Episode #21 How our deepest selves find balance: a conversation with Sarah Schlote
Where does a true, deep sense of inner safety come from? How do we recognise safety in ourselves and our environment? And how can that sense of safety be undermined? Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, Sarah Schlote, explains how our deepest selves find balance.
Recent advances in neuroscience have shed light on those things that are most precious to us – a sense of equanimity and inner safety, of balance, and of the capacity to relate in ways that leave us feeling nourished.
All of these stem from early patterning and recognising the times we’re off balance can help us to find how best to resource ourselves.
In this deep dive into the neurophysiology of poly-vagal theory, Sarah Schlote, director of the Healing Refuge in Canada, and of Equusoma, the centre for Horse-Human recovery, relays in lyrical, human terms, the ways to healing that arise from an understanding of how we recognise safety, danger and life-threat.
Sarah’s Equusoma website is here.
Her ‘Resources’ Page has further information, including the graph that she mentions.
Manda: [00:00:01.95] My guest today is Sarah Schlote on the line from Canada. Sarah is a psychotherapist and somatic experiencing practitioner with a huge depth of knowledge of both the theory and practice of what makes us tick.
I first came across Sarah in an interview on the whole horse podcast, which is well worth listening to. There she was able to make sense of horse behavior in ways I had never understood before. And she linked it to human behavior in ways that made me re-evaluate a lot of my own experience. So when I wanted to bring ideas of polyvagal theory and somatic experiencing and attachment rupture and repair to the podcast, I had a choice of either trying to learn it myself and then bringing to you what I’d read. Or speaking with someone who lives in this world, who works with people every day, helping them to navigate life in ways that are generative and lead to flourishing. Sarah is one of the clearest, most knowledgeable people I could imagine, and we had a long, deep dive into the theory in this podcast. And the really good news is that by the end, we decided to set up another one so that we can go beyond this into the actual practical aspects of what you and I can do in our lives as we move forward from the corona virus. So for this first part in what will be at least a two part podcast, please welcome Sarah Schlote.
Sarah, welcome to Accidental Goes and thank you for taking time out of what sounds like a very busy therapeutic practice, even in lockdown.
Sarah Schlote: [00:02:21.87] Yeah, thanks, Manda, for this time. I’m really enjoying the opportunity to get to chat again.
Manda: [00:02:26.43] Thank you. Yes, because we did do this before and it timed it to end badly because of the lockdown. So how is lockdown in Canada?
Sarah: [00:02:34.14] Well, it’s it’s interesting. I think, like in many places, there’s a real variance in how people are responding. You have the people who are following the rules and the people who are resisting the rules. And you have the people who are half heartedly applying the rules. And I think that’s true just about everywhere.
Manda: [00:02:52.98] Is your government talking about raising lockdown sometime soon?
Sarah: [00:02:56.94] They’ve just loosened the restrictions around construction businesses and garden centers, I guess, because it’s spring. A lot of people are in their homes with nothing to do. And it’s spring time and it’s the time to do gardening. And I think perhaps from a mental health standpoint, there was a good reason to make that available. That’s at least my therapist lens on perhaps why they loosened the restriction on what in particular and plants are living things.
Manda: [00:03:22.11] And if you’ve been nurturing plants all winter, ready to sell in the spring and you can’t sell them, presumably they they stop being saleable at some point. So. And you’re right. Everybody I know is trying to grow food now, which is good because I think there’s going to be a worldwide food shortage by the autumn. So great food. Good thing. Anyway, back to track because I have listened to you on horse-related podcasts and been so struck by the clarity of your capacity to explain really quite complex concepts of neurophysiology and how they apply in the real world to people and horses. So most of the people listening to this are person oriented rather than horse oriented, that we do have quite a lot of crossover with Alex Kurland’s Horses for Future. So there are some horse people and we will go into some horse things. But first of all, I wondered, one of the many reasons I wanted to talk to you was that it saved me from doing an awful lot of reading about poly vagal theory. I was on a worldwide webinar with Stephen last weekend that was run by Rebel Wisdom and he was very clear about the need for finding safe space during lookdown – finding safety within. So I wondered if we could talk first about your take of what polyvagal theory is and how it applies, and then we can look at how we can work with that during lock down and beyond.
Sarah: [00:04:46.86] Absolutely. Be a pleasure. And speaking to the horse piece, although I have gained a lot of visibility within the horse world because that seems to be where I’m placing my passion on my attention. The majority of the time I’m in my office with clients and doing not horse related work. So, there’s a very visible stream in my life where I’m very much out there and getting information out to a broader audience. But most of my days when I’m seeing clients. So I just haven’t put as much focus on human to human exclusive things in my sort of social media visibility.
Manda: [00:05:24.24] Well, we can do that now. That would be good. So, Polyvagal theory What is it? Why does it matter? Why do we need to know about it.
Sarah: [00:05:30.64] And let’s do that. I’ll begin by saying that’s Dr Peter Levine, who is a longtime friend and collaborator of Dr Stephen Porges, who created the Polyvagal theory. Peter Levine will say that a map is not the terrain, but it sure helps you get around. And so the Pol vagal theory in some ways is a map, a proposed map of the nervous system and different from the one that most people know, a lot more nuanced, a lot more detailed.
And what I’m going to offer today is almost like a simplified guide to the map of the vagal theory. So this is as if I’m the subway map, which is an adaptation of the actual map, which is an adaptation of the train. Because it’s a rather complex theory, but at the same time, it is super-fascinating. And what Dr Porges just kind of realised was we don’t just have two branches to our nervous system, stress response and relaxation response. It’s a little bit more complex than that. I will spare you all the history of how that came about in terms of discovering that there’s more to it than that. I’ll just sort of launch into the theory itself. And the idea is, is that we actually have two branches for the parasympathetic nervous system. So parasympathetic would be what we call the relaxation response. Kind of a again, a misnomer because more than just relaxation is addressed and just rest and digest and the shutting down – the Faint – which is almost like this extreme form of relaxation, which isn’t really relaxed. It’s like the relaxation response on overdrive.
