Episode 10: Take Baby Steps

You can recruit your body’s natural ability to soothe with some slow deep breaths, gentle sounds, or touch.

Learning to manage your emotions is a life-long practice. It helps to better understand our nervous systems. There are reasons we have phrases, like: 

  • I got all choked up.
  • My heart is pounding out of my chest. 
  • I can’t hear myself think.

Our nervous system is constantly assessing danger and safety, and then creates a story around this experience.

Scientist Stephen Porges developed a theory about what he calls our “social nervous system” and our ability to get calm. It’s called polyvagal theory, which refers to the two vagus nerves that begin in the brain stem. The vagus nerve, means the wandering nerve — and it is the longest nerve in the body with the widest reach. 

It is like a vine that branches throughout your body. It connects the brain with the heart and runs through the throat and neck, and down into the gut. This nerve branch is involved in your body’s ability to self-regulate, to connect, and to communicate with others. 

This nerve branch allows your nervous system to unconsciously detect safety and risk in your environment, which Porges calls neuroception. It’s your body’s way of asking:

  • “Is this person I’m with safe?”
  • “Is it okay to approach these people?”
  • “Should I be in this situation or should I leave?” 
  • “Is this news story going to impact me or my family?” 

The body responds first, the mind later. 

So when your body automatically reacts to stress, it might happen in ways you can’t understand, such as fighting, running, or hiding. Sometimes you may feel ashamed about your reaction later: 

“Why did I cry?” “Why didn’t I speak up?” “Why didn’t I just walk away?” 

“I went totally blank.” “What’s wrong with me?” The stories you tell yourself afterward—fraught with regret, shame, or blame—can hinder understanding and healing.

You can even consciously engage the vagal system for soothing. One way is to use your voice. 

You can speak to anyone, even yourself, in a lulling, affectionate tone, which is called “motherese.”  Picture a mother or father tenderly whispering to a baby. Or even a beloved pet!

That tone has a profound calming effect physiologically. Stephen Porges calls this a “Face-to-Heart Interaction.”

You can quickly feel soothed by a gentle tone, whether you’re making it aloud or silently in your mind. These kinds of “face-to-heart” interactions are the seeds of emotion self-regulation. 

Oooh. Ahhh. Uhmm.

Listen to the Epsiode 10 for a mini meditation based on a mindful self-compassion approach called Soften-Soothe-Allow.

References cited in Episode 10:

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