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The New Science of Safety, Taming Your Inner Lizard, Part 3 of 6

The New Science of Safety, Taming Your Inner Lizard, Part 3 of 6

The New Science of Safety

Taming Your Inner Lizard

The Third of Six


In the second installment in this series, I shared my family story and showed how their trauma made them incapable of adequately caring for my brother and me and which resulted in challenges concerning my social nervous system that led to my anxiety attacks, depression, and my autoimmune disease. I explored what caused me to become stuck in lizard mode, the effects of this mode on my health, and solutions I incorporated to activate my feelings of safety and return to health.


I explained that when we experience situations that overwhelm our inner resources we can become stuck in an endless cycle of stress (trauma), our social nervous system becomes damaged, and we can’t access feelings of safety. If this happens for an extended period, a wide array of symptoms and health conditions ranging from psychological disorders to autoimmune disease can develop.


Situations that can damage our health include:


  1. Trauma
  2. Social Isolation
  3. Signals of rejection or aggression


Situations that can heal and/or strengthen our nervous system include:


  1. Acts of acceptance and inclusion
  2. 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 challenge life presents.


I will now discuss how our social nervous system is affected by the quality of interaction with our parents during childhood and how this foundation can set us up for healthy function or serious challenges. Because I grew up with a mother and father who were in lizard mode (in my mom’s case, depression, and anxiety), this set me up for enormous challenges later in life. I will also discuss how an understanding of the fundamentals of healthy interaction with other people translates to strategies for switching out of lizard mode and living a happier and healthier life.


Ways to strengthen your social nervous system


This template is our foundation for the behavior that leads to co-regulation and eventually healthy self-regulation. Co-regulation refers to the social relationships and the way one can synchronize when interacting with another to maintain a regulated state. Historically, mammalian mothers and fathers train their infants’ nervous systems by offering a safe place for the infant to come to when he/she feels fear, followed by emotional coaching. Emotional coaching is a process defined by John Gottman Ph.D. where parents model healthy emotional habits and also coach their children in this skill.


The training starts as the infant learns to successfully tolerate stressful experiences.  They start with small things like walking away from their mothers for a few steps, being left with other adults and eventually starting grade school etc. With each success, the child healthfully ventures further out from their parent’s influence. They become emboldened by the knowledge that if anything goes wrong, they can come back to mom and dad—they will make it all better.


The forms of reassurance from the mother and father are prosodic voice tone (soothing, melodic words and sounds), friendly/caring facial and body expressions, and reassuring touch. Along with this reassurance, effective parents coach their children on how to relate to their feelings. Emotional coaching has five steps


  1. Parents noticing the child’s emotional shift when it is still subtle
  2. Seeing the child’s emotions as an opportunity for learning and deeper emotional intimacy
  3. Empathizing and validating the child’s feelings
  4. Helping them name the feelings
  5. Helping them come up with strategies for coping with these feelings while setting limits


This nervous system training is what helps develop an independent child with a high EQ (emotional intelligence) and eventually a well-balanced adult.




Science Nerd Corner:

Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer coined the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ in 1990 describing it as “a form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action”.


Porges explains that historically the majority of our imprinting for “co-regulation” comes from our mother. This training is critical to the development of a strong social nervous system. It manifests in the close contact and interaction with the mother and child. This dynamic of co-regulation is the foundation for “playing well with others.”


When a mother healthfully handles her stress, her child has room to feels safe.


Imagine a mother and infant interacting throughout a typical day. Let’s say the day started with both of them calm and connected after a good night’s rest. There is a rhythm of interaction between them that consists of verbal and facial queues. The mom smiles at the baby, and the baby smiles back; mom tickles the baby’s tummy, and the baby starts to giggle; the baby grabs mom’s finger and bites down (no teeth yet), and mom laughs.


Everything is humming along smoothly, and this back and forth continues with the social nervous system healthfully switched on. Then suddenly the baby’s finger accidentally pokes mom’s eye. Mom cries out in pain and pulls back, instantly disconnecting from her baby. The baby feels the change in his/her mother and becomes scared. At this point, both of their social nervous systems are turned off—and they both revert to lizard mode. The baby starts to cry, and mom feels overwhelmed trying to catch her composure. Suddenly that warm, safe feeling is gone.


