You’ve heard about this Polyvagal stuff and are interested to learn more. Specifically, what the heck is the safety stuff and how to use it? A great question!
What is Polyvagal Safety?
As I am apt to point out often on the podcast, Polyvagal safety is a reference to biology first and foremost. In the PVT, we are discussing biology. Not simply feelings. Not just “trauma responses.” But biology. Polyvagal safety refers to the ventral vagal pathways of the autonomic nervous system.
When active, these ventral vagal pathways result in your ability to connect with yourself and with others. They allow you to socially engage and provide cues of safety to another, a process called co-regulation. When you’re in your safety state, you can then: smile genuinely, use vocal prosody, make eye crinkles from listening or smiling and get close physically to another.
You also are able to use a couple of Polyvagal mixed states - play and stillness. Meaning, you can mobilize while socially engaged in play and/or you can immobilize without fear in stillness. If the safety state is not active, then these mixed states and their resulting behaviors and experiences are not possible.
Of course, you can learn a lot more about the Polyvagal Theory in my Polyvagal 101 course. It covers the essentials of the Polyvagal Theory in a self-paced course. You’ll also be able to join me once a month in an Open Office Hour to ask questions about the PVT or other topics of interest.
You’re probably wondering how to access your Polyvagal state of safety and social engagement. A fair question.
Accessing Polyvagal Safety
To access Polyvagal safety, you need a couple basic things:
Environmental safety - You need literal safety. To be free from actual danger to your person. This also includes a more subtle form of "safety," which involves passive cues of safety from the environment. Things like the hums of electronics, loud sounds, harsh lighting and crowded spaces will all give you cues of danger, even though they are not literally dangerous.
Interpersonal safety - Again, literal safety. To be free from danger from others. But it's more than that. This involves receiving co-regulative cues of safety from others. Smiles, eye crinkles, vocal prosody, you get the idea...
Having these two pieces are essential to accessing the Polyvagal state of safety and social engagement. However, it may not be that simple. Duh.
If you live in a traumatized defensive state, then accessing and remaining in your state of safety is a significant challenge. Those pathways may not be developed enough yet. Feeling your safety state might be uncomfortable, things like feeling trust and vulnerability. It's exceedingly important that you not only access safety once, but continue to do so. So on top of the two things listed above, you also need to have a third, which is to practice being in safety.
Building Polyvagal Safety
The safety state needs to be exercised, just like anything else. Through exercising it, you build the strength of the pathways. This builds the strength of your "vagal brake," (another Polyvagal concept) which is the influence of the social engagement system on the heart, keeping it at a calmer pace and keeping sympathetic energy from activating.
Polyvagal safety is not something to be used. It's something to be developed. It's not something you can make a conscious choice to turn off or on.
You can definitely increase the chances of your safety state being active. You can do so through creating passive safety cues for yourself in your environment. In BSA, this is the starting point for building safety. Creating environmental safety cues. From there, you can then create active safety cues. These would be activities that you can do, like mindfully using your senses or movement, to feel more safety in your system. If you can mindfully do so, you can then exercise and increase the safety pathways.