The New Science of Safety
Taming Your Inner Lizard
The Second of Six
By Michael Westgate, NMT
In my first installment in this series I shared how, after decades of searching for answers to my health challenges, I finally found treatment methods that significantly reduced my longtime suffering from anxiety, depression and autoimmune disease. Dr. Steven Porges’ Polyvagal Theory is the basis for these treatment methods. I introduced the basics of his theory by sharing with you the “History and Science of Safety.” This theory is a new and more complete understanding of how our nervous system states affect our health. Dr. Porges’ research shows us that there are two modes that we switch into depending on how our nervous system perceives our environment: The Fear (lizard) mode and the Safety (mammal) mode.
Fear (lizard) mode describes our “lizard brain,” which turns on when we feel threatened. When this switches on, we only care about personal preservation and survival. Being stuck in this mode for extended periods causes many health problems.
Safety (mammal) mode describes part of our nervous system that is a relatively recent add-on and allows for social, cooperation, creativity, deep learning, compassion and deep states of relaxation and restoration. It is also called the Social Nervous System. When this mode turns on, it suppresses the self-centered, aggressive lizard brain, making it possible to act “civilized.”
I now want to describe in more detail what caused me to become stuck in lizard mode, the effects of this mode on my health, and what I did to activate feelings of safety to become healthy.
How the trouble starts
The real trouble starts when this social nervous system becomes damaged from childhood trauma, neglect or long-term abuse as well as trauma that can occur as an adult.
Common causes of trauma:
- Traumatic brain injury
- Medical procedures
- Sustained contact with abusive/toxic people
- Loss of a loved one without social support
- Overexposure to negative media, etc.
- Horrors of war
When trauma is experienced and not sufficiently dealt with, the individual is unable to access feelings of safety and will likely continue to perceive the world as a dangerous place. This condition will cause them to act aggressively and defensively. Sympathetic flight/flight or collapse (freezing and playing dead) may then lead to depression and lethargy and will often perpetually switch back and forth between these two states.
People who are stuck in freeze mode are the most difficult to help. The nervous system of an individual in freeze mode perceives an environment filled with the risk of imminent death. They are therefore not inclined to risk changes of any kind since it’s better to be uncomfortable than risk dying.
In this article, I’ll be referring to both these states collectively as “lizard mode.” Being stuck, for long periods, in this state of perpetual fear can lead to a wide variety of health challenges. Additionally, people who experience this tend to be very socially disruptive. They are not able to live in synch with other people and can, just like a lizard, have little empathy for the harm they cause others.
Known diagnoses associated with the fear (lizard) mode include:
- Psychiatric disorders
- Bipolar disorder
- Learning disorders
- Autoimmune disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type 1 diabetes
- Celiac disease
- Other medical conditions
- Digestive disorders
- Heart disease
How my social nervous system became damaged:
Both my parents and grandparents had histories concerning traumatic events. My dad’s mother suffered physical and psychological abuse by the hands of her first husband. When she tried to flee England to the United States with her son to escape the abuse, the authorities apprehended her and took her son away. For reasons that are not clear, she was not allowed to see her son after that. In the 1920s England’s laws favored the father over the mother in most custody disputes.
My father was her second child by her second husband. He grew up in southern England and was six years old when WW II broke out. His experiences during the war included having one of the V-1 rockets (the first cruise missiles) explode near his home. My father was about to take a bath when the rocket exploded, blowing out all the windows on one side of the house. The bathroom window shattered, spraying shards of glass into the tub just before he entered the bathroom. My grandma was hysterical and didn’t insist on him bathing for quite a while after that.
From the left, my dad’s mother, my mom’s father and my parents just after they were married
Perhaps due to these emotional traumas, I experienced my father as incapable of anticipating the needs of others. I perceived him as being overwhelmed and irritated by any form of emotional communication. He was perpetually in his own world and seemed to lack the ability to empathize with other people, especially my brother and me. One time when I was twelve, we had an infestation of fleas in our apartment, and I complained to my father that they were biting me all over my body. His response was “they’re not bothering me.”