After a minute or so, mom realizes that her child is upset, and she puts aside her reaction to the pain. She picks up her child and starts giving it soothing behavior, which includes speaking in a gentle voice, giving open, friendly facial and body expressions, and picking up and rocking and holding her baby.

When a mother is well regulated, it allows her child to build effective coping habits.


Because our social nervous system developed before complex speech, we are highly tuned to vocal tone, though not necessarily the specific words. Trying to use the right words to soothe someone who is upset is not nearly as important as getting yourself into a regulated state so that your voice tone (prosody) reflects a non-threatening presence.


These breakdowns train the infants’ nervous systems on how to recover from upsets and shocks later in life. These experiences give them the tools for repairing breaks with others. They also provide context for handling their distress in the interval between connection and repair. In a sense, this is a healthy social nervous system’s resistance training. Fairly early in the child’s development, he/she will mirror this behavior by soothing their mother with the same response. This behavior then becomes the basis of co-regulation.


So, keep in mind that as we adults navigate our nervous system, we share with others the essential components of connection and co-regulation as does an infant or a child:

  1. Voice tone (melodic, soothing tones = safety, high pitch or deep rumbling tones = predatory or enemy),
  2. Friendly, open facial expression and body language (fake smiles don’t work)
  3. Reassuring touch.


Poor modeling of regulation


If a mother’s social nervous system is not functioning well, she may not be a good model for her child. Without adequate co-regulation and self-regulation skills, the child may develop a wide range of challenges. Depending on the severity of the neglect or overt abuse, the child’s nervous system can become wired to survive in an environment that is hostile rather than safe. They may not even know what it would feel like to feel safe.


If a mother is overwhelmed too often, her child won’t learn how to handle stress effectively.


The problems that stem from this type of early experience can range from mental illness to autoimmune disease and perhaps an early death. This condition is known as developmental trauma and is one of the most challenging forms of trauma to treat.


When I reflect on my mother, what I see in my mind’s eye is a person with almost no tolerance for any stress. Even the most innocuous stimulus can still today send my mother into a panic attack. I remember as a teen how my mother would have meltdowns from things as necessary as answering the phone. She would screen every call through the answering machine, and if there were a need to take the call, she would recruit someone else to answer it, usually my stepfather. She was unable to remember what she wanted to say due to her intense anxiety. As a child, I remember my mother getting high, having sex with random men, and spending hours writing “positive affirmations” to deal with her stress. I quickly learned that when I was upset, I had to find someone else to help me or deal with it on my own.


The father’s role in his child’s nervous system development


Fathers are equally important in a child’s neuroception development, but historically since the mother had most of the contact with the child during the first five years or so, the foundational stages of development are in her hands. However, the quality of interaction between the father and mother are vital to giving the mother the emotional resources necessary to raise a healthy child. When a couple successfully co-regulates, this becomes the foundation for them teaching their child.  Healthy contact with a father figure is critical for children’s development.  John Gottman Ph.D. states in his book, Raising Emotionally Intelligent Children, that the role of the father is essential for raising children who can successfully regulate their own emotions. A father who is good at emotion coaching raises children who have better peer relationships as well as higher academic and careers success. He further states that the absence of a healthy father figure can have devastating consequences on his children’s lives. For girls, this can mean a greater tendency toward being sexually promiscuous at an early age as well as lifelong challenges maintaining healthy relationships with men. For boys’ greater struggles balancing masculine assertiveness with self-restraint. For both, difficulties in school and less success in their careers.


Healthy fathers-child interaction is essential for a child’s success later in life


My father had no tolerance for intense “negative” feelings. If he was in the presence of someone who was expressing a strong feeling, regardless of whether it was directed at him, he would either become defensive followed by stonewalling or just turn around and leave. He also never talk about his past. In his mind anything that happened in the past was history and there was no value in thinking or talking about it


Abusive or absent fathers damage their children’s emotional intelligence


One of the most devastating effects on people raised in these conditions is how it affects their neuroception (neurological perception). Without healthy social stimulation, they will typically misinterpret which people or situations are safe and which are dangerous. Often, they will interpret safe signals from other people as threatening. This handicap can cause them to end up in dangerous situations perpetually and with people who are not good for them.


