Hara Meetings-healing trauma

“Safety modulates our ability to develop secure attachments. Whether an individual feels safe with people during early development might modulate individual differences in vulnerability to trauma.”

 

The Quest for Safety in a Dangerous World

Powerful changes are possible if social be-haviour has the opportunity to promote a sense of safety. Effective social interactions may actively dampen defence systems and, when defence is down-regulated, our physio- logical state provides neural opportunities for us to learn and to form strong social bonds while simultaneously supporting health, growth and restoration.

One way to get people back out of dissociation, aka freeze — aka trauma — says Porges, is to surround them with friendly mammals, and stimulate their mammalian social engagement systems to come back on line.  He gives the fascinating example of play.

“Real play, is not playing with a ‘Game Boy’ or computer; it is not solitary,” Porges says. “Play requires social interaction  using face-to-face. ”  Notice how the two dogs above are looking each other in the eye.

Polyvagal Theory also shows that our nervous system just does these things – trauma is simply not a voluntary decision.  “Outside the realm of our conscious awareness, our nervous system is continuously evaluating risk in the environment,” and shoving us into bodily actions that are just not subject to thought, Porges shows.

Mindfulness requires feeling safe because if we don’t feel safe, we are, in a sense, neuro-physiologically evaluative of our setting which means we can’t be safe, and we can’t engage.  We can’t recruit the wonderful neural circuits that enable us to express the wonderful aspects of being human.  So if we are able to create safe environments,” starting with clinicians who make us feel respected and safe, “we have access to neural circuits that enable us to be social, to learn, and to feel good.”

Once the professionals accept reality, next traumatees can start to respect themselves, and stop judging and evaluating themselves negatively – usually for the first time since the trauma hit them.

That creates a “mammal to mammal” social engagement state inside the traumatized person, where their internal voices are kind and compassionate to them, rather than self-condemning as is the norm in traumatees.

As our Clinical Director, Dr Charles Hallings-Pott, puts it:-

“once the work is in process therapists are looking for signs that the client has completed the uncompleted, the parasympathetic nervous system has started to kick in, and the body’s natural recovery system, as exemplified by a big sigh of relief, is back on line”

Huge relevance for therapists

So what is fascinating for the world of therapeutic intervention is that the Polyvagal theory explains how human interaction, and the right sort of therapeutic intervention (that takes our physiological state into consideration) encourages us to turn off the Sympathetic (fight and flight) response and allows us to feel safe.

Hara meetings create a safe space.

It is a constantly evolving process. The process needs safety itself and in so doing allows for more safety to emerge.

“Safety is a powerful metaphor… And it is a metaphor that carries with it a physiological state. So if we feel safe, we have access to the neural regulation of the facial muscles, we have access to a myelinated vagal circuit that is capable of down regulating more traditional fight/flight and stress responses, and we have an opportunity to play … An inability to play is a frequent characteristic of many individuals with a psychiatric diagnosis. And what I mean by play, is not playing with a Game Boy or computer. Instead it requires social interaction. Play requires an ability to mobilize with the sympathetic nervous system and then to down-regulate the sympathetic excitation with face-to-face social interaction and the social engagement system” Stephen Porges.

 

The Quest for Safety in a Dangerous World

Powerful changes are possible if social be-haviour has the opportunity to promote a sense of safety. Effective social interactions may actively dampen defence systems and, when defence is down-regulated, our physio- logical state provides neural opportunities for us to learn and to form strong social bonds while simultaneously supporting health, growth and restoration.

 

This paper introduces Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 1995, 2001,2007, 2009, 2011) as an innovative model that links the mechanisms mediating feelings of safety to social behaviour and health. Polyvagal Theory helps us understand how cues of risk and safety, which are continuously monitored by our nervous system, influence our physiological and be- havioural states. The theory emphasises that humans are on a quest to calm neural defence systems by detecting features of safety.

The theory emphasises both the importance of safety cues emerging from reciprocal social interactions that dampen defence, and how these cues can be distorted or optimised by environmental and bodily cues.

