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Stephen Porges on the Link Between Feeling Safe and Making Change

🕑 2 minutes read
Posted September 24, 2019

Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory has done more to improve our ability to heal and grow and thrive as a civilization than any other scientific breakthrough of the past 50 years.

Its advances over prior understandings of the human nervous system, psychology, and experiences of states like well-being, happiness, and love – are profound. Paradigm-shifting. And, unlike a lot of theory, incredibly practical and applicable to our everyday lives.

Stephen Porges, PhD, is a psychiatrist and researcher. His scholarly contributions include work in the following fields (and this is straight from the bio on his website) “anesthesiology, biomedical engineering, critical care medicine, ergonomics, exercise physiology, gerontology, neurology, neuroscience, obstetrics, pediatrics, psychiatry, psychology, psychometrics, space medicine, and substance abuse.”

The Polyvagal Theory could easily have gotten lost in that staggeringly eclectic body of work. For us laypeople, the description of the focus and scope of the theory doesn’t really capture its value and elegance: it “links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological state in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders.”

Say what?

I don’t want to spoil the interview for you by giving you the full theory here. But as a teaser, here’s what I was able to do for clients after studying Polyvagal Theory and learning, practicing, and developing coaching methodologies based on its principles:

  • help them understand their bewildering impulses to eat unhealthy food
  • assist them in moving out of “stuck” and hopeless states
  • empower them with simple daily exercises to unwind years and sometimes decades of trauma
  • show them that their emotional roller coasters of rage, depression, and anxiety are perfectly understandable and even lifesaving – allowing them to gently explore other, more currently appropriate responses to life
  • escape from the limitations of the cognitive-behavioral model of human functioning and find peace within their existing thought patterns
  • guide them to forge new behaviors, new habits, and new paths in a newfound and precious sense of safety

Polyvagal Theory corrects the “fight or flight” theory of stress and the autonomic nervous system, and shows us a way out of “stress reactions” without the need to disregard or override our body’s natural wisdom.

In our conversation, we explore the link between neurological assessments of safety (or lack thereof) in the environment, and our ability to make changes to our habits, behaviors, and lifestyles.

An added bonus: Dr. Porges is what my grandmother would have called a “mensch.” Yiddish for, among other things, a good person, a wise person, a kind person. And as with lots of words from the old traditions, the term conveys something more, something deeper. There’s a decency and humanity and humility and charm that he possesses and shares freely, and it’s infectious and calming.

Listen to Dr. Porges talk, and you become a better, more understanding person. Screw flight or invisibility; that’s a superpower worth having.

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