This challenge is common for individuals who have experienced sexual abuse from a caretaker. Signals of safety may have been used by the abuser to lure the child into complying with the abuse or even try to convince them that what they are experiencing was an expression of love. (Although I do not cover detailed solutions for this condition, I provide resources for effective treatments.)


When I left the safety of my home town Ashland and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, I experienced a long saga of being involved with people who were scam artists, abusive, emotionally unstable or just “fair weather friends”. My neuroception as not working, and even though I tried my best to find healthier people to associate with, I kept ending up in unhealthy dynamics. This pattern finally shifted in my mid-40s when I began mindful meditation and Somatic Experience Therapy. These practices started to wake up my social nervous system, and I was finally able to choose healthy companions.


This lack of development and/or damage to an individual’s social nervous system is a significant factor in creating people with criminal behaviors. When a child doesn’t learn to regulate and co-regulate—and on top of this is abused/ neglected—they will have no experience of feeling loved and safe. They often will have little or no capacity for empathy and can develop pathologies such as sociopath, narcissist, sadomasochist, etc. With lack of safety comes a lack of play; studies have shown that a large percentage of violent adult criminals were denied play as children.


During very low points in my life when my depression and anxiety were at their worst, I began to understand how criminals do the unspeakable things that they do. I felt emotionally numb, unable to feel love or empathy for anyone. I would try to recall happy memories from my past, but I couldn’t access them. Even when I thought about my friends and surrogate families back in Ashland, I couldn’t feel the connection that had been present for years.


I would only feel alive when I was doing something impulsive and dangerous. This nervous system lizard mode caused me to take terrible risks. Unsafe sex, stealing, recklessly riding my bicycle in city traffic, and constant struggles with debt were some of the behaviors I engaged in when I was in lizard mode. In this downward spiral, I experienced intense feelings of loneliness.


To say that these feelings were unbearable is a supreme understatement. Anything was better than focusing on how I felt, including choices that could potentially harm me or others. Although I had a lot of play time in my early years, as my circumstances changed and I lived solely my parents, I became unable to relax and engage in play. Even with the positive influence of my friends and their families, by the time I graduated high school, I couldn’t remember how to be playful.


Poor stress regulation by a mother and father can cause depression and other challenges in their children.


Consequences of Play Deprivation


Since Dr. Porges first presented his Polyvagal Theory in his 1994 presidential address to the Society for Psychophysiological Research, there has been an enormous surge of interest from therapists who treat trauma. The polyvagal framework has allowed these practitioners to be much more effective in helping people with conditions that were previously unresponsive to the available therapeutic interventions.


How co-regulation shows up in competitive sports


Let’s start with a typical play in soccer. The whistle blows, and the ball is in play, each team struggles for possession of the ball. There is jostling, aggressive sounds and facial expressions. The tension rises as a player makes a bold move to score a goal, but the shot goes wide, the whistles blow again, and everyone stops to reorganize.


Aggressive behavior during a play



Suddenly the tension drops, and there are pats on the back/butt, friendly waves, and words of encouragement. The aggressive body postures change, not just towards our team members but also towards members of the other team. Then an instant later the whistle blows, and everyone goes back to aggressive postures and so on. Even though there is aggressive behavior, it is tempered by regular signals of safety from both sides. Of course, if there is a breakdown of these signals, that is when a fight breaks out.


Non- aggressive signals after the play keeps everyone feeling safe.


In my early teens, I became involved in sports. I was on the wrestling team for two years, and after that, I ran cross country and track for four years. Being part of a team, training together, sharing victories and defeats, and interacting with the rival teams, all helped me to feel more settled and connected. These experiences have shown me the importance and power of engaging in highly interactive activities such as team sports.


The key to good co-regulation with others is reciprocity. How we respond to the messages we get from others is everything. It will profoundly affect the health of our shared nervous systems by the degree that reciprocity holds a consistent rhythm between individuals and groups.


My parents’ message was “My way or the highway.” Luckily, I’ve had many relationships that have subsequently been reciprocal both in personal and professional settings.


Reciprocal behavior is key to healthy co-regulation.


Let’s review what we just covered:


Healthy interactions with our mothers and fathers during childhood train our nervous system to digest stressful situations by showing us how to switch from a situation of stress/challenge to one of safety and connection. Our parents also teach us how to co-regulate with other people, which results in strong long-term bonds with others and better stress regulation for everyone.