And so the parasympathetic nervous system, according to Dr. Steven Porges, is highly mediated by the influence of the vagus nerve, which is the tenth cranial nerve. Now, of course, there is more going on that influences mammalian behavior, human horse or otherwise, than just the vagus nerve. So this is where I’ll also speak to reductionism and let you know that we need not get caught up in the fact that the Vagus is everything.
[00:07:31.38] But it’s a really interesting theory. And I really quite like it because it speaks a lot to what we can do to help ourselves in our relationships and especially during this period. So the vagus nerve is thought to mediate the or modulate, rather, the parasympathetic nervous system. It comes out of the brain stem and it connects with all the nerves that innervate the organs and musculature involved in the face. So eyes and ears, hearing and vocalizations, larynx, pharynx for talking. And it goes down into the heart and lungs. And that would be what we call the ventral branch of the vagus nerve or the ventral vagal complex.
So basically what this does is it creates a face-heart connection. And so you can tell that somebody is having good ventral vagal tone because their facial expressions are online, their eyes are bright and expressive. They’re able to communicate. Voice comes easily. And usually this happens when we feel safe in relationship. When we feel safe in our environments. And when we feel safe, what happens is that we take in these cues from our environment, from our relationships, we take them in through the parts of the body that are what Steven Porges calls the social engagement system. The parts of us that are involved in social connection. They are also the parts of us that allow us to detect safety/danger or life threatening our environment, the very parts of us that allow us to connect and communicate.Also the parts that allow us to detect what’s going on.
[00:09:12.03] And vocalisation also gives us a sense as to what’s going on. You can tell if someone’s stressed or distressed or calm based on vocalization. And so as we’ve taken this information through the social engagement system that will tell the nervous system if I’m feeling safe or not. If I’m feeling safe, what that does is it lights up these ventral branch of the vagus nerve, which acts as a pacemaker on the heart. The ventral branch of the vagus connects with the sino-atrial node on the heart, which is this little pacemaker that we have that keeps the rhythm going. And so when we’re feeling safe because of what we’re taking in, through social engagement, through our senses, that will slow our heart down so that we can remain in safe connection. It modulates our nervous system for us. So this is what we might call a really gentle brake system.
Manda: [00:10:03.9] So I’m thinking it also connects to the gut and moves blood to the gut and gets us more into the digest phase as well.
Sarah: [00:10:11.55] So this is this is this is the part of the dorsal branch. So this is the second branch of the vagus. So that the first branch of the Vegas would be the ventral vagus. So this is supra-diaphragmatic or above the diaphragm. So basically all the organs that are located above the diaphragm which are involved in social connection.We don’t usually use our legs involved in social connection. We don’t usually use our feet. We usually use these other upper parts of us involved in social right.
So the other branch that you’re talking about, which is the other part of the parasympathetic nervous system or what we call the relaxation response, is the dorsal vagal response or the dorsal vagal complex. The dorsal branch of the vagus nerve is largely sub-diaphragmatic or under the diaphragm. So it, too, is part of the Vegas. It wanders far and wide. It starts at the top and then but largely goes down below and connects the heart and everything above with the gut and the viscera and the colon and all sorts of things.
And so when we are feeling safe, the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve will be on what we call low or low tone dorsal response, low tone dorsal respons is rest and digest. It’s a very restorative state. It’s the state that we’re in. Usually when we’re breastfeeding or we’re napping or we’re reading a book, or if you’re into yoga, you’re at the end of your yoga class lying in Shavasana, coprse pose. For many people a low tone or slow response is good. For some people stillness is not calm, and we’ll get to that perhaps in a little bit.
[00:11:59.61] Low tone branch of the nervous system is also a very highly restorative state. It’s when we have tissue repair and things start to go back to working properly. This is when we restore and replenish. And so these states are really important to have as well. And that, too, would be considered a soft break on the nervous system.
And these branches develop as a result of us learning in the world that we feel safe. And how do we first start learning in the world that we feel safe? It’s usually because we have to rely on the nervous systems of our caregivers to help us feel safe. When we’re small, we don’t have a really good self-regulation capacity. We rely on the nervous systems of the caregivers to provide us with that, what we call co-regulation.
Manda: [00:12:50.8] Can can you say a little bit more about curricula and what it is and how it arises?
Sarah: [00:12:54.91] I’ll give you an example. Let me take it really practical. So you have been around your dogs or your horses. Have you ever had a moment where you’re with one of your animals and you start to relax, your breath releases a little bit and then the dog or the horse?
Manda: [00:13:15.67] Yes, I’m working on that with my it was my mirror the moment. Exactly that.
Sarah: [00:13:19.85] And then the animal releases. And then in response to it’s releasing you release further.
Manda: [00:13:26.57] And you get that gorgeous peaceful cycle where you can just watch the horizon and be relaxed and chilled.
Sarah: [00:13:32.71] That’s a beautiful example of co regulation. Right. A teacher of mine, Kathy Kane, likes to call it pinging off each other like sonar.
Manda: [00:13:47.79] And the opposite also happens if if I get tense, then she gets tense. And then we ping off each other the other way.
Sarah: [00:13:53.66] That would no longer be co regulation, but code dysregulation. We could say co- activation and co-deactivation. We’re Activating together and we’re deactivating or settling together. Co-regulation occursfor most mammals occurs as a result of these early interactions with our our caregivers, usually the mother. But obviously, in this modern society, it’s not always the mother. Sometimes it can also be whichever family members are raising us: if it’s adoptive family, foster family, extended family members, if we’re being raised in a community.
