What is SSP?
The Safe and Sound Protocol involves listening to electronically altered music through over the ear headphones.
There are three potential components of the pathway that we can use – SSP connect, SSP Core and SSP Balance. On consultation we identify the appropriate pathway and how best to deliver it.
There are playlists created for both adults and children including popular musical tracks.
Individuals sit quietly listening to the music or undertake a relaxing task like colouring.
Children and adults alike must be accompanied by another person with whom they feel safe and secure for the duration of the listening session. This is critical to activate and reinforce the social engagement system for optimal impact in rebalancing the autonomic nervous system.
What does it do?
It helps us engage and stay in Social Engagement mode – a nervous system response mechanism which promotes healthy emotional interactions and a feeling of safety and well-being. Its job is (literally) to calm our gut instinct and to help us be more attuned to positive cues from our environment rather than negative.
Who can benefit? How often is it required?
Anyone from age 2 upwards who are stressed, disengaged, anxious or on the autistic spectrum. Most individuals benefit from SSP intervention. The effectiveness of the therapy peaks around weeks 5 and 6 and sometimes peters off in two months. In this case we advise repeating the therapy, generally advised in three month intervals. Occasionally in cases of serious trauma we advise redoing the programme after six weeks. Many of our clients have an SSP intervention three or four times altogether for long-lasting effects.
The Science Behind SSP – How does it work?
All physiological and psychological activity in our brain can be measured in terms of electrical frequencies. Our brain operates over a wide range of frequencies and each frequency band is associated with a different physiological state.
We can measure both activity at the hubs and connectivity between different parts of the brain.
To function properly, the brain needs to have the flexibility to move between the different frequencies and activate and deactivate different brain networks and connections. It does this to suit the task at hand be it to go to sleep, to sit quietly and calmly or to have laser focused concentration.
It also needs to be stable enough to stay in the appropriate frequency or activated network when needed.
Neurofeedback training teaches different areas of our brain to self-regulate towards optimum frequencies and network function, for our age and stage of development.
Before research conducted by Dr. Stephen Porges, it was believed the Autonomous nervous system comprised two responses, The first response is flight or fight (a response to danger) engaged by our sympathetic nervous system. The second response is Feed, Breed and Rest (in normal situations) engaged by the parasympathetic nervous system.
Dr. Porges’s research culminating in the Polyvagal theory was concerned with the Vagus nerve which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. (See flow chart) He identified two branches of the vagus nerve. One of these branches was responsible for a second type of response by the parasympathetic nervous system – the shutdown mode.
The functions of the two branches of the Vagus nerve are responsible for two separate nervous system responses – The Social Engagement mode and the Passive Defense mode. The polyvagal theory has greatly helped us understand more about emotional responses to our environment.
One puts a person in shutdown mode – prompting us to freeze or faint – and is engaged in life threatening situations. You know when a person is in this mode if they are depressed or disassociated.
The other system – The social engagement system – helps us with normal engagement when we feel safe. The more time we spend driven by this system, the more balanced and engaged we are.
How we respond to fear
Dr. Stephan Porges was able to explain how our nervous system responds to fear. Our three neural circuits have a hierarchy –
Engage and resolve.
The Social Engagement mode.
Engaged by the Ventral Vagal branch of the Parasympathetic nervous system.
The newest part of our nervous system in evolutionary terms.
Fight or Flight.
The Aggressive Defense Mode.
Engaged by the Sympathetic Nervous system.
An older response in evolutionary terms.
Freeze or Faint.
The Passive Defense mode
Engaged by the Dorsal Vagal branch of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.
Playing dead is the oldest response in evolutionary terms as seen in mammals today.
Our nervous system is capable of switching between responses and usually starts with the newest in evolutionary terms and when all else fails, immobilizes.
From the perspective of our nervous system, our job is to bring our clients out of the immobilisation mode into the Engagement mode and the reason we have a practitioner present is sometimes clients switch to the fight or flight mode on the way!
Now we have understood the nervous system, we shall look at our ear and how it interacts with our nervous system.
How our Nervous system interprets cues from our Auditory System
Our nervous system interprets cues from our social environment (Dr. Porges called this neuroception) including sound/voice, eye contact, facial expressions, body language and mood via the vagus nerve. When it senses we are safe, it engages the social engagement system (lowers our heart rate, releases certain proteins and enzymes that help us relax) and allows us to engage openly with others. One of these cues is sound/voice and the messages sent to the nervous system are controlled by the auditory system.
