The New Science of Safety

Taming Your Inner Lizard

The First of Six

By Michael Westgate, NMT

Introduction:

In my last article, “Cow Eggs & Chicken Milk,” I shared that when I was in my 20s, I began to sort through health information resources, searching for solutions concerning my numerous health challenges. For more than three decades I have done endless research and tried new approaches based on trial and error.

During this process, I discovered that finding answers was difficult and frustrating due to my own misperceptions and biases as well as what I encountered via media hype. The many false starts and dead ends I’ve encountered nearly did me in emotionally and financially.

Why couldn’t I or a professional figure out what was wrong with me? And why, even when a treatment or diet made me feel better, the effects never lasted? I wanted to know what was making me so unhealthy and what I could do about it. I realized also that nearly all the “answers” I came across presented theories that were too narrow and riddled with inconsistencies and biases.

I was finally able to piece together parts of the puzzle, but there were still many missing connections. In 2017 I learned about Dr. Steven Porges’ polyvagal theory. In 2018 I began three therapeutic treatments each based on this theory, and it was during this time that I experienced a profound shift in the quality of my wellbeing. The changes 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 a roadmap that explained what was wrong with me and showed me what direction I needed to go to resolve my condition

This article is the first of a series of posts that explores 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 helpful information from what I’m presenting here.

 

The Reptiles Among Us

What if all your friends suddenly 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

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.

In lizard mode, I myself 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.

Fortunately, however, this research also suggests there are proven methods we can practice to foster healthy nervous systems states. As I found to be the case with me, 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 found it difficult to grasp 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 offer 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 already 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.

Misperception Alert! A common mistake people make when studying new material is in learning science what is called “illusions of competence.” When we become familiar with an idea or theory, we may often assume we know the subject better than we actually do. When this happens, we stop there. An effective remedy for this tendency is to quiz yourself to see how much you’ve actually retained. Try doing this with each section of this article and then see if your answers are the same as the summary I provide at the end.

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” actually 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 – This is 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.

With this explanation of the history of the science of safety, next time we’ll explore why things sometimes go wrong in our brain and what we can do about it.

Watch this space. 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