For animals often it’s in a herd or a pack setting. So we co-regulate from the nervous systems that are around us. And so ideally, in our early experiences, we’re going to have an external nervous system or a series of external nervous systems whose ability to respond accurately to the current conditions is reliable enough that we know that we can respond off their response.
And so what I mean by that is: if my caregiver has what Stephen Porges would call faulty neuroception and what colleague of mine in Australia, Rebecca Wheatley, has redefinied as mis-attuned neuroception to be more trauma informed because ‘faulty’ makes it sound defective. And I appreciate her reframe on that. So if let’s say a parent has mis-attuned neuroception, they have their own history of adversity or trauma, and they happen to be particularly anxious in the world, even if objectively from the outside, there’s nothing to be anxious about with that particular person’s nervous system has evolved to be more on the hyper-aroused end of the spectrum.
Then as a little infant. I’m going to be responding off that external nervous system. And my nervous system starts to go, ‘Oh, there’s something to feel unsafe about’. And even if my brain is telling me, ‘Oh, no, everything is fine!’, the nervous system is giving another story. And so we can learn to have mis-attuned neuroception in a really innocent way from caregivers who have just been through their own stuff.
It doesn’t have to always be because of abuse or neglect or trauma. It can be past generations experiences that influence caregivers and then caregivers nervous systems show up in a particular way and then the infant pings off of that.And then we see co dysregulation.
Manda: [00:16:26.47] So this is probably taking us down a rabbit hole, but I’m really interested. So we’re gonna go down it. So I read a lot about epigenetics, where, for instance, if you take a mother rat who is really good at raising her baby rats. Then she raises baby rats that are also very good and very calm, very quiet. And if you take the hyperactive dysregulated mother rat, she raises dysregulated baby rats. If you swap them over, then the baby rats take home the patterning of the mother rat.
But the paper I was reading went on to suggest that there is an epigenetic change so that then if you take one of those baby rats and breed from it, the generations thereafter, will be will be genetically different. So this is back to nature versus nurture. If what you’re saying is that a child or a baby rat or a foal or a puppy or whatever, picks up the level of regulation or lack of regulation of the main caregiver, and that then changes the genetics, it’s not that the genes are being passed on. It’s that the behavior is passed on and then that is expressed in epigenetic terms. Is that a distinction that makes sense? And then is that something that you’ve looked at?
Sarah: [00:17:43.87] I’m not an expert on epigenetics, but I do have a sense of the literature in terms of what they’ve seen is that the genes don’t change with the expression of the genes changes in future generations. And so the gene expression is almost like a switch that gets turned on or off. And so the gene is there.But whether or not it’s turned on or off will be the change that gets passed down through the future generations, based on my understanding of it. And so what we start to see is this interesting confluence of nature and nurture, because you can’t really separate them out right now because there are the in the immediate impact of environment and relational attunement or lack of attunement and code dysregulation, so to speak, or lack of sleep, even conditions.
If we were to talk about attachment theory, you know, all these things that create, you know, the nurture experience of a particular organism in present time, but that current nurture experience is also sitting on and being influenced by the epigenetic experiences and intergenerational experiences of the caregivers who are passing that along.
So the infant potentially has the epigenetic changes on top of the nurture experience of environment that is in part due to those epigenetic changes. And so to me, you can’t really separate them out. I remember earlier on in psychology where we used to talk about, ‘Oh, is the child a clean slate, a blank slate when they come into the world? Is it nature or is it nurture?’ I think that’s a bit of a false dichotomy now that we know about epigenetics.
Manda: [00:19:18.43] That makes a lot of sense. And from the cranio-sacral work – I just started to study that – they would claim that from conception we are being affected by the regulation or dysregulation of the mother. And so you’re not even a clean slate at the moment you’re born. The clean slate might happen at the moment of conception and then we could discuss that. But that’s a very different rabbit hole. So let’s carry on. I’m sorry. I interrupted what was a very clean flow of explaining how it all rises.
Sarah: [00:19:50.14] It’s a lovely little diversion because it actually does come back around in a really nice way because this is going to link us into the pandemic really nicely. I’m actually glad that you invited that little diversion for a moment. Let’s come back to co-regulation. And I also want to say this to all our listeners. It’s going to sound like mother-bashing, and that is not the goal. This is not the point.
My point is not to gaslight all the mums or female identifying individuals who have carried children to be inclusive, who may be feeling targeted by this information. You know, this research often this research has focused on the ‘Mother’ because it is the infant that is in the mother’s womb. And so therefore there is a particular influence. But that’s not to say that the mother is to blame. Again, mothers or mothers are female. Identifying mother figures have had experiences that are not necessarily their faults. And so I would hate to come across as if we’re gaslighting mothers or female, identifying mother figures for, you know, what’s happened to their offspring because they did the best they could given their own circumstances and they didn’t know what they didn’t know. And so it’s not about blame here, but it’s a tricky line to walk around how can we recognize the factors that have led to difficulties while also not falling into shame and blame?
[00:21:09.45] Because everybody does their best. I’m reminded of Philip Larkin, who is an English poet who had one of his most famous lines, is ‘They fucked you up, your mum and dad. They didn’t mean to, but they did.’ And of course, that’s the nature of life. Every parent is doing their best most of the time and it’s either good enough or it is not. But that’s not because they weren’t trying. And then it’s up to us as we grow to build on what they gave us.
And to grieve what we didn’t get. And to work through the rage, the suppressed rage of attachment shock and the bits and pieces that felt mis attuned or that were not OK. That becomes the work we have to do. So, I just wanted to name that for your audiences, too. As as we talk about this topic, it is really easy to feel judged or blamed. And that’s certainly not where I’m coming from about this topic.
