Nourish Your Nervous System NOW

Interview with Stephen Porges


An infographic of six tips to nourish your nervous system now - games, internet calls, singing, yoga, bubbles and breathing. 6 cartoons illustrate each point. By Virginia Spielmann and Stephen Porges


Interview Transcript

Virginia: "I'm so excited today to be talking to Dr. Stephen Porges who is a hero, I know for many of us in the Star community, and the pioneer of Polyvagal theory and also a wonderful communicator and a very generous spirit. Dr. Porges has agreed to just talk to us today about some really concrete ideas that we can use while we're at the in the stay at home / stuck at home period with our families to help co-regulate each other. So we're going to just give one or two really concrete ideas around this idea of regulation and co-regulation. Is there a really simple way that you would explain what that means?"

Dr. Porges: "Well I would actually go back and deal with the actual crisis that we're dealing with now. Let's talk a few moments about that and why people feel so uncomfortable or dysregulated during this situation. The first point is that we're in a period of time where things are unpredictable and this notion of unpredictability is really devastating to how our nervous system works. Our nervous system likes predictability as a metaphor for its own safety, so it's a system that looks for expectancy and when we violate that expectancy - which is happening now - we get kind of upset. Our body goes into a hyper-vigilance or defense mode and that would be the best part of it, the worst part is that it would cause dissociation or shut down. Because if we're not getting cues of safety our body adaptively reacts so we're in this world in which there is a violation of our desire for a expectancy of safety but we're also in a world in which our normal ways of co-regulating are being violated by the mandates to stay healthy. So we're being told to stay healthy by being isolated, but our body says we get healthy by co-regulating with others so we're in a basically an argument with our bodily feelings - our neural expectancy to be hugged, to co-regulate with another - with a mandate saying that if you touch people they may be infected and if they're infected, you may be infected. We need to understand that this is two different aspects of our body's needs one is survival, which is to really prioritize the vulnerability and the importance of getting infected by Covid19, but the other one is to be extraordinarily respectful of what our nervous system craves and to be able to give your nervous system those functions, or those needs. That nourishment through appropriate channels. So at this moment let's talk about if you are in the family and you're self contained or self quarantined there's nothing wrong with giving people hugs or embracing, but also understanding that reciprocal behaviors are really how we as a species co-regulate. So it doesn't always have to be I'm hugging you but it can be a little bit of hide-and-seek, a little bit of peekaboo, a little bit of disruptions of expectancy within safety, within the network of a safe environment - becomes humor and game play. So functionally playing games whether they're moving games or even board games are neural exercises for our system. So our body needs this dyadic interaction and we need to create the platforms for that.

The second important aspect of this is for many people as we get older or our portal in this time in this crisis, our portal for social interaction is through the internet and the internet has its limitations but it is a unusually rich tool during this crisis. Something that we've never had, as I said we talked about generations and time. Where we can talk as we are now and if we are mindful in our interaction, and that means literally if we're doing aspects of what might be called embodied viewing or embodied listening, we pick up each other's cues as we attend to the cues we become in a shared space. We literally are sharing the moment together and that sharing the moment together is co-regulation. But for most of us we've use video conferencing in the past as something that was casual and trivial and we never attended to the person's facial expressivity, the intonation of their voice, we were really using it for meetings to get information. Our bodies don't really give a shit, don't really care about the information - the information that it really wants is "are you there? are you present in my life? are you giving me the cues my body craves?". Not that you're telling me things that I should do or shouldn't do but "are you there with me?". So we have to start using the internet and video conferencing as this portal of shared moments and what this means is that we may merely to sit and stare at each other video conferencing rather than talking and nod and smile and be engaged.