The key to healthy/safe interactions with other people is reciprocal behavior.

When parents don’t have the resources to create a safe place for their child, it causes damage and underdevelopment. This history can lead to many severe challenges for the child, making it more likely for them to develop health conditions and increase the likelihood of psychological issues, criminal behavior, and failed relationships.

In my next post, I’ll explore how to identify people who are in a safe mode and people who are dangerous and stuck in lizard mode.

Watch this space, and in the meantime, please let me know what you think.

Click here to view a list of books and other resources for taming your inner lizard and restoring your connection with your inner mammal




The New Science of Safety, Taming Your Inner Lizard, Part 2 of 6

The New Science of Safety, Taming Your Inner Lizard, Part 2 of 6



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:

  • Accidents
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Muggings
  • Bullying
  • Rape
  • 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
    • Anxiety
    • Depression
    • PTSD
    • Bipolar disorder
  • Learning disorders
    • Dyslexia,
    • Autism
    • ADD
    • ADHD
  • Autoimmune disease
    • Rheumatoid arthritis
    • Lupus
    • Type 1 diabetes
    • Celiac disease
  • Addictions
    • Alcoholism
    • Painkillers
    • Tobacco
    • Pornography
  • Other medical conditions
    • Insomnia
    • Digestive disorders
    • Heart disease
    • Fibromyalgia


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.

Ashland, Oregon

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:

  1. Trauma
  2. Social Isolation
  3. Signals of rejection or aggression

Situations that can heal and/or strengthen our nervous system include:

  1. Acts of acceptance and inclusion
  2. 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.

Click here to view a list of books and other resources for taming your inner lizard and restoring your connection with your inner mammal



The New Science of Safety, Taming Your Inner Lizard, Part 1 of 6

The New Science of Safety, Taming Your Inner Lizard, Part 1 of 6


The New Science of Safety

Taming Your Inner Lizard

The First of Six

By Michael Westgate, NMT

In my last article, “Cow Eggs & Chicken Milk,” I shared that when I was in my 20s, I started sorting through health information resources, searching for solutions concerning my numerous health challenges. My adventure back to wellness spans more than three decades and has included endless research and trial and error.

In the process of addressing my numerous health issues, I discovered that finding answers was difficult and frustrating, due to misperceptions, biases and media hype, plus it is often difficult for us to find time or energy to address this type of thing. The many false starts and dead ends I’ve encountered nearly did me in emotionally and financially.

I wanted to figure out why no one seemed to know what was wrong with me and why even when a treatment or diet made me feel better that it never lasted.   I wanted to know what was making me so unhealthy and what I could do about it. Nearly all the “answers” I came across presented theories that were too narrow and riddled with inconsistencies and biases.

I was able to piece together part of the puzzle, but there were still many missing connections. In 2017 I found Dr. Steven Porges’ polyvagal theory. In 2018 I began three treatments both based on this theory, and it was during that year that I experienced the most profound shift in the quality of my wellbeing. The change from anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, brain fog and digestive challenges to feeling calmer and more centered, with more restful sleep, stable digestion, and a clear mind was my inspiration for writing this article. Finally, I had found a roadmap that explained what was wrong with me and showed me what direction I needed to go to resolve it.

This article is the first of a series of posts where we will explore this topic in depth. I hope you’ll stay with me for the entire ride. It is my sincere hope that those of you who are struggling with health challenges can find inspiration and hope from what I’m presenting here.


The Reptiles Among Us

What if suddenly all your friends turned into some type of reptile, but you were still the human being you have always been? What would communication with your friends possibly be like? Think about it. Could you still share special occasions like birthdays, weddings or vacations? Could there still be cuddling?

Your response to these kinds of questions might seem obvious. Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but the thing is, each of us humans have certain types of automated responses—let’s call it “wiring”—that originated with our reptilian ancestors.

This means we each have the ability to switch into what I call “lizard mode.” Lizard mode refers to our inherent survival responses of fight/flight or freeze. Even the most innocuous stimulus can trigger lizard mode. When these modes turn on, we no longer behave like cooperative mammals. Instead, we see the world through the eyes of a creature that feels threatened and vulnerable.