Manda: [00:21:57.67] I think one of the things that really strikes me about this is that our generation has the tools to talk about this and to begin to repair ourselves. And certainly my mother’s generation really didn’t. We are extraordinary lucky because they inherited her generation after generation after generation of – if you look back at the lives our ancestors lived, they were very, very hard. And so we are the generation that can choose to heal ourselves and have the potential to have the resources for that. So we are astonishingly lucky in that regard. And we have you to talk us through it. So let’s keep going. Let’s do that.
Sarah: [00:22:39.54] So if I come back around to these fictional optimal scenario where we receive good enough co-regulation, good enough attunement. Not perfect. It’s not meant to be perfect, but that enough of the time we were responded to and our cries were heard. Somebody came and we were able to be around at other nervous systems and feel safe. We felt protected.
And when we feel safe and protected and attuned to and responded to in an accurate enough way or the mistakes that are made are repaired in a genuine way – when that happens, we develop a sense of secure attachment. We develop a sense of safety and when we feel safe, our brains and our bodies develop appropriately. Our brains and our bodies can allocate energy towards proper development and not spend all the energy on survival.
[00:23:30.75] And so when we have this beautiful co-regulation process within what we call safe haven conditions in our early lives, then that allows us to go out into the world and explore the world from a place of secure base so that the parent or the caregiver, or even a foal’s dam, or the foal’s herd, for instance… the foal or the child will leave and go in the world and explore and be creative and experiment and have adventures and then come back to the secure base of the caregiver or the herd for soothing, for protection, for reassurance, for nurturing, for nourishment when needed, and then go back out again into the world.
And we have this ability to develop this kind of competence and confidence because of our early experience of feeling safe in the world and having a nervous system that we can rely on and having external nervous systems we can trust.
So here’s where things get messy, because that’s not always true. And and where it gets messy is when we get mis attuned neuroception. So when the caregivers, by no fault of their own were not available, were struggling themselves, or didn’t realize what was wanted, or tried to follow external advice and that actually wasn’t good advice, then we get mis-attuned neuroception.
[00:24:57.66] Or they did the best thing with their parenting but sometimes external circumstances intervened, so perhaps a child has to be hospitalized a really young age and isn’t able to be with their caregiver, so there are separations or early surgeries or being born premature or whatever.
There’s all these different things that happen that can interrupt this process, that can lead to these early experiences of overwhelming unsafety. Not always overt neglect and abuse, although that can be true. But when we have those kinds of experiences, our nervous systems learn very young – even in the womb -‘ I’m not safe’.
And so especially if we come back around to the vagus nerve, if we did not have an external social engagement system to act as our soft break so that when we have our cries, our protests, and we’re in that long, loud cry for connection and for reassurance – because that’s all we have as infants – and let’s say no one comes, all you have as an infant is a high amount of sympathetic gas pedal, a high amount of activation and no real way to shut it down with a soft break.
There is no low tone dorsal without a caregiver there to provide it. There is no ventral vagal tone available unless there’s a caregiver there to provide it. And so the only ability people have to relax or to settle at these very young ages is to go into shutdown, which is what we call ‘high tone dorsal vagal response’. So that’s like when we don’t have low tone, ‘I don’t feel safe. I can’t really rest and digest. No one’s coming. I’ve got a high amount of sympathetic activation. There’s no external social engagement system to help me settle and soothe. Then I’m gonna shut down’. And we see this in non-human animals, too.
Manda: [00:26:38.49] I’m just thinking how many shutdown horses exist. I’ve listened to you talk about this many times and it hadn’t really sunk home, that high tone ventral vagal – no – dorsal vagal…
Sarah: [00:26:55.42] Y Because this is the relaxation response on overdrive: the high tone dorsal response. It’s like rest and digest but too much of it. If I were to simplify it.
Manda: [00:27:06.09] And this becomes the phrase on the fiddle about an all of the all of the different ‘lights on, nobody home’ shut down look. There are many different ways of that demonstrating.
Sarah: [00:27:19.44] So fiddle about or what we might call the ‘fidget response’ would not really occur in Freeze per se. And I can send some graphs for people to download that come along with us that I think helped to show this.
Sarah: [00:27:42.42] So we have these three states rights, according to Porges, with we have the ‘neuroception of safety’, and when we feel safe, there are particular behaviors and functions that feeling safe supports us to be able to experience. And then when we feel or perceive or neurocept a ‘sense of danger’, then that is going to lead to particular behaviors and particular states that are in relation to neuroception of danger. And then if we have a neuroception of ‘life threat’, then we’re going to have particular behaviors and state shifts that reflect that neuro ception.
Manda: [00:28:18.3] Só life threat and danger or separate states.
Sarah: [00:28:20.49] According to Porges We’re not talking with the layperson definition of danger and life threat. Lay people often interpret those as the same thing.
Let’s imagine this as a bell curve. So on the extreme left of the bell curve, we’re going to start off in a neuroception of safety. So there are particular states that are available to us when we feel safe: social connection, rest and digest and even things that are what Porges calls ‘Blended States.’.
So this is what’s really cool about the poly vagal theory is that these three branches of the nervous system are kind of dials. They fluctuate to varying degrees at the same time. It’s not just ‘Stres is on/relaxation is off. Or ‘Relaxation is on/Stress is off. It’s not so black and white. All three branches are fluctuating all the time in terms of their function. And so when we’re in a neuroception of safety, what you might see is, again, low tone dorsal. That’s pretty much a lot of low toned dorsal, not a lot of social engagement, not a lot of sympathetic.
Then we might have the social engagement, so that might be spending quiet time together, social connection. And then we might have a blended state, such as the ventral vagal response with a little bit of sympathetic charge. And that kind of state might be Play.
It might be healthy sex. It might be where we’ve got the sympathetic nervous system, – the gas pedal – is on, because we need it for our activity, movement or whatever. But the ventral vagus response comes in and slows the heart rate down so that I can feel safe and not go into panic because of the stress response.
