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Safety & Social Engagement of the Polyvagal Paradigm

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

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Safety & Social Engagement


...connectedness with other mammals, other humans, and even our pet dogs and cats, is really, in a very pragmatic way, our purpose in life.

Stephen Porges, Love's Brain

This is the first state at the top of the Polyvagal Ladder. This state, like the others to follow, are not just thoughts, behaviors and feelings. They are unique biological pathways that govern thoughts, behaviors and feelings. Specifically, the parasympathetic safe/social ones are referred to as the “ventral vagal” pathways that come from the nucleus ambiguus of the brainstem (but that’s probably more than you needed to know).


The state of safety and social engagement is responsible for our feelings and behaviors of social connection. Not just humans, but other mammals as well. We all share some level of ability to connect with each other, build families and herds, tribes or even cities.


The ability for early mammals to connect with each other increased the chances of survival. This was especially true in the context of the time, when large reptiles dominated the planet. Along with the evolutionary biological changes of the social pathways, other biological pathways were repurposed to support survival advantages for mammals. Their ears were better attuned to hear the sounds of each other. The large reptiles of the time did not have the ability to hear the full range of mammalian voices.


This state is imperative for the general health and wellness for mammals. When we exist in this state, our bodies utilize resources for health, growth and restoration, as Dr. Porges often says. Our bodies function better, we’re healthier and meet developmental milestones more predictably. We form healthy attachments with safe others and live generally happier and more fulfilling lives.



What safety feels like

These are some examples of what being in the safe/social state can feel like:

  • Happy, joyful

  • Calm, relaxed, still

  • Playful, excited

  • Awe, expansiveness

  • Safe, trusting

  • Interested, motivated

  • Empathetic, understanding


These feelings are needed to make safe connections with other people who are also in some level of their own safe/social state. This may not be realistic in all of our lives, but activation of the state of safety is necessary to feel these feelings.


The world and our interactions in it just feel more safe. We experience less neuroceptions of threat. And when we are in situations with some elements of danger, these situations do not feel as overwhelming.

Life is manageable when we are in this state. Not perfect, but manageable. Life doesn’t feel as overwhelming or tense or pressured. When we do face problems - which we will (sorry) - we can navigate them more easily. We can navigate them using negotiation and cooperation and not panic or overwhelm.


When we’re in a safe/social state, we can better detect cues of safety or danger. We identify and feel safety and connection. If we are around someone that is giving off cues of danger, we’re able to identify them more accurately. If we retain our access to our safety pathways in these moments, we can potentially navigate the situation and ameliorate it through providing our own cues of safety to the other person.


Along with changes in emotion and feeling, this state also brings cognitive changes. In this state, we can focus, plan, think, learn, assess and weigh pros & cons. We have greater access to our executive functioning, something critical for students to be able to succeed academically. This would also be helpful for someone that is considering a new career, new life path or a significant purchase. These cognitive skills are necessary for daily functioning of all types.


What safety looks like

You can tell when someone has access to their safety pathways by looking at their body language and their face. Someone in this state will be able to utilize their face and neck muscles. When they listen, their head will tilt to one side and crinkles will form around their eyes as they squint. They wouldn’t be able to do so without these biological pathways being activated. At least, not genuinely.


Making eye contact with someone else is a sign that you have access to your safety pathways. When you feel uncomfortable, you look away. When you’re feeling safe and connected, you make and sustain eye contact. Oftentimes in therapy, a client will have difficulty doing so. As they gain more access to their safety pathways, they can make fleeting eye contact. They look up at the therapist and then look away, darting their eyes back and forth. As they gain tolerance to these feelings of being in safety, they can sustain eye contact for longer periods of time.


When the safety pathways are active, the inner ear muscles allow in a greater range of mammalian voice (vocal prosody). Human beings can hear each other better. We can even tune out other noises and focus on the prosody in someone else’s voice. Think about being at a concert or some other crowded venue - you can hear the person you’re with because you’re attuned to hear their mammalian voice and can tune out the background noises.


Mammals are also capable of using their own vocal prosody. Meaning, they can use their voice to indicate a greater range of emotions and intention. We can raise our voice to show excitement and lower our voice to show threat.


Another obvious indicator that someone is in their state of safety is that they can spontaneously get closer to others. Think about the first time that you saw someone after coming out of quarantine in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. You probably felt a spontaneous impulse to hug them, right? When you see someone you love, you probably hug or kiss when you greet each other. Or just shake hands when you greet someone new or someone you have some appreciation for. Someone in their safety state can use a wider range of physical gestures. Their bodies are more animated to express themselves.


There are other physiological changes when in safety:

  • Saliva and digestion are stimulated

  • Heart rate slows

  • Fuller breaths into the belly

The more the better

Nobody exists in a purely safe/social state. Generally, anyone can get these pathways active and feel them on some level. It might be a significant challenge, but it generally seems possible. Even for someone with a significant history of surviving severe traumatic events, they can eventually access these pathways with safe enough environments and safe enough people around them.


Again - no one exists 100% in these states. But we don’t need to. We just need to have enough access to these biological pathways to actually feel safe and get the benefits of these biological functions. The safety pathways need to be active. And when they are, the defensive states won’t be out of control.


So the more access we have to the safety states, the better. There will always be big and small events in life and even in a single day that will challenge our ability to exist in the safety state. That’s not going to change. But what can change is how much access we have to the state and how exercised those pathways are.


What is needed for safety

When we discuss what’s needed to feel safe, we’re discussing what is needed for the safety biology to be active. Two major components of that are the environment and people in our lives. These provide potential neuroceptions of safety and help the individual to climb their Polyvagal ladder.


Perception can be helpful. If we view the environment as safe enough, we can access our safety biology. Even in environments where there is potential danger, the people within it can still socially engage and connect with each other. The environment doesn't have to be perfect. The school might be in a neighborhood that has danger, but the students within it can potentially access their safety state still. Especially if the people within that school are in their states of safety and are providing other cues of safety and protection. Same for someone in a less than ideal neighborhood or a crowded mall on Christmas Eve.


Safe people and safe environments are necessary, but there is a more voluntary method of accessing safety. People and environments can passively provide cues of safety. But you can also purposefully bring yourself to safety. It needs to be done in a safe environment or possibly with safe people, but could also be alone. And to do that requires that you know what helps you to feel the feelings of safety.


Journal:

  1. What can you actively do to bring about feelings of calm?

  2. What can you actively do to bring about feelings of happiness?

  3. What can you actively do to bring about feelings of playfulness?

  4. What can you actively do to bring about feelings of awe?

  5. What can you actively do to bring about feelings of connection to others?

  6. What can you actively do to bring about feelings of connection to yourself?


This is where my Building Safety Anchors course can be helpful. You might not know the answer to these questions. The feelings of safety might be new to you or you may have only been accessing them passively, dependent on others or on the environment. So the idea that you can take control and direct your ANS toward safety might be new.


Building Safety Anchors can act as a guide for you. It teaches you six unique paths to feeling safety:

  1. Environment

  2. Movement

  3. Sensory

  4. Music

  5. Cognitions

  6. Memory

Not only does BSA teach you these 6 paths to safety, it also guides you in identifying your own safety and in practicing accessing your own safety.



 

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