My mother was a surprise to her parents. My grandfather was 50, and my grandmother was 40 when she was born. All was well until my mother’s first birthday when my grandmother suffered a massive stroke and died. My grandfather was overwhelmed by the prospect of caring for an infant on his own, so he moved back in with his widowed mother. Being in her 80s already and not a particularly affectionate person, my great grandmother did her best but was not able to properly care for my mother.
After six years my great grandmother became too tired to keep up with a seven-year-old, so my grandfather placed her in a home for children who had been orphaned or had lost a parent (typically the mother). This caretaker also had a history of trauma and subjected my mother to emotional and psychological abuse. Due to these experiences, my mother has had a lifetime of anxiety and depression, addiction to drugs, and an inability to function in life at a basic level.
I can’t recall my mother ever showing physical or verbal affection to my brother or me. For as long as I can remember, rather than act like a parent, she tried to be our friend and would share personal details of her life that should have been for adult ears only. She would rely on us to soothe her when she felt overwhelmed or upset. Her life has always consisted of routines that, if interrupted, sent her into a flurry of panic and verbal attacks against whoever or whatever disturbed her fragile universe. She was and still is nearly incapable of adjusting to anyone else’s needs.
From the left, my brother, me and our mother in the mid-1970s
My parents’ coping strategies resulted in a family experience where my basic needs of food, shelter, and affection were unmet. Healthy personal boundaries were not respected, and any complaints about the above conditions would result in stonewalling, hysteria, or withdrawal and emotional withholding.
As a child, I started grinding my teeth at night and was prone to panic and anxiety attacks and depression. I had trouble focusing on my school work. I had frequent attacks of stomach pain and various problems with digestion. Transitions of any kind would send me into panic attacks and at age eleven suicidal thoughts began to emerge. In 2006 I was diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune condition likely triggered by my history of social nervous system stress. In 2011 I was diagnosed with complex PTSD.
How society challenges self-regulation
Our western culture puts much emphasis on individualism and the ability to “handle ourselves” without any help from anyone else. Some people often say, “I’m independent; I don’t need anyone else to make me happy.” However, that was not the case for me. For years I felt terrible that I wasn’t “ok on my own.” A spiritual teacher even told me that this was because I was acting out and refusing to take responsibility for myself. Other people accused me of being needy.
The reality was that I didn’t have a stable social network. My parents were not people I could count on, and I had trouble staying connected to friends due to my fear of being vulnerable. I lacked healthy role models. I felt ashamed that I was so “damaged” and didn’t believe I deserved love and kindness from people who were willing to offer support. Our culture promotes this “I’m ok on my own” narrative in television series, self-help books, and movies which further exacerbated my feelings of being defective and since I felt ashamed of myself I began to self isolate.
These societal attitudes of individualism and independence run counter to what the science of safety teaches us. Dr. Porges explains that we are not so much self-regulators as co-regulators. Our social nervous systems connect like a social world-wide-web. We need other people to activate and maintain feelings of safety. We also need other people to help us re-activate feelings of safety to get our social nervous system back online.
For the most part, people who are at ease with themselves have a secure social network and were more likely to have grown up in a family that practiced healthy social nervous system behaviors. Dr. Porges stated in one interview, “You can only be as regulated as the people you interact with on a daily basis.”
He emphasizes that we have a much more profound impact on each other’s feelings of well-being than we realize. Recent studies have backed Dr. Porges’ emphasis on the impact of the quality of our social connections on our health, stating that social isolation or perceived social isolation is more deadly than smoking, lack of exercise, and poor food choices combined. Also, the current data on communities where people regularly live to be over a hundred years old shows that their strong social networks are a significant factor in their longevity.
New studies claim that loneliness is deadlier to your health than smoking.
Studies and discussions on the topic of social isolation include:
Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults
Social isolation, loneliness could be a more significant threat to public health than obesity
What to know about loneliness, and why public health professionals are taking note
In the two years since finding this research, I have made consistent efforts to strengthen my social network. These efforts include maintaining connections and even rekindling past relationships. Over time, my network has grown and become more vibrant, and my feelings of isolation are subsiding.