I realized I had lived the majority of my life in one form of lizard mode or another. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and neither did the professionals whom I sought for help. In lizard mode, I had trouble forming close relationships, I obsessively kept myself occupied, and I barely slept. I always had the feeling that I was in danger—that if I didn’t stay alert at all times something terrible would happen to me.

In this blog series, I want to share with you some research that explores the premise that spending too much time in this lizard mode, by yourself or with others, can potentially lead to mental and/or physical illness as well as early death. Fortunately, however, this research also suggests there are proven methods we can practice to foster healthy nervous systems states. These methods can lead to a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life for you, those you love, and your community.

The history of the science of safety

In 2011 Professor Emeritus Stephen Porges, Ph.D. published The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation. In this book, he sheds light on how a feeling of “safety” is achieved by mammals, including us humans. He further expands upon the profound and positive impact that feeling safe has on everyone’s health, happiness, and general success in life.

Science Nerd Corner:

The term “polyvagal” is derived from the Latin “poly,” meaning many, and “vagal,“ meaning wandering or vagrant, which refers to the many branches of the vagus nerve. This nerve is responsible for all of the automatic (autonomic) functions in your body.

Dr. Porges’ book on Polyvagal Theory is not an easy read. Many of us have tried but had difficulty grasping his complex material. Although he summarizes this theory in a follow-up book, The Pocket Guide to Polyvagal Theory, and discusses his ideas in a more accessible way, it is often a challenge to apply his significant and valuable findings to our daily lives.

As I have studied his writing in depth, I present to you here an easy to understand summary of his groundbreaking research. I believe that his unique explanation of how our nervous system works can boost your ability to navigate through life. It has changed my life as well as the lives of my loved ones and my clients in my clinical practice.

As you read on, please be careful not to assume that you know this material. It is true that some of the ideas here will sound familiar, but I can guarantee there are many distinctive differences from Porges theory and what came before him. I’m confident that gaining a full understanding of this material can improve your resilience to stress and illness as well as that of your loved ones and potentially even your community.

Polyvagal Theory leads to an understanding that to connect and co-regulate with others is our biological imperative. We experience this imperative as an inherent quest for safety that can be reached only through successful social relationships in which we co-regulate our behavior and physiology.”Porges, Stephen W.The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)(p. 51). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition, 2017.

Let’s start at the beginning

Eons ago, our ancestors crawled out of the primordial soup. Their nervous systems more or less resembled modern-day reptiles as we know them.

Reptile brains have just three modes: rest/digest, fight/flight, or play dead—or freeze. The concept of empathy was not in their wiring. The primary goals of a reptile, such as a lizard, were to fulfill his/her basic daily needs. That was the order of the day.

After evolving for millions of years, our ancestors developed a new and distinctively different nervous system mode. This upgrade set us apart from our lizard cousins by allowing us to cooperate with others of our species. This new system was capable of suppressing the lizard brain’s self-centered defense /attack and freeze modes when they weren’t useful.

This new mode is what makes us mammals; non-mammalian species don’t have this ability. As mammals, we learned to cooperate with one another and in doing so became a more complex and thus more dominant species.

When in close contact with each other, this feeling of safety allowed for learning, creativity, play, long-term caretaking, spirituality, and sex for intimacy, among other things. It was no longer just about seeking out ways to satisfy individual needs. Instead, the needs of others could and often did come first.

As part of this new mode, we humans could “play rough” in sports, such as lacrosse, but contain the aggressive behavior to the playing field (at least most of the time). This most recent addition to our nervous system is what suppresses the activity of the more combative and primitive systems and allows us to act, well, civilized.

The upgrade: Our social nervous system

Dr. Porges calls this the “social nervous system.” It consists of nerves and what he calls “environmental sensors” in the skin, muscles, and connective tissue.

This social nervous system is made up of the nerves that influence our:

  • Face
  • Eyes
  • Ears
  • Nose
  • Voice
  • Heart
  • Lungs

Our eyes, our hearing, and a number of special sensory nerves that are distributed throughout our bodies are constantly scanning our environment, analyzing this information and looking for signs of danger or safety. Our responses are automatic and do not involve the thinking part of our brain.

Dr. Porges points out that especially in times of stress and danger, our conscious brain has a minimal influence on how we react. What he calls our “neuroception” decides this for us based on the data our brain is experiencing.

