top of page

Safety & Social Engagement / SNB102

Updated: Dec 29, 2022


  • In this episode, I continue the Polyvagal 101 audio master class by doing a deep deep dive into the state of safety and social engagement.

  • My name is Justin Sunseri (LMFT99147)

  • I’m a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist obsessed with the polyvagal theory.

  • Welcome to Stuck Not Broken.


We’ve got some interactive exercises in this episode, please don’t be driving.

But before I get into things -put yourself first. I keep every episode as safe as I can, but just by the nature of the topics, you may experience some stuff come up. Take a break if you need to. I’m discussing safety, no triggering content that I can recognize, unless you’re an avid 49er fan.

This podcast is not therapy, nor intended to be a replacement for therapy.

Exercise in feeling safe through sound -

Thriller tense sound

  • How did you feel?

  • Relaxed or tense?

Nature sounds

  • How did you feel?

  • Relaxed or tense?


Often referred to as “ventral,” like DD or “safe and social”

1 of 2 parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous systems

  • Other is for immobilization (in episode 104)

newest evolutionary branch

  • Exclusive to mammals

  • Allowed mammals to survive by staying in families/herds in a world of large lizards

  • PVT is about evolution and survival, there are unique pathways for mammals

    • (ventral pathways and the social benefits that brings)


  • The Safe & Social State means the body can facilitate health, growth and restoration, instead of using resources for defense

  • Traumatized individuals (in stuck defensive state) have higher rates of other problems because they are redirecting necessary resources: social, emotional and behavior problems, shorter life span, suicidality, diabetes, heart disease, lung cancer, autoimmune diseases


Our biology in the safety state is different -

  • Saliva and digestion are stimulated

  • Heart rate slows

  • Full breaths


Feeling safe is crucial in mammals

  • Facilitates general health, like body functions, hormone release...

  • Also facilitates cognitive functions, like learning, productivity, critical thinking, problem solving...

  • Social engagement, such as mutual play, eye contact, safe touch...

We more efficiently detect safety cues in this state

  • We can better discern what is actually safe or not

  • Out of this state, we kinda see danger everywhere

The perception of safety overrides the environmental safety

  • Flight/Fight/Freeze can be triggered even if there is no environmental danger

  • When number 10 on the Niners muffed two punts in the 2011 NFC Championship

    • You don’t care?

    • Well one of them grazed off of his knee and he tried to act like it didn’t

    • With millions of people watching and multiple camera angles

    • Still don’t care?

    • Well the Niners lost that year and didn’t make the Super Bowl

    • Still don’t care?

    • Well that’s my point. These things might mean nothing to you, even if they made sense to you.

    • It still irritates me so much I don’t want to say his name. I feel upset

    • I wasn’t in danger in that moment, nor am I now 10 years later

  • These shared interests can bring someone to safety, like when I wear a 49ers shirt out in public; they can trigger the possibility of social engagement

  • Wouldn’t you feel an instant connection with somebody else you overhear talking about the polyvagal theory? Or reading a Harry Potter book? Or planting a flower in their front yard as you walk by?

Instantaneously socially engage with others

  • Closer proximity to someone who is safe

    • Like when you saw someone you haven’t seen in a long time during covid? Mercedes and I gave each other a big hug after not seeing each other for a year

  • Eye contact

  • eye crinkles

  • Facial expressions

  • Smiles

    • How i often gauge my safety feelings

  • Physical gestures and posture are more relaxed

  • Hear human voice and tune out other noises

    • Like at a loud event

  • Prosody - stress, pitch, intonation, pauses, volume and pace

    • Like i discussed last episode

Exercise in feeling safe through imagination -

Scenario 1 - standing in an elevator that is making some sort of mechanical sounds that you can’t identify. Fluorescent bulbs ahead make a slight hum and fill the elevator with bright white light. The door stops and there are two people waiting to enter. They are talking, but when they make eye contact with you they stop. Their eyes are wide, no emotion on their face.

  • How do you feel?

  • More or less relaxed? More or less tense?

Scenario 2 - sitting on a log in a forest, by a slow-moving creek of clear water, draped in shade with speckles of light coming through the tree leaf openings while watching… [fill in the blank]. No one is around, just you and the sounds of nature. A slight breeze keeps you cool.

  • How do you feel?

  • More or less relaxed? More or less tense?