Manda: [00:30:10.95] That’s when you get into that kind of flow state. When I’m climbing rocks or something, where I’m scared enough for it to be interesting, but not so scared that I can totally hang onto the rock.
Sarah: [00:30:20.86] And that might be hard to pinpoint where that might be on the graph. But I definitely agree with that would be a blended state.So there is enough of something available to be able to experience the experience as exhilarating or enjoyable.
Manda: [00:30:39.33] So we go to our bell curve.
Sarah: [00:30:42.33] Yes, so we’re in safety. And so then as we start to neuro-cept a sense of danger. And then we start to do what I believe. Jackson, back in the 1880s, coined the term ‘dissolution’. And this is our response to feeling unsafe.
Typically, we’ll start with our most evolutionary most recent response first. And as those responses are not available, we go to the next oldest one and then the next oldest one. And then culminating in the most primitive one as all those response options become either unavailable or unsuccessful. And so as we leave the safety part of our graph and we start to go up the bell curve, we end up in a neuroception of danger.
So while in a neuroception of danger, people often think, ‘Oh, that’s fight or flight’. And I think, you’re right. And if we think, evolutionarily speaking, with the polyvagal theory, we have this beautiful social engagement system. ventral vagal branch still shows up when we feel a neuroception of danger and will influence particular response patterns. And we like to call those ‘Find’ and ‘Fawn’.
Manda: [00:31:53.54] Find and Fawn. Can we unpack those a little bit?
Sarah: [00:31:56.12] Yeah. So the ‘Find’ response is when I tried to seek out my herd or my caregivers for support, protection, nourishment, reassurance. We’re looking for the supports to come. We’re trying to call our mums our dads, our parents, our herds…to us.
And so the Find response often can come first because that I’m looking for the safety, I’m looking for what’s going to be protective for me in this moment – that is social engagement. When there are no safe organisms around us, when, for isntance, the individual is abusive or harmful or mis attuned or we’ve written them off as being incompetent, because sometimes they’re there and sometimes they’re not, and they have an unreliable touch so sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re just not there and so they can’t realy be trusted and the person isn’t really going to let them in…that kind of experience.
So when we have a perception that the supports around us, whether individual or community are not available, then we would try to diffuse tension and risk of harm by going into ‘Fawn’ which consists of all the appeasement responses that we get into to try to reduce the risk of harm by trying to ‘Tend and Befriend’ the enemy. So there’s a whole that’s a whole category of responses there, the ‘Fawn’ response.
Manda: [00:33:34.58] And you can see that all around us in so many social circumstances, I would think, particularly in politics – we watch that happening all of the time.
Sarah: [00:33:46.72] And so we have ‘Find’ and ‘Fawn. And sometimes neither options are available. And sometimes we’ll go into a Fight or flight’ or ‘Flight or fight’.Often we flee and if we can’t flee, we fight back because we often fight when we’re trapped. That can often be the response that occurs.
And then I would place ‘Fidget’ as occurring in the safety area of the graph because we can fidget when we are excitedly anticipating something like a birthday party’. And I’m walking around and I’m pacing and I’m playing with my objects because I can’t wait. Fidget would be those the displacement behaviors that are evidence of energy that we don’t really quite know what to do with. And when we also fidget when we feel too safe – such as when you’re bored and you’re clicking a pen. There’s no neuroception of danger. You’re just bored. But safe.
Manda: [00:34:43.5] Yes, and there’s no neuroception of life threats, because we tend to fidget when it’s in life threatening circumstances.
Sarah: [00:34:49.12] Exactly. At that point, something else altogether is happening. So this is where the state and the neuroception predict the behavior or determine the behavior. So neuro the fidget responses can happen during a neurception of danger as well. So especially when we’re not able to flee or we’re not able to fight because we’re confined: we’re caged, were in lockdown, we are kept in small spaces.
This is often true for non-human animals in our modern society, with dogs kept in crates and horseskept in stalls and animals in the food production industry and in the entertainment industry and zoos – the pacing elephant all alone in its enclosure because there’s no social engagement.
So we talk about environmental enrichment for animals. And would quesiton whether it’s really enrichment in a biological sense. What opportunities are we offering them to be able to seek and have social engagement and wake up the ventral vagus? Because enrichment often involves environmental enrichment, which is usually sounds and smells and toys to play with.
But we need to be giving them the ability to roam and like engage with nature and engage with a herd. And that’s all waking up the ventral vagus, that’s all ventral vagal stimulation. So when we feel danger, but we can’t actually do anything to stop it, then the fidget responses start to show up.
So this is where we start to see things like addictions, obsessive compulsive responses and intellectualising, deflecting, projecting or suppression. With horses you’ll see stall weaving and crib biting and wind sucking. In other animals you might see bar chewing and pulling at skin and pulling that hair and ripping feathers out. And these are fidget responses that represent this energy towards either wanting to fight or to flee.And it’s not just fleeing the source of danger. It’s also moving in the direction of what I want. It’s moving towards nourishment, moving towards social connection, moving towards fun and freedom and forage.
And so when we can’t do those things, when we can’t act on our need for connection or our need for nourishment, when we can’t fight, we can’t flee, when we can’t find. And fawn is useless also. Then we fidget. Fidget happens when we’re not able to really enact a very particularly useful response.
Manda: [00:37:29.64] So lockdown is going to be full of fidgeting people in one way or another.
Sarah: [00:37:33.64] Yes. And before you hit record, we were talking about how there are so many people buying puppies right now because they’re stuck in lockdown and almost as this sort of way to try to wake up their ventral vagal systems – they are feeling so isolated. they feel the need something to just give a sense of purpose, and for co-regulation and for play and for all these things that we can’t do. So this is both a fidget and in some ways it’s trying to get our social engagement system back?
Manda: [00:38:08.58] And that’s why we’re bulk buying puppies. Because more than anything else, dogs give us that unconditional positive regard. They just love to be with us. And we love to be loved.