Perhaps the most familiar expres- sion of the biological imperative for survival is ‘survival of the fittest’, which Darwin (1859) used to describe the mech- anism of natural selection. Most interpretations of ‘fittest’ as applied to mammalian evolution tend to emphasise ag- gressive strategies. However, there are alternative interpre- tations, such as Dobzhansky’s proposal that ‘the fittest may also be the gentlest, because survival often requires mutual help and cooperation’ (Dobzhansky, 1962).

This face–heart con- nection forms an integrated Social Engagement System that provides and senses signals of safety.

As a neural process, neuroception enables humans and other mammals to engage in social behaviours by distin- guishing safe from dangerous contexts. Neuroception is a plausible mechanism mediating both the expression and the disruption of positive social behaviour, emotion reg- ulation and visceral homeostasis.

Thus, the neuroception of familiar individuals and individ- uals with appropriately prosodic voices and warm expressive faces translates into a social interaction that down-regulates defence and enables feelings of safety.

Optimally, the nervous system evaluates risk and matches neurophysiological state with the actual risk of the environ- ment. When the environment is appraised as being safe, the defensive limbic structures are inhibited, enabling social en- gagement and calm visceral states to emerge. However, some individuals, especially children who experience trauma and abuse, experience a mismatch; the nervous system appraises the environment as dangerous even when it is safe. This mismatch results in physiological states that support de- fensive strategies (i.e., fight–flight or immobilisation), but not social engagement. According to Polyvagal Theory, only when defence circuits are inhibited can social communica- tion be expressed efficiently through the Social Engagement System.

Social Communication for Co-regulation

Environmental cues that elicit feelings of safety have the potential to recruit the evolutionarily more advanced neu- ral circuits (e.g., ventral vagal pathways) that support the

prosocial behaviours of the Social Engagement System. For example, a mother’s voice has the capacity to sooth her infant. As the infant listens to the mother’s melodic vocali- sations, ‘feature’ detectors in the infant’s brain interpret the voice as reflecting the mother’s state as calm and her pres- ence as safe and supportive.

The features of risk in the environment do not solely drive neuroception. Afferent feedback from the viscera provides a major mediator of the accessibility of prosocial circuits associated with social engagement behaviours. For exam- ple, Polyvagal Theory predicts that states of mobilisation compromise our ability to detect positive social cues. Func- tionally, visceral states distort or colour our perception of others. Thus, the features of a person engaging another may result in a range of ‘neuroceptive’ outcomes, depending on the physiological state of the target individual. If the person being engaged is in a state in which the Social Engagement System is easily accessible, a reciprocal prosocial interaction is likely to occur. However, if the individual is in a state of mobilisation, the same engaging response might be re- sponded to with asocial features of withdrawal or aggression. In such a state, it might be difficult to dampen the mobil- isation circuit to enable the Social Engagement System to come back on line.

The emergence of the Social Engagement System pro- vides humans with the opportunity to use social behaviour to co-regulate physiological state and to symbiotically ex- perience a biobehavioural state of safety. It is during this mutually shared state of feeling safe that the expansive ca- pacities of the human experience can be optimised. The Social Engagement System functions as a bidirectional con- duit between the sensory cues from others and the motor systems that express the products of our thoughts and feel- ings. Although this conduit of connectedness can efficiently down-regulate defensive physiological states through the potent features of voice and face, the conduit is vulnerable to the diffuse and potent sensory stimuli coming from our bodily organs. Thus, engagement behaviours may be rela- tively inefficient in calming when directed at an individual who is in a physiological state that supports defence. Under these conditions facial expressions and syntax may be mis- interpreted and, instead of calming, may elicit aggression.

Polyvagal Theory is an innovative model that links the mechanisms mediating feelings of safety to social behaviour and health. It helps us understand how cues of risk and safety, which are continuously monitored by our nervous system (neuroception), influence our physiological and be- havioural states. The theory emphasises that humans are on

a quest to calm neural defence systems by detecting features of safety. This quest is initiated at birth when the infant needs for soothing are dependent on the mother. The quest continues throughout the lifespan, with needs for trusting friendships and loving partnerships. This quest forms the motivation to develop social relationships that enable part- ners to effectively co-regulate each other.