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The Safe & Sound Protocol

The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is an evidence-based treatment created by

Dr Stephen Porges as part of his groundbreaking work on Polyvagal theory. Using uniquely filtered music it helps reset the autonomic nervous system, enabling us to freely engage with others rather than maintaining a defensive fight or flight position. It is the difference between being able to sit down with others and laugh and relax or problem-solve, or feeling like an outsider, unsafe and insecure.

 

Originally developed for use with Autism Spectrum Disorder, it soon became apparent that SSP  produced rapid results in a much broader population, particularly among trauma victims, those who suffer from anxiety, relational difficulties, persistent digestive problems and sound sensitivity.

 

SSP is not designed to be a stand-alone therapy. It does dramatically reduce anxiety levels but it works best when it is delivered alongside other talking therapies - and it often helps talking therapies work better too.

How it works

In the broadest terms, the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is an extremely effective, short-term (generally less than twelve sessions) intervention for the alleviation of anxiety and depression. It is very common to hear clients who have experienced SSP to say they feel “more connected to people”, “able to think more clearly”,  “unstuck”, and “safe”. 

 

In order to understand how SSP works, it’s necessary to understand how, as humans, we have evolved to be safe in the world. We are medium-sized, hairless mammals, not blessed with great strength, fearsome teeth or powerful jaws. One-on-one, we couldn’t out-run or outfight any of the creatures for whom we would represent an easy meal.  We are, in fact, prey animals. And yet, we’ve managed to carve a niche for ourselves at the very top of the food-chain. And the way we’ve done it is through cooperation.

 

It’s quite difficult for our conscious twenty first century minds to come to terms with the fact that our nervous systems are still wired for life on the savannah, 100,000 years ago. Out of our awareness, our nervous systems are constantly asking and answering one question: Am I safe? How we consciously think, feel and view the world is a direct result of our nervous system’s ongoing appraisal of how safe we are. This process of perception without awareness is called neuroception.

 

Neuroception works by taking cues from within the body, from the environment and from other people: inside, outside and between. If it notices our heart beating faster or our breathing becoming more rapid it intuits something is wrong; sounds in the environment, a high-pitched scream, low growling, alert it to danger; or the expression on someone’s face or the tone of their voice - we all know that instant stabbing feel of discomfort when we catch someone looking at us hostilely. 

 

When our nervous system tells us we are safe, we are able to socially engage. That means we can think, we can laugh and play, we can problem-solve. If it tells us we’re not safe, our body goes into survival mode, fight or flight, and the higher functions are no longer available to us. This is really important to understand. Our nervous system’s only job is to keep us alive. So, back on the savannah, if a pride of lions turned up, there would have been very little benefit in being able to say, hold on a minute, how can we be sure those lion wants to eat us? Nor would there be in pausing to say to the person running next to you, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, my name’s Paul, I love that spear you’re carrying. The only survival benefit would have been being able to mobilise fast enough to make sure there were other people between you and the lions. If that failed, if you went into mobilisation, had that burst of energy to flee and still the lion managed to pull you down, your nervous system would draw on it’s last mode of defence: shutdown. When there is no possibility of escape for the physical body, your nervous system allows your mind to escape by dissociation, you lose consciousness. Survivors of life or death situations often report feelings of ‘not being there'.  What’s also important to understand is that the threat does not have to be real for these systems to engage, it only has to be perceived to be real. Once threat is perceived the ability to think rationally and socially engage is lost. 

 

So let’s bring it up to the modern day. You and a group of friends are sitting in pub garden, the sun’s shining, everyone’s happy, you’re feeling good. Then you catch sight of someone sitting at another table staring at you, and they don’t look friendly. You look away. When you glance in their direction again it’s the same thing. The person’s glaring at you. And suddenly, you’re much less able to take in the chat from your friends around the table. You’re wondering about who that person is, why they don’t like you, what you might have done. Maybe you’re being silly, you think,  and just imagining it. One of your friends notices you seem to have disengaged and asks if you’re ok. Yes, yes, of course, you force a smile, but a quick look back across the garden and still the hostile look. And you move even further out of engagement. Your mood has changed, dramatically. Ten minutes ago you could have been hoping the afternoon would never end, now you just want to get up and leave. If the situation continues, if you’re mobilised for fight or flight but the ‘threat’ continues to grow, you could find yourself dropping into that last resort defence of shutdown, no thought at all, just disappearing. 

But then the party at the other table gets up to go and you see that the person who’d been looking at you is carrying a white stick. You let out an involuntary sigh of relief, and you’re back with your friends, the sun is still shining, and it’s a lovely afternoon again.

 

This idea that how we consciously feel and behave is a result of our nervous system’s unconscious assessment of our safety is quite radical. But it’s backed up by an extraordinary amount of research. The SSP is a direct result of that research. The pub garden example illustrates how a visual cue alerted the nervous system to danger. In response to that cue the body alters the tension of the eardrum in order to pick up the high or low frequency sounds which signify danger (the scream of prey or the growl of the predator), but in so doing, it diminishes our capability of taking in mid-tones of the human voice. Those mid-tones are in themselves, cues of safety, but because you’re mobilised for threat, you can’t hear them, so the feeling of danger or disconnect increases. The SSP works by retraining the muscles of the middle ear to hear the tonal frequencies of safety. And if your nervous system is telling you you’re safe, you can divert your resources from ‘survive’ to ‘thrive'.

Fees

SSP is charged at £80 per session. The protocol is made up of five hours of listening as well as self- and co-regulating exercises. A key to the success of the programme is the pacing. Everyone’s nervous system is different and I account for that in how much time we spend listening. In some sessions it may be ten minutes, in others twenty or thirty. But there is no benefit at all in powering through the listening.

We will be gently stretching your nervous system’s tolerance, not stressing it. 

To find out if SSP might be right for you, get in touch with Paul 

paul@psychotherapysw1.co.uk 

07837 825 665