Dr. Stephen Porges, founder of the Polyvagal Theory, comments on mindfulness & hypervigilance
The following is an excerpt from a great interview of Dr. Stephen Porges, the founder of Polyvagal Theory. I highly recommend reading the entire interview, as well as checking out anything else by Dr. Porges. Polyvagal theory is expanding and redefining my understanding of trauma in the body, including trauma’s impact on learning, interpersonal relationships, and other forms of social engagement.
Serge Prengel: Yes. Removing, paying attention to all of these things that put us in a hypervigilant mode.
Stephen Porges: Yes. Safe environments are important for everything we do and especially for therapies. I started to think about mindfulness meditation and realized that even mindfulness meditation exercises need to be conducted in a safe environment. It becomes obvious when you ask questions about how breathing and attention are influenced by background sounds and how easily we can become distracted and hypervigilant. I also realized that recruiting the defensive systems associated with sympathetic nervous system activation was incompatible with mindfulness. Perhaps, a simple way of understanding this point is to realize mindfulness requires a state that is non-judgmental. However, this would be incompatible with states of defense in which evaluation is critical for survival. We can map this onto the polyvagal theory, evaluation is really the same thing as saying, we are in a dangerous environment and thus we need to sacrifice social engagement behaviors to insure that we are hypervigilant and poised for fight and flight behaviors.
Serge Prengel: Yes. So we are coming back to that sense of safety for the kids but for the grown up, for everybody as you mentioned, the sense that it doesn’t make sense to really think about mindfulness or pursue mindfulness per se without really actually paying attention to how we tend to be reacting to a lack of safety so the awareness of what it is that makes us feel unsafe, the awareness of facing it, dealing with it, is really a prerequisite for finding mindfulness.
Stephen Porges: Right. And the flipside is to understand the prerequisite features that enable us to feel safe and to turn off defensiveness. This leads to the exciting future of clinical treatments. If we were more understanding of the features in the environment that are capable of the turning off the defensive systems, then clinical practices or clinical treatments would be more efficient. If the environment we lived in had the triggers for defense removed and replaced with features that trigger safety, then life would be healthier and of a higher quality. Several features could relatively easily be improved in our work and living environments. These would include reducing low frequency noises in the environment, reducing the unpredictability of environment, and simply being in proximity to people with whom you feel safe.
[Stephen Porges:] Thus, a goal of therapy would be to enable clients to regulate their visceral state and to engage and to enjoy the interactions with others. These social behaviors require that newest neural circuit regulating the autonomic nervous system. The neural circuit is unique to mammals and is only available when we feel safe. It is this system that not only facilitates social interaction and enables social interaction to foster growth, health and restoration, but it also has the capacity to down-regulate our reactions and the neural circuits that evolved for defense.
Excerpt from an excellent interview with Dr. Stephen Porges by Serge Prengel. This interview was accessed 1/19/16 at http://somaticperspectives.com/zpdf/2011-11-porges.pdf