How the social nervous system shuts down
Let’s look at how quickly your social nervous system can be shut down. Think back to the last upsetting interaction you had with a stranger. Maybe a person cut you off on the freeway or bumped into you on the street, causing you to drop your coffee. Were those interactions followed by the offending person giving you the bird or turning away from you with a dismissive attitude? These are a couple of prime examples that can cause your social nervous system to tank and go offline.
Signals of aggression from other people can wake up your inner lizard.
When something like this happens, the activation of your lizard brain causes a big spike in your stress level. In such moments, your feeling of safety disappears, and your urge to act violently can spike. In some cases, you may act without thinking, with regrettable consequences.
The lizard brain in intimate relationships
Now think of the last time you had a conflict with someone close to you, such as your spouse, parent or sibling. If one or both of you acted aggressively, rather than giving signs of safety to each other, what ensued was a festival of lizard behavior. In lizard mode, the brain alters our ability to hear certain sounds, including elements of human speech. Our heart races and our movements can become jerky and uncoordinated. We often feel like the world is falling down around us.
My home life was indeed filled with lizard behavior, and as a result, I always felt on edge. Rather than give my brother and me signs of affection and acceptance as a regular part of our interaction, we only got these signals if we did exactly what our parents wanted. The neglect would intensify if we didn’t cater to them. One time when I was about 10 years old, I was upset with my dad because there wasn’t any food in the house. I bugged him for weeks to buy more groceries, but he responded with silence and emotional withdrawal. During times like these, I would go to my friends’ houses so I could be around people who were kind and responsive to me, and who fed me.
When conflicts occur with people closest to us, this is intensely felt because we are used to sharing the task of helping each other regulate. When this breaks down, it can cause tremendous anxiety. When our relationships appear to fall apart, this is why we often feel incomplete or very isolated for a while. In instances of people who have been happily married for decades, the death of a spouse can be so hard on the surviving partner that they often die soon after. A common statement is, “I just don’t feel whole without my other half.”
Dr. Porges says that the nerves of the face are neurologically connected to the lungs and heart. This means that when someone loses a loved one, the stress of that loss can cause his or her heart rhythm to change. Those are instances of literally “dying of a broken heart.”
How kindness affects the lizard brain
On the other hand, think about how you felt the last time a stranger stopped to help you lift something up a flight of stairs or smiled at you and said good morning. How did it make you feel? Most likely you had a boost of energy and felt that your day was going well. In turn, you may have felt more likely to act kindly toward someone else.
Acts of kindness wake up feelings of safety for both parties.
Now think about the last time someone close to you did something that made you feel loved. Maybe they gave you a special gift, an acknowledgment by your boss about your excellent work, or a warm hug from a friend when you were feeling down. These experiences build the social nervous system. The social nervous system then builds up your immune system. The more often you have heartwarming experiences, the more resilient you become when faced with harmful stresses and traumas.
From age three to seven I lived with my parents in a commune in southern Oregon. Growing up here was like being raised in a tribe. The adults who were most suited to the task of child-rearing organically fell into this role. As a result, I had less contact with my lizard mode parents and was spared many of the adverse effects of spending isolated time with them. During these years all my basic needs were met, and I was very happy. It wasn’t until my father moved us to Ashland, Oregon, that my problems with depression and anxiety started.
Ashland, Oregon, is a small town near the California border. When we moved there in the early 1970s Ashland had a population of around 12,000 and was occupied primarily by down to earth working-class people, college students, and hippies.
Shortly after we moved here, I found that, at home, I couldn’t count on anyone to take care of me. Being used to the communal dynamic, I started seeking out people who were more caring. I found this help through my friends and their kindhearted families. There was a lot of community spirit filled with nonjudgmental open-hearted kindness.
I found refuge from my unhealthy home environment, and by the time I started high school, I had at least four families whom I knew I could count on for an open-armed welcome any time I needed a break from my home life. They treated me like one of their family and never made me feel like I was a burden. This environment of kindness and inclusion acted as a buffer against the stresses of my home life and gave me many happy memories. This sort of community kindness is a powerful example of behaviors that strengthen our social nervous system and act as a buffer against negative stress and trauma.
