Created by Stephen W. Porges
Reviewed by Nancy Eichhorn
In recent years, researchers and clinicians have supported advances in understanding the effects of trauma on both mind and body that have greatly expanded our range of clinical tools and opened new possibilities for dramatically improved outcomes and deeper healing. One of these tools is Dr Stephen W. Porges’ Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) a five-day intervention designed to improve social communication by regulating physiological state and enhancing our ability to process human speech. “Based on Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, the program is derived from nearly four decades of research on the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and social-emotional processes. It is designed to reduce stress and auditory sensitivity while enhancing social engagement and resilience. It stimulates nervous system regulation by exercising and systematically challenging the auditory system with specifically processed music to retune the nervous system (regulating state) to introduce a sense of safety and the ability to socially engage” (Associate Manual Safe & Sound Protocol, 2017, page 1).
Initially, the program was called the Sound Sensitivity Program and was recommended as a tool for clinicians working with clients having auditory sensitivities (hypersensitivity), social/communication difficulties and/or problems with regulating behavioral state (inattention, behavioral dysregulation).
With case studies and research in hand, Porges changed the name when he realized the autonomic system impact beyond auditory sensitivity—he saw SSP’s impact on anxiety, trauma and social communication. When done in the right context, SSP can enable trauma survivors to socially engage in and benefit from psychotherapy (experiencing attunement, co-regulation, etc.)
A clinical view
Imagine a client comes to you with a trauma story. You notice a lack of prosody, poor eye contact, blunted facial expressivity, dysfunctional behavioral state regulations (perhaps said client is hypervigilant, anxious, distracted able, impulsive). You can most likely assume compromised autonomic nervous system and vagal regulation. Said client cannot support cues of safety and social communication—they were turned off during threat and danger.
If their autonomic nervous system is “on”, clients will view their world as dangerous, they will determine that situations/people are unsafe, perhaps sense “life threat”. This may not be merely a state of flight or fight, especially if talking about chronic abuse, molestation, or otherwise bullied bodies. Our bodies react, may sense a state of “I don’t want to be here” and shut down. Some people pass out, some defecate. Their body adjusts and while it doesn’t disappear physically, it dissociates. Life threat is a profound powerful experience. Trauma is not necessarily limited to an “event” but rather is better viewed as an individualized response to a situation (one time or ongoing). Trauma survivors typically are not choosing to collapse, their nervous system made an evaluation of life threat and reacted—this is not voluntary, not conscious, not learned.
When working with said client, many therapists know this is not the time to power through the experience, you cannot operantly condition pain, suffering, and so on. If clients are in an autonomic state that supports fight/flight/freeze/collapse, their system cannot support listening, auditory processing, or social engagement. When treating deep-rooted trauma, shame, and attachment wounds, it’s crucial to go beyond the limits of just talk therapy. SSP is an effective portal of treatment for adult trauma survivors. It has can potentially support a shift in one’s perception of the world from dangerous and filled with disturbances to a sense of safety, openness, and a fuller connection with others.
But why music?
For clarity, I’m quoting directly from the Associate Manual Safe & Sound Protocol, copyrighted by Stephen Porges, 2017: “An overlap exists in acoustic features of speech and music. Not all speech provides signals of safety. Speech as well as music can signal danger and life threat. Our nervous system universally detects high frequency shrill cries as alerts for danger and this is mimicked in music. In addition, our nervous system detects monotonic low frequencies as sounds of threat. A segment of the frequencies of human speech defined as the band of perceptual advantage is capable of triggering bodily states of safety when modulated to mimic the prosodic features of a mother’s calming voice.”
SSP is “theoretically driven by scientific evidence relating the regulation of the middle ear muscles to: (1) dampen background sounds and improve perception of human speech; (2) be involved with “neuroanatomical and neurophysiological circuits controlling facial expressions, vocal intonations and gestures”; (3) be associated with ‘neural circuits regulating behavioral state.”
To read the rest of the review and my personal experience using the SSP protocol, please CLICK HERE
To learn more, please visit Integrated Listening Systems.