How does the Safe and Sound Protocol grant us powerful connections and love?
Written by Kianna Morgan, a therapist in training and MSW student. Kianna is passionate about trauma-informed practices and enjoys writing as a way to share empowering information with people suffering from trauma and chronic stress.
So, what is the Safe and Sound Protocol?
The Safe and Sound Protocol, or SSP, is a non-invasive application of the Polyvagal Theory
involving listening to specially filtered music. Dr. Stephen Porges, developed the SSP based on his decades of research that lead to the development of the polyvagal theory.
The specially filtered music stimulates the middle ear muscles in a unique way that helps re-regulate the Social Engagement nervous system via a complex of cranial nerves. These nerves help regulate our state of autonomic arousal. The SSP has proven results with emotional regulation, behavioral organization, and hearing sensitivity and listening.
How does the Safe and Sound Protocol tie in with the Polyvagal theory?
To best understand how the SPP works, let’s begin with a review of the polyvagal theory which focuses on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the role of the vagus nerve in autonomic regulation.
The ANS has two branches: the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The vagus nerve, our 10th cranial nerve, is the primary component of the PNS and also has two branches: the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC) and the Dorsal Vagal Complex (DVC).
The vagus nerve winds its way from our brainstem down to our gut. It innervates our heart, lungs, and organs as it cascades down. The vagus communicates to our brain, letting it know the activity level of our organs. The brain then determines if that activity means we are safe or in threat.
If we are in threat, then the body has a few different ways that it can respond. These responses happen autonomically. Where our thinking brain takes a bit of time to process and develop a response, the ANS is like a supercomputer that swoops in and takes over. This is an adaptive response that helps us survive. With that said, we can get stuck in these responses and end up feeling like we’re living in a threatened state all the time.
In the face of a threat, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) arouses our body and prepares it for fight or flight. Getting stuck in SNS activation doesn’t mean we are always throwing punches or running away. This could manifest a wide variety of ways like avoiding someone (flight) or using aggressive language (fight).
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) provides an alternative response to a threat, which is to freeze. The freeze state comes out of the vagus nerve, specifically the Dorsal Vagal Complex. This response could manifest as numbing, dissociation, disconnection or shutdown. Normally a freeze would occur in situations where the SNS can not sufficiently resolve the threat. However, some folks are primed to rely on the PNS because of prior trauma.
Another feature of a threat response from the ANS is a change in the middle ear, which is also innervated by the vagus nerve. The middle ear attunes to hear certain frequencies based on whether we are safe or not. When we are threatened the middle ear attunes to hear lower frequencies. This allows us to vigilantly track our surroundings and tune out human voices.
Interestingly, the PNS is also the part of our nervous system that is active when we are safe. This too comes from the vagus nerve, but this time it's related to the Ventral Vagal Complex (VVC). When the VVC is activated we are able to experience connection (to self and others), feel curious, settle into calm, and the middle ear attunes to pick up pitches that are more aligned with the range of the human voice. This allows us to listen and connect with others, which is not only dependent on safety but actually helps to promote safety too!
An important feature of the VVC is that it can also be activated through stimuli that promote feelings of safety. Some things that activate the VVC are: lengthened exhales, social engagement, rhythmic movement and specific sound frequencies. Imagine the way you might feel sitting in a rocking chair and humming to yourself on a sunny day.
How do I get to social engagement with the help of the Safe and Sound Protocol and connect with others?
Living with a chronically activated nervous system, like those with PTSD, ADD, autism, and trauma histories, may lead to difficulty holding a conversation because you’re constantly distracted by the noises around you. Rather than attuning to that person, your body is attuned to potential threats and actively trying to keep you safe. While that is useful and important during actual threats, it limits our ability to make and maintain relationships if we are always operating with this level of arousal.
The good news is that we know the VVC can be activated through stimuli that promote feelings of safety. By playing filtered music with specific sound frequencies that communicate safety to the body, the SSP works directly with the ANS helping it down-regulate. The result is similar to the soothing effect of a parent cooing to their baby.
As you listen to the SSP your body will start to come out of it’s fight, flight or freeze response and settle into the VVC. It is in the VVC that we best connect to self and others. We can listen, empathize, support and be a safe companion for our loved ones.
How can the Safe and Sound Protocol make me more approachable?
Think of a person in your life that seems to light up the room and naturally draws people to them. Their warm facial expressions, easy eye contact, relaxed body, and tone of voice project signals of safety. These signals act as welcoming invitations to other nervous systems.
Because we all have the ability to sense these signals of safety, or lack thereof, our nervous system will play a primary role in deciding who we interact with and how. You may find yourself feeling less available for relating to someone who doesn’t give off these signals versus someone your body can relax around because they feel safe.
If we are living with a dysregulated nervous system, it can flatten our facial expressiveness, make our voice less warm and limit our ability to express welcoming social cues. Luckily, tools like the SSP can help us re-tune our social engagement system and make us more available for connection. When we’re safe, we don’t have to pretend to be welcoming, we are welcoming to others.
How does the Safe and Sound Protocol help my body and decrease my physical symptoms?
When we are stuck with the defensive responses of our ANS, our whole body is activated. As a result our systems get taxed and we can develop symptoms like chronic pain, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep issues, compromised immunity and more.
These physical symptoms can start to resolve by regulating our ANS, which the SSP does by activating our VVC. When our nervous system can down regulate out of a threat response every other system in our body gets a break. For example, with a regulated ANS you’re no longer over-taxing your adrenals, walking around with tight muscles, or breathing shallowly. What a relief!
Red Beard Bodywork has a team of therapists that support you on your healing journey through sound and trauma informed practices
At Red Beard Bodywork we will create a safe holding space for you to calm your nervous system through sound. We strive to support you on your healing journey following toxic stress, illness, and trauma.
Our Safe and Sound Protocol Providers are dedicated to walk along your path of healing with you. Book with us now to begin your healing journey.