You brought up some other things that were very important before we started to tape and that is using karaoke or singing and we want to understand why that is so important. When we sing we are extending the duration of our exhalation, we're breathing out. That's how the sounds go just like playing an instrument and when we breathe out that type of breathing has a calming effect on our body it down-regulates our sympathetic nervous system which is being recruited during periods of threat into a mobilize or a fight flight system. It down regulates it and still then uses the sympathetic for feelings of exuberance and joy. So when you do karaoke or you sing you often feel energized - with a smile. I've just energized with anxiety to get out of the space but energized with exuberance. So: vocalizations, talking, listening, embodied listening, singing - these are wonderful exercises. If you have musical instruments they are great. I have a strong bias for wind instruments because I was a wind instrument player myself and I talked about the exhalation when you play musical tones. I was a clarinetist and that it really was a form of yoga, pranayama yoga with your breath, and whenever I would give this type of talk someone would come up to me and they would be a keyboard player or a string player or percussionist and they would argue with me and they'd say "no it's not just the winds we all breathe like that while we're in the music". So it's that moment, that shared moment which includes the breath. So we have to keep understanding that we have a toolkit that we evolved that enables us to regulate. That could be our breathing methods.

Virginia: "That's just, that was so rich and such a wonderful answer and I think there's some really simple things that we can be encouraging our communities to do and so the first thing - and I was taking notes - was reciprocal games and playful games like peekaboo, hide-and-seek. And I think importantly really playing those games mindfully so fully present as we play those games. Not not cooking at the same time and keeping one ear on the on what's going on in the kitchen putting our phones aside but really playing together. That's gonna look after our health and well-being during this time of uncertainty."

Dr. Porges: "I think you really hit the most important point and that is being present and doing something mindful. Is the focusing you're there and we were even talking about that before that when you're on videoconferencing, if you're mindful about the about being in the present with the other person the richness of the interaction changes it becomes fuller and you now become a true co-regulator. And when we play if we're mindful of the play we are role reversing, just think about the power of that, role reversing is that healthy nervous system because it's not only monitoring its own feelings it's detecting the intentionality of others. So that's how we roll reverse. So this is very important."

Virginia: "I love that and then I think about you know how we're gonna reset our expectations on these zoom calls and Skype calls and I'm thinking something concrete that I probably need to do is have some different environmental cues that this isn't a work call for me right now. This is a social connection call and it demands my full attention, because you're right I totally do three things at once on a business zoom call but with a friend or a family member it requires something very different and a different type of energy."

Dr. Porges: "I agree and it's one of the reasons I actually enjoy doing these types of things because when I do them it's all I'm doing at that moment. So it actually structures me sufficiently to be totally present because if I'm not totally present I can't track, I can't anticipate I can't literally choreograph what I want to say."

Virginia: "You're also a very comforting person to talk to you but I am finding myself feeling calmer as we have this conversation and it's been a frantic few days - so I can I can resonate with that very much right now."

Dr. Porges: "Well, well thank you because what you start seeing is as you start feeling better, I start feeling better, because

that's the whole idea behind co-regulation - we are detecting other people's feelings and intentions outside of our awareness. In my model I call that interoception and it takes the responsibility away of saying "oh I didn't perceive that I missed that" but as your body is responding as you become more mindful of your bodily responses, more present, you feel the other person and this is a true reaction and we need to be more embodied. That enables us to detect the intentions and the feelings of others."

Virginia: "We get really excited about that word at STAR because we think embodiment requires awareness of sensory processing."

Dr. Porges: "Well let me reframe that from my perspective because I would say it's respectful of sensory processes. So if we start ... because we especially you're dealing with populations that are hypersensitive. If we're hypersensitive and we can't be in crowds or groups of people we start to think of ourselves as being disabled or compromised but if we are respectful of our uniquenesses we say "how can i navigate through this world? how can I adjust?" I'm reading my bodily cues - my body goes into this reaction and I get more mobilized - my sensory systems are going to be now more likely triggered. So so the physiological state of mobilization, or anxiety as many people experience it, it's going to change those sensory thresholds so that if I can calm my body those same sensory stimuli may not disrupt me as much or for as long."