One of my adopted families, the Nicolas’s. My brother and I are on the bottom right.
Even with this support, I struggled with feelings of low self-esteem and shame, and I often felt like a mooch. It felt terrible that I had to go outside my home to get my basic needs met. When I moved away to college, I fell into the company of many toxic people and, lacking the support of a kindhearted community around me, depression, anxiety, and other health challenges flared up, and I experienced many decades of lonely struggle and heartbreak.
This video, “Life Vest Inside – Kindness Boomerang,” beautifully illustrates the ripple effect that acts of kindness can have on people. Scientific studies have shown that just watching acts of kindness can boost your immune system. I used this video as part of my recovery program by watching it multiple times a day for weeks. I encourage you to watch this video and pay attention to how you feel.
Common misconceptions regarding a healthy nervous system
Historically, we thought that lizard mode was “bad” and feeling safe was “good.” However, this is an old, incomplete model. Ideally, your nervous system needs to be agile enough and intelligent enough to turn on the most appropriate mode for whatever you experience.
When a truck is about to hit us in a crosswalk, and our lizard mode switches on and saves our lives, we should be grateful. If “rest and digest” were switched on instead, we would most likely end up seriously injured or even dead. There are also times when playing dead is our best chance of surviving an attack, since fighting back could result in greater injury or even death. When our social nervous system is damaged, our neuroception no longer works well and no longer serves our best interest.
People who have a healthy nervous system will be able to go into fight/flight or freeze mode, then as soon as the danger is gone, they will be able to switch back to safety mode. People who have compromised social nervous systems will have trouble switching out of fight/flight and freeze modes.
In the image below, you can see that the line that undulates between the dotted lines represents how a healthy nervous system responds to life’s ups and downs. There is a constant flow from excited to relaxed, but when a lightning strike (trauma) disrupts this flow, the nervous system starts to swing wildly from one extreme to another, never spending time in the normal balanced range. This disruption is especially dangerous since our neuroception triggers responses that are hard or even impossible to control. Keeping your social nervous system healthy is the best way to avoid losing control of yourself and doing things that can cause long term harm to yourself and others.
Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. created this image
It took me a long time to understand that a healthy nervous system flows from one nervous system state to another. When this concept finally sunk in, I was able to transform my health goals. I initially thought that the ultimate goal was to be “blissed out” all the time. I thought that “enlightened people” didn’t ever feel anger, fear, jealousy, resentment or envy and that I’d know that I was getting better when these negative thoughts and feelings never came into my mind.
I now know that facing and experiencing the full range of human feelings is what frees me from their control over my life. Being able to tolerate body sensations that arise from intense emotions is one of the foundational tools I learned that switched me from lizard mode to a mode of safety.
Your automatic responses aren’t logical
Another thing to keep in mind is that individual neuroception does not follow logic. The way each person interprets stimulus from his/her environment for safety and danger is entirely relative. One person’s trigger is not necessarily the same as someone else’s. It is entirely possible that one person’s hell is another person’s heaven. If you want to be successful when relating to others, it’s critical to stay aware of what puts another person into lizard mode. The stimulus might seem trivial to you, but it can be 100% real for someone else.
Let’s review what we just covered.
When experiences overwhelm us, and we don’t have the inner or outer resources to process them (trauma) our social nervous system can become damaged, and we cannot access feelings of safety. When we can’t access feelings of safety, for extended periods, a wide array of symptoms and health conditions ranging from psychological disorders to autoimmune disease can develop.
Situations that can damage our health include:
- Social Isolation
- Signals of rejection or aggression
Situations that can heal and/or strengthen our nervous system include:
- Acts of acceptance and inclusion
- Acts of compassion and kindness
A healthy nervous system adapts quickly to the environment meaning it can switch to the most effective mode in response to whatever challenges life presents.
In the next post, we will explore how our early interactions with our mothers shape our ability to adapt to stress and maintain healthy relationships.
Watch this space. In the meantime, let me know what you think.