Science Nerd Corner:

Porges coined the term “neuroception,” meaning neurological perception. This system scans our environment 24/7 for signs of safety or danger, and this information is what our autonomic system uses to decide what nervous system state to turn on or off.   


Let’s review what we just covered.

There are two basic nervous system modes

  1. Fear (lizard) mode – our “lizard brain” which turns on when we feel threatened. When this switches on we only care about protecting our self from danger and fulfilling our desires, empathy and connection are not accessible. Being stuck in this mode for long periods of time causes many health problems.
  2. Safety (mammal) mode/ Social Nervous System – this part of our nervous system allows for social, cooperation, creativity, deep learning, compassion and deep states of relaxation and restoration. When this mode is turned on it suppresses the self-centered, aggressive lizard brain making it possible to act “civilized.”

This upgraded and more complete model of our nervous system was discovered by researcher Professor Emeritus Stephen Porges, Ph.D.

Now that we’ve covered the history of the science of safety, we have a basis for how things work. Next time we’ll explore why things sometimes go wrong and what we can do about it.

Watch this space. In the meantime, let me know what you think.


Click here to view a list of books and other resources for taming your inner lizard and restoring your connection with your inner mammal


Cow Eggs & Chicken Milk

Cow Eggs & Chicken Milk

Cow Eggs & Chicken Milk

By Michael Westgate, NMT

Ever since high school, I’ve struggled with tinnitus (constant ringing in my ears), fatigue, brain fog, insomnia, anxiety attacks, and chronically achy joints, especially in my low back and jaw. When I was 20, on the advice of my mother and stepfather, I started working with a San Francisco nutritionist who was recommended by a trusted friend.

I had just returned from traveling in Western Europe and was preparing to start my undergraduate studies at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. I was so weighed down by these physical challenges I was worried I would not be able to handle the demands of work and study.

Why did I feel so bad?

This is how I began a fascinating process of healing. I learned that I am allergic to gluten, dairy and many other foods such as peanuts, soy, etc. I learned that I had what was then called a “cerebral allergy,” meaning that these foods didn’t just negatively affect my body but also my brain.

The nutritionist instructed me to do a fast, followed by an elimination diet, where I would remove all the known allergic foods and then add them back gradually to gauge my reaction to them. Although I was working part-time and going to school full-time, I was so desperate to feel better and so scared I could not make the most of my college experience, I decided to do whatever it took and followed the program faithfully.

What I didn’t expect were the challenges I encountered when I ate at restaurants. I’d explain to the server that I had severe allergies to certain foods and would need help in navigating the menu. Since my two worst allergies were to gluten and dairy, I asked about them first.

How can an egg be dairy?

Early on I started to notice an odd pattern. Often, when I asked about dairy, the server said, “Yes, there’s egg in this dish,” and I would say, “Ok, but an egg isn’t dairy.” And they would respond by either looking confused or by arguing with me about its designation. Since I personally had never seen a cow lay an egg, and I understood from high school biology that chickens are related to reptiles and cows are mammals, this seemed odd to me. For some reason, though, the absurdity of considering “eggs are dairy” was not apparent to most people and I wanted to understand why.

My parents lived what is called a “hippie lifestyle,” so from ages three to seven, this included living in the boondocks of southern Oregon on a forty-acre farm/commune. I therefore wasn’t exposed to the same influences as most American kids. One of the most distinctive lifestyle differences was our food. We grew as much of our own food as possible, and we all helped with a large garden and fruit trees as well as chickens, goats, and one cow.

I knew firsthand that food comes from the ground and from animals, not the grocery store. I ate corn off the cob while standing next to the towering corn stalks. I picked raspberries off the bush and popped them into my mouth. I gathered chicken eggs that were still warm from mother hen sitting on them all night.

My food associations were about as different as you can get from the average American kid in suburbia. So when my dad decided to move us from the commune to Ashland, Oregon, a small town near the southern border, I was finally introduced to the culture of mainstream America.


I started first grade in Ashland and was exposed to many new and somewhat alien things: my grade school building had hardly any windows and my classmates brought lunches to school that were made of weird stuff like Wonder Bread and baloney. Most of them had televisions in their homes; I did not. None of their homes had a garden, just lawns. Some of them had a swimming pool (highly chlorinated).