How Our Ears Work
By a complicated system, our ears regulate how we perceive vocal tone. Sound waves travel through our outer ear, hit our tympanic membrane (ear drum) which vibrates and sends messages to the cochlea. The snail-shaped cochlea changes the vibrations from the middle ear into nerve signals. These signals travel to the brain along the cochlear nerve, also known as the auditory nerve. It is then processed in the brain and we work out a response. However, our most important Vagus nerve takes messages straight from our middle ear to our stomach even before the frequencies travel to the inner ear. This is literally what we call our ‘gut instinct.’
Our Gut Instinct
Our middle ear filters out background noises to make it easy to hear the human voice. The branch of the Vagus connected to the middle ear takes sound frequencies to our stomach resulting in an instinctive gut response from our nervous system, even before the sounds are properly processed and sent to the brain by our inner ear. Being the ‘wandering’ nerve (Vagus is Latin for wandering) the vagal nerve is connected to different parts of our body. So when the gut senses danger the vagal nerve evokes a parasympathetic response in our body via all the organs it is connected with (see chart).
Human response to Sound Frequencies
Positive aural cues therefore make a huge calming difference to our entire parasympathetic nervous system in addition to keeping the sympathetic nervous system at bay. Sound waves in higher frequencies sent to our gut via the Vagus nerve tend to make us feel safer than ones in lower frequencies which flag up danger. When we are calm we are more likely to engage the Social mode which is required for us to positively engage with the world.
A system out of kilter
When we experience stress (especially trauma or developmental disorders), the way in which we perceive vocal tone gets altered. The ear sends uptight and heightened messages to our nervous system which in turn reacts to the situation in a disproportionate way. It reinforces our ear being attuned to picking up negative frequencies to keep us tense and prepared for danger. Via the vagus nerve, it incites similar reactions in different organs. We end up reading situations as far more threatening than they are. Our interactions with people and feelings of wellbeing and safety are negatively affected. This defensive response to outside stimulus can keep us in perpetual fight/flight or shutdown mode. The purpose of SSP is to get our nervous system into a space of safety to enable us to respond to outside stimulus in a way that facilitates healthy relationships – the social engagement mode.
How does SSP work?
The music we listen to during the SSP intervention is modified to remove low frequencies and keep high frequencies (you will tend to hear only female voices or high male voices). It also goes very quiet at times to exercise the ear muscles further.
When the tympanic membrane (eardrum) in our middle ear is taut, it is more attuned to pick up higher, happier frequencies. When we are in threatening situations the nervous system sends messages to the ear to slacken the tympanic membrane so it is more attuned to picking up lower threatening frequencies to prepare us for danger. The Vagus nerve then sends those negative frequencies back to the gut and reinforces the negative cycle.
When the membrane is slack we are more ready for danger and less likely to engage social mode. The purpose of SSP is to make the membrane taut, so more attuned to picking up happier frequencies, passing positive messages to the gut via the Vagus nerve (and back), reinforcing the positive cycle which has a compound effect over time.
The music is electronically modified to highlight parts of the sound spectrum that send messages of safety to the gut and back via the Vagus nerve. This feeling of safety and well-being stays with us for the five day duration of the therapy, by which time with the positive reinforcements the tympanic membrane gets tauter and picks up and sends more positive aural signals to the gut. The gut then sends messages to the brain (and back to the ear via the Vagus) to relax and engage, keeping the tympanic membrane firm and reinforcing the positive results. This continues over the next 5-6 weeks and we see some of the best results from SSP at this time.
When we are in Social Engagement Mode we feel safe and are able to engage positively with the world and other complementary therapies.
The Compound effects of SSP
Our aural perception of the world over the next few weeks gets better and better and our entire nervous system perceive situations in a more positive way. The positive effects compound over time and we see the real effect of it five to six weeks after the therapy. We find ourselves in an open position and more responsive to other therapies. To reinforce the positive effects, it is important in the following weeks to encourage loving interactions.
At the Brain Collective we have a very nurturing approach to helping our clients and if you would like to discuss this further or to book in an intervention, Contact Us now.
Research: Gut Vagal Afferents Differentially Modulate Innate Anxiety and Learned Fear