Sarah: [00:38:17.88] Yes. to be loved. But then what’s going to happen at the end of the pandemic when, you know, all these puppies end up needing homes because, you know, we’re gonna go back to work and we’re gonna have a bunch of dogs who don’t know how to tolerate being by themselves because you go back to work
Manda: [00:38:34.02] Maybe we won’t go back to work. Maybe we’ll manage to create an economic system that does not require that people go off and do their bullshit jobs they didn’t want to do in the first. That would be very cool.
Our government is trying to end look down on Monday because they’re going to cut back all of the money that they’ve been giving because they believe the nation is becoming ‘addicted’ to the money that the government is handing out. And I think you could reframe that as ‘People are really enjoying the life that they’ve got now. And they were not really enjoying it before. And maybe your role as government is to work out how to help people enjoy their lives?’
Sarah: [00:39:11.86] And this is interesting because it speaks to the topic of a guaranteed basic income basis based on tax. And what they found in places where they’ve piloted guaranteed basic income is not that people are more lazy and less likely to work. They’re actually more motivated to work because their basic needs are cared for and they can be creative. They can contribute if they want to.
Sarah: [00:39:38.22] And no one has had the guts to actually implement this in a major way because worried about the cost. They have no idea down the road how much money they’ll save in terms of mental health care costs and hospital costs and unemployment costs as a result of paying everybody a basic income because that supports the whole society to function better. And then when we’re functioning better or our health is better and you don’t I mean, like they’re not seeing the long term potential impacts.They’re just going, well, we’re seeing short term expense without the long term goal. But that’s a whole other topic.
Manda: [00:40:10.79] But we could do it. Let’s do that some other day.
Sarah: [00:40:13.95] So we have the neuroception of danger on our graph This is when are all our best attempts at surviving are not super effective. And then we go into the neuroception of ‘Life Threat’. Now, how Porges describes this is typically a state of ‘Overwhelm’, where they feel so overwhelmed that they’re going to die. And that often is in young children, the overwhelm that is felt when we are not soothed and our emotions are just so big and so tremendous, and the misattunements or the experiences coming from our caregivers are so big and we’re so little that it can create this existential experience of ‘I can’t handle this. This is a wordless, nameless sense of overwhelm.
So that can be what we call life threat. But life threat also can refer to literally physical life threat. As when we’re falling unconscious, are being choked, are lacking oxygen. ‘I’m about to die’. There can be that component too, in young childhood.
Manda: [00:41:33.07] And so some of these are are an experience of ‘Life Threat’ that feels life threatening, in which there is probably not an actual threat to our lives and others are when we are actually in danger of dying.
Sarah: [00:41:45.21] And so this is where it’s so interesting because to a small infant, being in an incubator, not being held for three months, you don’t know if you’re going to live or die. That’s a very existentially precarious state. And so there is no logic on board when you’re an infant. We don’t have a really highly developed prefrontal cortex that can think.
Manda: [00:42:07.03] .Your amygdala just goes into total panic.
Sarah: [00:42:07.03] That’s exactly right. And we see that in the brains of people who’ve experienced these early traumas of these early adversities, is that the amygdalas are much larger. And so ‘Life Threat’ according to poly-vagal theory would be these experiences of overwhelm that lead to shut down. And so whether or not it’s actually true life threat,as an adult, the nervous system is picking up on something that is very reminiscent to an earlier experience. And we’ll play out the same pattern.I
Manda: [00:42:45.27] I know from my own past experience in therapy and on people I’ve spoken to, I get to the point where I feel that if I take the lid off my emotions, I will never be able to get it back on again, and it will be in some way destructively catastrophic. And this sounds like tapping back into that sense of Life Threat as an adult at the point where we’re approaching that emotional edge.
Sarah: [00:43:14.52] Peter Levine talks about a ‘Somatic Experiencing’ which was a trauma recovery method that Dr. Levine created that I call Practical Poly Vagal theory or polyvagal theory in practice. And basically, it is essentially how to work with some of these overwhelming states without getting overwhelmed and building the window of tolerance to be able to work through some of this stuff and do what Peter calls renegotiation, which is ‘Let’s not relive it and get you overwhelmed and get you shutting down again, because that’s kind of a pointless sequence to keep reenacting. But let’s see if we can have a different experience of it.’.
And there’s there’s Somatic Experiencing and there’s all these offshoot trainings that either evolved out of somatic experiencing or draw in a large part from somatic experiencing. I’m reminded of ‘Somatic Resilience and Regulation’. I’m reminded of ‘Deep Brain Reorienting’ created byFrank Corrigan out of the U.K. There are all these methods that draw from or evolved out of SE, which work with these states and teach us how to work with these states in a safer way by titrating into them or going into little bits at a time. But that, again, is a whole other topic.
Manda: [00:44:26.13] Yes. I so want to do that, but not to say let’s go back to the graph.
Sarah: [00:44:31.26] And so we have the graph. And if we come down the other side of this bell curve, as we come out of these shutdown responses, whichI tend to refer to as Freeze, Fold, Faint, Feign death and Fragments of Freeze. So Freeze is ‘shut down’ or what we call ‘tonic immobility’ or ‘rigid immobility’ where we’ve got one foot on the gas and one foot on the brakes at the same time. It’s like I’m all revved up with nowhere to go. That would be Freeze.
‘Fold’ is what we sometimes call the ‘collapse response’ or ‘collapsed immobility, ‘floppy immobility’, where there is no muscle tone.
And what’s interesting is you can have ‘floppy immobility’. however, when you have a of safety. So there’s Immobility with Fear, which is at the top end of this graph. And then there’s Immobility without Fear on the bottom end. So immobility without fear is the low toned dorsal vagal response.
Manda: [00:45:33.56] So is that the yoga pose? And that’s one that we might choose. Because I have in my notes further up that ‘Stillness is not always calm/safe/good. So this is Fold?
