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Cold mothers and frustrated babies - anxiety and cues of threat

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

How to cultivate a state of safety, Dr Stephen Porges

Interview with Alex Howard

Trauma Super Conference 2023

The below is a summary of an interview between Alex Howard and Dr Stephen Porges on How to cultivate a state of safety.



Often, we fail to pay attention to our bodies when they try to communicate that we are in a stressful and threatening environment. Instead, we dismiss these signals by rationalising or finding logical explanations to diminish their significance.

Anxiety, commonly labeled as a mental condition, is actually a symptom or a communication from something deeper within us. When people experience anxiety, they describe physical sensations such as feeling jittery, having a racing heart, or experiencing discomfort in their gut. These bodily sensations are autonomic responses, indicating a state of arousal and stress.

People often believe that if they can identify the specific cause of their anxiety, they can eliminate it from their lives and be free from stress. However, this belief is based on a narrative that external factors are solely responsible for our feelings. In reality, our feelings are not entirely driven by external circumstances but are also influenced by our internal experiences and context.

When our autonomic nervous system perceives a threat, it affects our mental functioning and can lead to difficulties in attention and engagement. Additionally, physical issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and migraines may arise as manifestations of the autonomic response to stress and anxiety. The nervous system does not differentiate between threats from pathogens or psychological sources; both activate the same stress response.

In our society, we tend to prioritise cognitive processes and believe that anxiety can be overcome through thinking or talking. However, the foundational survival circuits within us play a significant role. These ancient and powerful structures are not solely located in our cortex but are deeply interconnected with our overall well-being. Anxiety cannot always be reasoned away solely through cognitive strategies; it requires a comprehensive understanding of our body's responses.

Anxiety is not solely a product of our thoughts or beliefs, but also involves our body's physiological responses. To effectively address anxiety, it is important to have a comprehensive understanding of how our body responds to stress and to address those physical responses as well.

Neural detection

Neural detection, called neuroception, is the process of sensing threats or safety outside of our conscious awareness. It exists in all living organisms, including plants. Social mammals, like humans, have evolved to respond to cues of safety.

However, individuals with a history of severe adversity or trauma may react differently when trying to feel safe. For them, attempts to feel safe can trigger feelings of vulnerability and a strong threat response, causing anxiety and the need to escape.

This reaction can be observed in exercises like mindfulness, where individuals with trauma may struggle to stay in a room when trying to relax. Therapies need to approach safety slowly and respectfully, acknowledging that safety may be associated with vulnerability for these individuals. Movement-based therapies can be effective because movement prevents shutting down and allows for gradual progress. Our society tends to focus more on threats rather than safety, believing that eliminating threats will create a safe world.

„I mean, think of the politics of life. We think that we'll be happy if we have more resources, have more money, more prestige. And often what we find out is that when we get that, we want more because it's not really fulfilling us because the culture didn't cultivate in us an appreciation of cues of safety. It cultivated an appreciation for acquisition, which is really a fight, flight driven motivation.” Dr Stephen Porges

money not fulfilling

Broadcasting cues of threat

When we feel anxious or threatened, our body language and expressions unknowingly communicate these feelings to others. We become less attentive and unable to connect with those around us.

Even if we try to appear caring and compassionate, our tone of voice, facial expressions, muscle tension, posture, and movements give off signals of threat, making people want to keep their distance. If someone withdraws from us because of these cues, we might interpret it as proof that they don't like us or that they're terrible people. This reinforces our belief and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To break this cycle, we need to pause, reflect on our body's sensations, and learn skills to manage our anxiety. It can be challenging because, paradoxically, anxiety often makes us unaware of our own body. However, recognising our physiological state is crucial to finding ways to cope with anxiety and improve our well-being.

numb, not feeling

"You have to literally stop where you are, go inside for a moment, find out where you are within your body, and then try to learn skills to manage that. [...] But the paradoxical issue is that when you're in that state, you're often numb to your own body.” Dr Stephen Porges

Cold mothers and frustrated babies

Throughout our evolutionary journey from reptiles to mammals, our brains and communication abilities have undergone significant changes. One important change was the movement of the vagus nerve, which helps us calm down, to an area of the brain that controls our facial and head muscles. This has a big impact on how we express ourselves and how others perceive us.

When we feel happy or excited, our face muscles contract, and our voice becomes more expressive and melodic. This means that our voice can actually reflect our emotions and how our body is feeling. Even our early mammalian ancestors could understand each other's feelings by listening to vocal cues.

love, caring, lack of love

In a recent study, researchers looked at how mothers and babies interacted during a special experiment. When the mothers stopped showing emotions on their faces, the babies became upset. But when the mothers used their voices to soothe the babies, their heart rates slowed down quickly. The way the mothers spoke, with different tones and rhythms, had a big impact on the babies' feelings and behaviours.

Even babies are sensitive to the way our voices sound. It's not just about love, but how we express that love through our voices. Our voices have the power to communicate our emotions and create a sense of connection with others. When we interact with each other, our voices can affect how we feel and how others feel too.

No memories of safety

trauma, no safety

Some people have experienced traumatic events that they don't remember, which can be challenging. This is especially true for individuals who have suffered severe and complex trauma during childhood, such as abuse. It is difficult for them to recall these experiences, which makes therapy and healing complex.

Consider the situation of a foster child who had to be removed from their biological parents' home due to safety concerns. Despite being placed in a foster home and potentially finding loving adoptive parents, these children have already learned certain associations. They have learned that being accessible or vulnerable can lead to harm. So, even though they may have the desire to feel safe with others, their bodies and nervous systems remain highly vigilant and cautious. Their bodies respond to potential threats, which can make it challenging for them to trust and feel secure.

It is important to recognise that our nervous system's perception of safety and risk differs from our intentional thoughts and desires. Our intentional brain creates idealized narratives of what we want our lives to be like, even if we have experienced abuse. However, our bodies have a different narrative based on the cues of safety or danger they perceive. If our body senses that the cues of safety are not genuine, it will prioritize self-protection and may prompt us to leave the situation.

Many behaviours that may be labeled as pathological or problematic have actually evolved to help us stay alive. We tend to create rational narratives, but we often overlook the fact that our body, particularly the brainstem, has its own decision-making system. This system operates independently, making executive decisions based on what it perceives as dangerous. Its primary goal is to keep us safe, regardless of our conscious intentions.

Understanding this interplay between our conscious thoughts and our body's instinctual responses can help us navigate healing and create a more compassionate approach to trauma. It reminds us to consider the complex nature of our experiences and the need to address both our cognitive and physiological responses in therapeutic interventions.


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