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Polyvagal Theory and the Sound and Safe Protocol (SSP)

Updated: May 16, 2023

Body and Mind Connection

Over time, we have learned that our minds and bodies are complexly interconnected. By understanding this connection, we can become the best version of ourselves. So, let's dive into the fascinating world of human development and explore the secrets of the fundamental basis for good health: processing and body and mind connection and regulation.

The ability to process incoming information at the sensory and motor levels directly impacts our higher brain functions, including learning, communication, and attention. But what happens when this foundation is incomplete or impaired? Conditions like sensory processing differences and neurodevelopmental issues can further impact our ability to connect with ourselves and others.

Looking for Homeostasis

But by understanding how our body regulates itself, we can take steps to achieve and maintain homeostasis, maintaining a balance between our physical and emotional well-being. This is challenging in today's fast-paced world.

Although traditional treatments may help some individuals, many people with anxiety, depression, ADHD, ASD, or PTSD continue to suffer and may be beginning to realize that their emotional state plays a crucial role in their progress. When we feel worried and unsafe, our defences go up, and any therapy, counselling or intervention we engage in becomes less effective. Achieving balance means regulating our nervous system so that we can respond appropriately to challenges.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a crucial role in regulating vital bodily functions such as heart rate, respiration, and digestion. This complex system communicates information between the brain and body, enabling us to adapt to changes in our environment. One nerve that significantly impacts our ANS and overall well-being is the vagus nerve. As the longest cranial nerve in the body, it stretches from the brainstem down to the stomach.

Polyvagal Theory

Dr. Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory sheds light on the vagus nerve's role in regulating both our emotional and physiological states. This neurobehavioral scientific breakthrough has transformed our understanding of the autonomic nervous system's response to stress, anxiety, and trauma. The theory highlights the challenge of changing thoughts, feelings, and behaviours when our nervous system is constantly in a state of defence.

Fortunately, by mastering the art of nervous system regulation, we can re-pattern our reactions to life's challenges, improve our therapy experiences, and connect more deeply with our surroundings and those around us. Therapies that stimulate the ventral vagus and activate the social engagement system can foster adaptability, awareness, and regulation, making individuals more receptive to interventions. Learn more about the vast potential for integrative therapies to promote lasting change in the nervous system.

The Vagus Nerve

Polyvagal Theory offers a fresh perspective on how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) operates in the modern world. According to the theory, humans have developed social behaviours such as communication, collaboration, and connection to survive, leading to a hierarchical nervous system that supports these functions.

The parasympathetic nervous system has two divisions: ventral and dorsal, guided by the vagus nerve complex, each with unique functions.

The sympathetic nervous system helps us mobilize in danger, with physiological impacts like changes in heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, hyper-vigilance, and blood flow to the extremities.

The ventral vagus branch of the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the "social engagement system," is the newest evolutionary addition. It supports social behaviours by stimulating the face and head muscles, which enable facial expressions, vocal rhythm and intonation, listening, and language. It responds to positive cues and helps us feel safe and relaxed. When in a state of ventral vagal activation, our heart rate slows, our blood pressure decreases, and our defences are lowered, leading to a calm and regulated state. In the therapeutic setting, this state of being "available" both physically and mentally allows for change to occur, where there is less or no resistance.

The dorsal vagus responds to extreme danger by shutting down non-essential functions, such as digestion, in order to promote survival. This is an innate survival mechanism that has been developed over time.

The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP)

Our nervous system includes sensory pathways that help us interpret our environment. The way we process sensory input affects our ability to think, learn, and communicate with others. Individuals who have differences in sensory processing may feel isolated and have difficulty socializing, making friends, and finding happiness. As a result, they may be less receptive to therapy. However, the good news is that our brain and nervous system are plastic, and we can rewire our sensory pathways to become more flexible with specific input, such as vagus nerve stimulation, through listening therapies like Dr Stephen Porges' Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP). With this therapy, we can rewire how our brain interprets threats and cues of safety, leading to better processing and response to our environment.

Brain activity is stimulated through the auditory neural network and can be activated by sound vibrations, much like a massage affects the muscles of the body. This activation includes a branch of the vagus nerve, which sends signals to our nervous system to relax and release tension, resulting in improved brain and body functions.

Therapies that utilize sound, such as the Safe and Sound Protocol, work by influencing the nervous system through the auditory portal. The SSP, in particular, is an evidence-based therapy, which trains the middle ear muscles to tune into safety cues signalled by frequencies in the human voice. It also stimulates the social engagement system via the neural network associated with listening and following hierarchical recruitment of the autonomic nervous system.

Clinical studies


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