The world is: safe, fun, peaceful, interesting, manageable

  • The negative is interpreted as unimportant or neutral

    • We don’t assume the worst about someone that cut in front of us in line

    • If a sibling teases us, we don’t react out of defense

Feelings of: calm, happiness, connection, joy, motivation, excitement, relaxation

Able to: focus, plan, weigh options when making a decision

Become more: playful, self-reflective, understanding

Story follows state: calm, hopeful, optimistic, curious, grateful, thoughts of pleasant things

  • In your nature scene we did, what did you fill in the blank with?

    • Probably not a rabid animal

    • Probably not a zombie or skeleton or vampire

    • Probably not your least favorite politician

  • It was probably something that was pleasant

    • But maybe not if the exercise was a challenge

    • Maybe there was an edge to it, a mistrust

    • Maybe this scenario had element(s) that brought you to unsafety due to event(s) from your life

  • I am terrified of heights, especially when driving and I can’t see over the cliff

    • I see a house in the distance and worry I’m focusing on it too much and this will lead to me dying

    • When I am in the passenger seat, I see the same house and wonder what it’s like to live there and how someone even ends up getting a home so remote

    • When I am driving on flat road, no cliff, in the forest, i can have a much wider range of thoughts


  • Might be brand new to you

  • For me - lighter breathing, belly breathing

  • Thoughts are more hopeful

  • Energy in my system that is playful, even with work

  • Feeling achieved and accomplished

  • Playful, singing, joking with my kids, become louder

    • Opposite of anywhere else and with anyone else

How often do we achieve this?

  • It’s not easy to get there, it’s not easy to stay there

  • So many things take us out of safety: media, relationships, our kids, our jobs

    • 24 hour news cycles don’t profit off of you being in your state of safety; they need you to be angry or outraged or in fear to keep tuning in

    • Politicians needs us to be in fear too; otherwise there’s little use or power for them; if we’re in fear, we need them, there’s a reason to vote for them

  • Even if we’re literally safe, other things can take us out of safety state


  • Called “glimmers”

  • Turn them in glows

Deb Dana audio clip

Exercise - Minecraft popping sounds work for me


  • This is where BSA can be helpful

  • Feeling safe is pretty awesome, something everyone should get to experience, but not the reality

    • I talk a lot about safety on the podcast, the blog, the instagram, but the course is a more direct approach to feeling safe

  • Helps you to identify what brings you to safety within thirty days in small steps


  • You may never have felt safe and have no idea

    • Common for people in therapy

    • And outside of therapy in my estimation

  • We need safe people and safe environments to access the safe & social state

    • Do you have this?

    • Who is safe in your life? Where is safe in your life?

  • Ongoing opportunities to interact with safe others in safe environments

  • Reliable relationships based on give & take, empathy, understanding

  • Time spent with safe people doing shared activities: play, work

  • But we can’t wait for these things to happen to us, we need to be instrumental in our own safety

    • There is a lot we can do on our own or with a professional, then work toward connecting with others as friends or as partners


The safe & social state may be unfamiliar to traumatized individuals and actually trigger a shift back down their ladder into flight/fight

  • Common in therapy

  • Have difficulty with sustaining eye contact



  • I hope you’ve learned something new to help you climb your polyvagal ladder.

  • Bye!

  • This podcast is not therapy, not intended to be therapy or be a replacement for therapy. Nothing in this creates or indicates a therapeutic relationship. Please consult with your therapist or seek for one in your area if you are experiencing mental health sx. Nothing in this podcast should be construed to be specific life advice; it is for educational and entertainment purposes only. More resources are available in the description of this episode and in the footer of

This week’s Patreon episode -

Intro/Outro music & Transition Sounds by Benjo Beats -

National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1 (800) 273-8255

National Domestic Violence Hotline -1 (800) 799-7233

LGBT Trevor Project Lifeline - 1 (866) 488-7386

National Sexual Assault Hotline - 1 (800) 656-4673

Crisis Text Line - Text “HOME” to 741741

Call 911 for emergency

This podcast is not therapy, not intended to be therapy or be a replacement for therapy. Nothing in this creates or indicates a therapeutic relationship. Please consult with your therapist or seek for one in your area if you are experiencing mental health sx. Nothing in this podcast should be construed to be specific life advice; it is for educational and entertainment purposes only.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page