Sarah: [00:45:44.79] Fold is the collapse response when nothing else is working. And I the ‘I can’t response’ is so strong and it’s coupled with fear. So this what Porges calls Immobility with Fear. And there is this sort of shutdown/collapse/surrender kind of response. That would be the collapse where there is no muscle tone. I’m just floppy. I’m just out, giving up. That’s the defeat, extreme defeat, learned helplessness kind of place.
Manda: [00:46:16.65] So many horses.
Sarah: [00:46:18.24] Oh, so many horses and people and dogs. And we go around and that’s just becomes the way of it. And then ‘Fragment’ is another edition. ‘Fragment’ refers to this really extreme form of personality fragmentation or really extreme forms of dissociation. Dissociation can occur up here in these high states of life threat, but also can occur when we’re feeling danger, such as when you kind of disconnect and go into a blind rage. That would be an example of mild dissociation or moderate association while in neuroception of life threat. And then we dissociate when we feel safe to write, when we’re daydreaming, for instance, or when you’re driving your car and you don’t remember the last four intersections.
Manda: [00:47:02.37] Okay. I’m thinking then everything that falls under the realm of shamanic dreaming would count as dissociation. But I’m guessing that neurophysiologically there’s probably different stuff, happening.
Sarah: [00:47:15.15] I don’t know how far we’ve gotten with looking at the neurophysiology of meditators. I’m sure there’s some literature on doing MRI is of people who are meditative states. In fact, I believe people have done this.
Manda: [00:47:25.31] Yes, they end up in Gamma. If you go really deep, so you go through Theta, then Delta, then Gamma. But I don’t know beyond that what the what the neurochemistry is.
Sarah: [00:47:35.34] And I’d be very curious, but this is this is the map and not the terrain. , I don’t know all the neurochemicals. I don’t know all the neurophysiology. I know some of it. But I know I rely more on the map of the terrain as opposed to knowing all the ins and outs of the terrain and then recognizing when these things are happening with people in front of you, which is probably more important than knowing whether they’re Alpha or Theta or Gamma.
That’s why I love the map. Some evolutionary biologists will shoot down the poly vagal theory but for me the map itself that it creates is really super predictive and helpful. And what matters to me is can I actually use it and have it be useful and effective and practical, which it is.
It’s like the Triune Brain Model which was debunked years ago, but it’s still a veyr useful model.
Manda: [00:48:44.0] And I still teach it on that basis. I’m aware that we have about five minutes left before you have to go and see another client. So what I’d really like to do is have a look at how people in lockdown – which is probably still going to be obtaining when we released this – can respond.
We’re in a circumstance which is unusual. I’m really interested in what happens to small children when the parents, the caregivers, are in lockdown. That might be a different podcast, but the people listening, most of whom are to some degree constrained in what they can do. There’s a degree of sense of danger. I would suspect that quite a lot of us are in the neuroception of danger phase at different points of the day. And that it would probably be good if we had strategies to help bring us into a sense of safety, because actually there are no tigers outside the window.It’s just that the world’s going a bit weird.
Sarah: And the tiger is the Covid virus. So there is a tiger. It’s just invisible. It’s a tiny but it’s a tiny tiger that acts like glitter. It’s invisible glitter. You can’t see it and you don’t know how to best response so here’s a perfect storm of we have a threat, you know, a danger in the environment. None of us can see it. And so we’re all feeling this desire to mount a response. And yet at the same time, the environmental cues are not there. And so we’re getting this conflicting information that says, ‘Oh, I’m safe, but the world is telling me I’m in danger’. And then you’re gonna have people who are going to contest that – We’ve got the people right now who want to go back and get a haircut. This whole protest and all the conspiracy theories. And I wonder how much of this is misattuned neuroception, where we’re getting conflicting information when nothing has physically changed in the world, but we’ve got this invisible glitter problem – where these invisible tigers are running around that we can’t see, but that we’re told are there.
And if you have mis-attuned neuroception responses to start with, it becomes very, very complicated. And especially if you’ve learned to shut down your fear response then there’s a tendency to assume that ‘everyone’s over reacting, I don’t care who dies’. But underneath that cold, cavalier response is actually a lot of fear and terror. And so that’s how somebody can often go into these kinds of reactions around why are we still doing this? Why can’t we just release ourselves into society?
If you’ve had any kind of past experience in your life where you were shut down, told to do something that was not what you wanted to do. You were made to go along with what other people said and how you found power in your life was to connect with your fight response. Then what we’re seeing a lot of I predict is the people who are fighting this pandemic response are the people who may actually have in their history some form of thwarted fight response or a shutdown response where they have learned to shut off empathy and judge others and judge themselves as a way of protecting against feeling things like fear and shame and disconnection and loss.
Manda: [00:51:48.06] So a lot of our politicians, particularly in the UK and I think around the world, are men who are sent away to boarding school at a very young age. And boarding school is notoriously brutal and they will have, one way or another had to shut down. And so therefore, they’re now faced with a response that requires more emotional flexibility than they are capable of bringing to bear.
Sarah: [00:52:11.82] And they’re and they’re associating the response with extreme logic, with extreme logic is, again, it’s emotional reasoning, masked as logic. And we trust the logic of it. But it’s the same within North America also. Trump’s history of early developmental difficulties is well known. People have written about this in terms of his early family origin and how early he learned how to shut down and not show emotion. So we know that the connections between these. And we’re seeing it play out in a very global stage.
ut when I think about something practical for everyone to take away from today, I think first off would be: really just having compassion for just how confusing it is for your nervous system right now. This is a very, very difficult time. These are unprecedented times. The last time we went through this was the Spanish flu about 100 years ago. And so none of us, most of us, the majority of humans on this planet do not have lived experience with pandemics.