Virginia: "That's brilliant; and then so thinking about some ... you know singing is something I told you I do with my family and we play karaoke. We sing karaoke as a family and actually find a great sense of connection in that and we're horrible singers all of us. For our young young kids or our members of our community who can't engage in activities like that something very simple like blowing bubbles."

Dr. Porges: "Yeah well I think about blowing bubbles, because that's exhalation. It has expectancy and you can violate the expectancy by breaking the bubbles and often kids kind of smile when the bubbles break because you know they watch them float and then they break. So it's a violation but the violation is within a confined area - that's where humor comes - so that violation is not disruptive."

Virginia: "Yeah it's got that sort of anticipation of a hide and seek game."

Dr. Porges: "Yeah, yeah."

Virginia: "That's great, that's wonderful so you've just given us some really concrete things that we can do to look after ourselves and each other. I liked as well you mentioned yoga I think if ever you were gonna do yoga as a family now would be the time."

Dr. Porges: "Yeah I would also start emphasizing that one of the most powerful toolkits that we have in our lives is how-when we breathe. And when we, when we move our breath higher into our chest in basically huff and puff we mobilize our body. We basically express the threat that's bothering us but as we slow our breathing down and we exhale slower our body calms down. So we have to understand this tight linkage between breathing and our physiological state and the exciting portal that breathing gives us. It enables us, with an intention, to shift our physiology to calm our bodies down. So as a family doing some breathing exercises provides this resource and gives a child, it gives a family some tools just in case you start getting a little bit anxious or uncertain. The term I use is "take your body, move your body into a safe quiet place through a little breathing or breathing with a group. So it's being aware that your body shifting state - that's through your own embodiment - acknowledge that when your body shift state they your threshold to the sensory domains are gonna be very different. You're going to be over reactive to situations and you're going to be misinterpreted because people will see you much more negatively. So the point is that when your body goes into a state of anxiety or immobilization the facial effect - the way your face shows - is different and now people don't feel safe with you and you're really basically broadcasting your anxiety into their bodies and you're seeing it reflected at you. But being in the physiological state that you're in you see it in reverse you think they're the ones that are the ones creating the anxiety.

Virginia: "Right and then so if we're doing that with our kids - I love what you said about do it, so we're doing it when when we're okay, we're practicing that kind of intentional breath when we're okay. And when when starting to feel like maybe things aren't okay anymore we're not demanding a return to that state but we're observing there's a change and so we might make those kind of statements like "I'm noticing that maybe your body is feeling a bit different" and we're gonna remind our young people "remember when we did that breathing thing - let's do that deep breathing again."

Dr. Porges: "Yeah you can do some things, also because when you say remember when your body felt that way sometimes people - the kid - will feel evaluated okay so you might be use a distracting model. Saying let's blow some bubbles or let's go to a quieter space in the house - let's reduce the activity around you or let's turn the TV off for a moment and let's try something else. You could say well the TV and the music it's distracting me and I really can't be the supportive mom that I'd like to be. So you talk about your vulnerabilities and not in a sense blame the child. Because many children with these challenges feel that they're being evaluated all the time and what we really have to get into our hearts and souls is that most children, regardless of their challenges are good kids. They really want to be, they want to do good stuff so and they've become very sensitive to the evaluation. Because the evaluation is criticism to their nervous system and triggers defense and we want the nervous system to be more welcoming and accessible and it can't be that way if it's in states of vulnerability or defense."

Virginia: "Wonderful, wonderful thank you so much for your time today.

Dr. Porges: "Oh you're quite welcome Virginia and wishing you the best in is complex period of time and let's see what we will all learn from this and whether the problems will be transformed by our experiences. There are things that people already learning - they're learning that the most important thing happens to be their connectedness and relationships with other people and I think that is a wonderful wonderful product of something that could be viewed as very chaotic and disruptive to the world."

Virginia: "There's absolutely that hope that we can hold on to. I love that thank you so much."

Dr. Porges: "You're welcome good talking to you."

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