people say you’re stressed out, it almost implies that you have agency or empowerment not to be stressed out. So we in a sense blame those who have already been victimized by the environment. So, if we have a better understanding that our nervous system detects cues and shifts bodily state, even to either from a state of accessibility, welcoming, friendship and co-regulation, or to a defensive self-oriented, I have to live preservation mode. And this is what we call being stressed out. This is what we call being calm. So we have multiple layers in which we’re making interpretations of a simple… Let’s say a simple script, or a simple reflex of program that is outside the level of awareness. And that is, are we safe? Or are we under threat? And our nervous system has literally packages of responses. If it’s safe, we’re like this, if we’re not safe, we’re like this. And this symbolically means I’m not open to you. And when you try to engage me, you’re still a threat. So, I’m going to push you back.

The Polyvagal theory

It tells you that your physiological state is actually a mediator of how you react to the world. And if you start off there, you say, well, if your body’s calm, you become more accessible, you become more sociable, and if your body is highly mobilized, you become more defensive, more fight or flight. And if your body’s shutting down and there are many people who when brought into a social setting, or even on the camera, they’ll disappear. So, that’s shutting down. Then with those three states, you can map them into two different trajectories. One is a developmental one. So, if you went back to the fetus, you can see that the shutting down response is actually the earliest one. And then the mobilization. And finally the social engagement system, which for the newborn baby is same system that regulates sucking, swallowing, and vocalizing. And that’s why ingestion is calming, singing is calming, breath exercise is engaging. We in a sense tap into that same system with social cues, as opposed to ingestive cues. So, that’s one trajectory. The other trajectory is to think of evolution. And if you look at evolution, there’s something called phylogeny, which is really our evolutionary history who were our ancestors. So, we’re social mammals. Mammals evolved from social reptiles, that’s as far as we need to go. So something happened along that evolutionary pathway that enabled a social reptiles to become social mammals. And that has everything to do with Polyvagal theory, because a new part of the vagus evolved the cardioinhibitory regulates slowed heart rate, but it broke off the older branch and moved over in the brain stem to an area that regulates the muscles of the face and head. So now we regulate our physiology through our social behavior. So, our sociality became physiology. It’s the same thing.

Social cueing is one of the great parasympathetic activators

I created a term which I called neuroception. So that we don’t have to use the word perception. So we could leave it to some unaware neural circuit that reflexively did things. And it can very simply be stated that mammals are the only vertebrates that have a neuroception to detect safety. We all have… All vertebrates have neuroception of danger. And safety is not the same as not having cues of threat. Safety is something special. It’s the voice of the mother, it’s a smiling friendship. It’s a trust that makes us social mammals, social species.

What are the traits of sympathetic dominant individuals?

People who often have had traumatic experiences and survived them. And their body has been there, meaning trusted someone at some point in time, won’t go there again. But their mental image of what they want in life is to be safe in the arms of another. So, their body still who are protecting them from being injured, the mind says, “Really, I’d like to have relationships.” And that brings them into therapy, because they’re not happy in the world that they’re in, which is everything is threat. So the answer is how do you reverse that? And how do you get cues of safety now to be accused of giving up defense? I use this kind of metaphor of a continuum. On one side is vulnerability, and the other side is accessibility. And therapeutic models are all about enabling people to be accessible without the vulnerability overriding that accessibility.