And as you said earlier, Manda, that said epigenetically, if we have ancestors who did go through scary times like the Spanish flu, like the Great Depression, like a Holocaust, and who have been exposed to these global conditions of fear and terror and danger and potential life threat, there can actually still be things written in our genes that have been turned on or turned off as a result of our ancestors’ past experiences of similar situations globally that are playing out right now.
So the responses that are happening for people can either reflect a trigger response based on their own adversity earlier in their childhoods or can be an epigenetic intergenerational response pattern that we are seeing, and so under these conditions of stress it’s a little bit of a free for all. Everyone’s nervous systems are all over the place, which is why people are saying that we need to be really gentle with ourselves, don’t try to be over productive while you’re not working. It’s OK to feel really sleepy because that could be that dorsal response.
Manda: [00:54:12.47] I don’t know about you, but I have spent an awful lot of time sleeping recently, and I don’t think that I’m particularly stressed, but my goodness, I get tired in the middle of the day.
Sarah: [00:54:23.57] Well, and see, what’s interesting for me is and I think this is perhaps true of other mental health workers, some people are saying that there’s going to be a secondary kind of silent pandemic or epidemic, loosely calling it that, which is basically all the mental health workers having to deal with the fallout of this both now and after this is all over. Because right now, while the main the front liners are the medical doctors and the nurses and the people in the hospitals who are providing medical care, once this is all passed, us says therapists are still the ones are going to continue to pick up the pieces and now treat the doctors and the nurses for their trauma collectively. From having had to go through all of this. And so we’re already feeling it. So we’re the silent population of people who are actually quite overworked right now that are not really fully being acknowledged.
Manda: [00:55:09.77] There’s no light at the end of that tunnel because this could go on a long time. So what could you do just before you have to go, people listening – is there anything they can do to self-help that will take the pressure off the therapists and and also just for themselves?
Sarah: [00:55:27.99] Just for themselves, too. Right. Like I’m not saying the whole world has to accommodate the therapists. That’s, of course, a bit of a role reversal as well that I would not want to encourage. But at the same time, if we’re all looking out for each other, I think to myself – be curious about your nervous system state. Be gentle with the fact that these are trying times. And based on your own experience, whether you have had past history of abuse or neglect, which is getting triggered today in terms of fear of lack, fear of dying, fear of loss, anger at being told what to do. All these responses are going to be coming up now in full force. And co-regulation is going to be so important to try to cultivate as best as we can. We’re seeing a lot of co-dysregulation in couples right these days. And we can attribute that to being off of work and being in the home – domestic violence rates have gone up significantly, because we’re at home. So these days, this pattern of co- dysregulation based on the neuroception of unsafety is huge and tremendous right now.
Manda: [00:56:32.9] And we being fed war metaphors at a time that is completely inappropriate, which is guaranteed pretty much to trigger in some people, more of a fight response who can’t fight – except at home.
Sarah: [00:56:45.05] Well, or they’re protesting. And we’re seeing all these anti anti pandemic protests now because that’s people mobilizing their fight response because of this. So it’s complicated.
Manda: [00:56:54.34] It’s so we need to cultivate co-regulation and not cultivate dysregulation.
Sarah: [00:56:59.57] And this is where maybe we do Part 2, because I would love to talk a little bit about how do you support co-regulation in a time of pandemic when we’re all having to be remote? Yes, because this is what Porges talks about. And I’ve been doing a series of webinars recently on other topics, but during the webinars, we’ve been doing a lot of relational attunement and sematic co-regulation, and I’ll give this as an example. I taught a training last week, five days with people from all over the world. It was really lovely. And in spite of us all being in our respective homes, countries, continents, we were able to use the technology in such a way that we had a shared experience of group co-regulation on each of the days where we were able to see each other’s faces, have the social engagement, track each other’s nervous systems and feel a collective sense of connection and soothing in spite of the geographic distance that’s happening.
Porges recently did a webinar about the importance of social engagement during this time of pandemic to help with regulating all of this arousal and activation that’s happening globally. And I’d like to see if we can talk a little bit more about the practicals of that now that we’ve covered this theory.
Manda: [00:58:18.23] Ok, If you’re up for a second podcast, I totally am. Thank you so much. I am so aware that you are really going to have to go. But I will write to you and we will set that up. Okay, so everybody out there in podcast land wait for the second half. This is going to be so interesting. So, Sarah, thank you very, very much.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE THESE RECENT EPISODES
No More Fairy Stories: Writing the way through, one tale at a time with Denise Baden
We know we have most of the answers to the poly crisis. Our challenge is getting them into the mainstream. And that means we need to understand what works when we craft our new narratives of how the world could look and feel.
Meeting the Ocean: Rekindling our deepest connections through art and science with Markus Reymann
How do we bring artists, scientists, policy makers, educators, conservationists, journalists, and all the different siloed tribes together in ways that let them genuinely communicate and listen to the web of life?
Proudly Mad: exploring mental health and the climate emergency with Charlie Hertzog Young
How did one man make the shift from Not wanting to live in this world, to refusing to live in ‘this’ world? Manda and Charlie discuss the interface between mental health, the climate emergency and what we now call eco-anxiety (but which needs a rather stronger name than that implies).
Building Tomorrow: Bonus addition: Painting 2050 if we get things right
What does our world look and feel like in 2050 if we make all the good choices now? Paddy and I recorded a brief 15 minute bonus of how the world could look if we actually employed all the strategies in ‘Building Tomorrow’ – so sit back, soak it in – and then let’s make it happen…
STAY IN TOUCH
For a regular supply of ideas about humanity's next evolutionary step, insights into the thinking behind some of the podcasts, early updates on the guests we'll be having on the show - AND a free Water visualisation that will guide you through a deep immersion in water connection...sign up here.
(NB: This is a free newsletter - it's not joining up to the Membership! That's a nice, subtle pink button on the 'Join Us' page...)