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:
- 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 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
- Parents noticing the child’s emotional shift when it is still subtle
- Seeing the child’s emotions as an opportunity for learning and deeper emotional intimacy
- Empathizing and validating the child’s feelings
- Helping them name the feelings
- 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:
- Voice tone (melodic, soothing tones = safety, high pitch or deep rumbling tones = predatory or enemy),
- Friendly, open facial expression and body language (fake smiles don’t work)
- 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.
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.