Why breathing is such a powerful asset for humans

There’s a physiology underlying whether we call breathing therapies or yoga breath, or pranayama yoga. There’s a neurophysiology and there are people working on that. But there’re certain basic rules of how the nervous system works. And many of these traditions of breathing therapies, even the ancient traditions, are really this sense intuitively based on good science, whether they knew it or not. And that is the impact of that ventral vagus on the heart, which is easy for us to understand and measure because it slows your heart rate and up when a vagus is working. And that occurs during exhalation. So basically, the breathing is a gating of the impact of the vagus on our heart to the heart’s pacemaker. So, slow exhalations enable the vagus to have more of a profound inhibitory effect on our heart, and also on the other aspects of the sympathetic nervous system calms us down. That is, much of the work also deals with abdominal breathing, pushing down on the abdomen, the diaphragm, and one can conceptualize those as amplifiers of slow exhalation because there’s lots of sensory cues coming from the diaphragm. So, there’s a neurophysiology for every breathing pattern. And some of the people who do really great work with breathing programs, it’s not all about calming down, it’s about using breath to energize. So, you in a sense go on journeys through your body and you start to appreciate the shifts in physiological state, is that you become an experiencer of your own Polyvagal states. You can shut yourself down, you can mobilize and you can become very accessible. And as you do that, you’re in a sense becoming, you’re honoring your own body, you’re becoming aware of your own body. And it’s not only that you’re in a sense becoming healthier, but you’re also learning tools of self compassion. You’re allowing yourself to calm down.

How does he define agency?

I think of it in my mind as two separate things. One is disruption of agency, and the other one is how do you use agency? Disruption of agency is a trigger of threat. And it’s really quite profound. We’d like to be in charge of our own body. And we’d like to be at least have enough control of what’s going on around us. For me, agency is this notion of having control, and loss of control is a trigger for anyone wanting to become scared or defensive. That’s why people get frightened of anesthesia. They don’t like masks put over their face, they don’t want… They want to be awake, they want to be there. And this is buried into our nervous system of our own, I would say our own surveillance of who we are. And the way that you give that up, is through trusting the other. And so, if you’re already a, “what you’re calling a stressed out person,” or a person in my terminology, instead of chronic threat, how do you even go under anesthesia? How do you trust the physician? How do you feel safe enough to put your body in the hands of another, if you can’t even allow your body to be in a hug of another? And we have this conceptualization of disease as something that we fight, which we’ll use the term fight, we’re talking more about sympathetic aggressiveness, as opposed that we understand. And always like we welcome disease, so we can understand it, and then we can reject the disease because we no longer need it, our body can reject it. I think the agency that we’re missing is the agency of what the body does on its own. So, the body is really an organ of self healing and regeneration. And we have given those attributes to treatments outside the body, to the physician, to surgery and to pharmaceuticals. And we’ve neglected to understand what the body can do for itself, if it’s not under a state of threat. So, when our bodies are under external threat, then the ability to deal with internal threat or illness becomes compromised. nd we always hear the stories of people who have diseases that get worse when they’re under “stress,” and then they miraculously heal when they are in a sense in loving situations and feel supported. It’s not like these are unusual, that’s how the body works. So the body wants the agency to heal itself, but it can only take that agency when the context is a safe context, so that the nervous system doesn’t have to go to states of defense.

What is our biological imperative?

Our biological imperative is to be connected with others. That’s how mammals survived. And we’re a social species. Not to in a sense be self regulated, because what we’ve learned is that self regulation is derivative of being co-regulated. So a good parenting model supports the child, the child becomes bold, and doesn’t need to be parented, they can just run off, but they have in their head, these images of love, unconditional love, unconditional support. And when you start dealing with families that are so aggressive, and disruptive, where children are removed by family services, and then you try to work with those children, you learn that the children have no visual image of that safety of a mother holding them. So, they’re very hard to work with. And their outcomes become very risky.

The relationship between threat, safety, and connection

If you use this notion of biological mandate to connect, as the driver, we want to connect, and to connect, we down regulate our defenses through cues of safety, then you have the model. Those cues of safety are so we go back even to the corporate world. If we want a synergistic workforce that is generative, that creates new products, creates new ways, innovations in product development, then we create this type of going back to the word agency, we allow movement. So again, this is the notion again about “keeping people in their place.” The agency to move, to succeed, to become better at, is part of what is built into humans. They want to explore, they want to create and they want to connect. I don’t think… I actually have this kind of belief that as you feel more secure through your connections, you become bolder, which means more creative.

 

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Dr. Stephen Porges is author of the Polyvagal Theory, Distinguished University Scientist at the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.