One day in school we were introduced to a chart that showed the “The Five Food Groups.” (Please refer to the image below. I couldn’t locate the original food chart that was presented to me in grade school but this chart, created in 1998,  is very similar.) It showed us how much and what kinds of foods we should eat, and, as you can see, it designates eggs as…well, dairy.


Why did the USDA categorize eggs as dairy? Because they are found in the dairy products section at most grocery stores?

Whatever the reason, for thirty years the burning question in my mind has been, “Why didn’t people see this error? Eggs don’t come from a cow and therefore aren’t dairy.”

Why we believe what we believe

“Cow Eggs and Chicken Milk” is a reminder to me that all of us are prone to believe some things without questioning them. Many of us learned back when we were kids that eggs are dairy—and perhaps some of us still accept this as fact, even though in 2005 the USDA replaced the outdated pyramid food chart with an image of a food plate.

The mechanics of the “eggs are dairy” association comes from what is called “imprinting.” Our first impressions of people, ideas, and things are imprinted on us and therefore have a lasting effect on our perception. In fact, first impressions are very hard to change, since we tend to invest in and stick with what we first perceive. Re-examining impressions is a time- and energy-consuming process, so as a default, most of us avoid doing this.

I didn’t accept the assumption that “eggs are dairy” because my early personal experience with chickens, cows, and eggs overrode the information I saw in the food pyramid chart. I was not imprinted with this concept. It wasn’t that I was smarter than people who learned eggs are dairy, I was just lucky. The real challenge is to be able to spot these errors when the bias is built in, particularly if your culture supports it.

Blind spots and epiphanies

We all have blind spots in our knowledge, and my work with my San Francisco nutritionist was no exception. Even though I followed her advice to the letter, after a few years on her program I experienced some significant setbacks in my health.  It took me a long time to unravel why the vegan diet she told me to follow was not successful for me. I now know that because I have an autoimmune disease, the best diet for me is the “autoimmune paleo diet” and that many foods in her vegan protocol were actually making me sick.

When I told her what foods worked best for me, she didn’t agree with my choices, so I decided to look for someone else to work with. This was my first experience of how even an expert can sometimes lead you down the wrong path.

As a result of this and other experiences, I have developed an approach to health challenges that I find essential for getting sustainable results. I want to share this with you here:

First, I’ve had to face my own resistance to change—that hard-wired tendency in humans to stick with the status quo and resist doing anything that rocks the boat both personally and with your “tribe.”  We all struggle with our tendencies to self-sabotage, procrastinate and avoid doing what is best for our lives, and I am no exception. I’ve learned that this resistance never goes away, but with practice, I can outsmart it. I consider the skills needed to overcome resistance to be very crucial in dealing successfully with health challenges, and I will examine this subject in detail in a future blog.

Second, I’ve had to find effective ways to sift through my preconceived ideas and biases and learn why they are blocking my ability to detect and fully understand information that can lead to viable and sustainable solutions for my challenges.

Third, I started to understand how prevalent misperceptions about food can be. I had to come up with a strategy to navigate situations where I was counting on other people’s knowledge and/or services that would impact my health.  I learned that if I’m not 100% responsible in determining which foods are safe for me, for my body, inevitably I will start feeling sick.

When eating out, this includes:

  1. Investigating menu options online and calling ahead to see if they can accommodate my needs.
  2. Choose restaurants that have simple offerings like steamed vegetables and non-marinated grilled meats. Restaurants that serve “fusion cuisine” are off limits because there are often dozens of ingredients in every dish.
  3. Any sign of exasperation or negative attitude about my requests by the management or wait staff are a red flag, and my best policy is to go somewhere else.

My alternative upbringing coupled with a lifelong battery of health challenges has motivated me to examine what I regard as real and what I see driven by mistaken perception. Concerning foods that I can and cannot eat, if I had been only uncomfortable rather than miserable, I don’t think I would have become so determined in my search for answers.

This has also motivated me to create this blog. I aim to search out various kinds of misunderstandings, primarily relating to health challenges, and discuss them in future blogs. It is my hope that you can learn about and utilize the information I share with you so your own health and wellbeing is what you want it to be.

I look forward to your thoughts and responses to this article! I’d love to hear from you!