Distinguished University Scientist, Indiana University
Everyday Health’s United States of Stress special report from 2019 surveyed 6,700 Americans nationwide, ages 18 to 64, across demographic groups, gender, and health conditions, to find out what stresses us and how we cope. We asked Stephen W. Porges, PhD, a member of our Wellness Advisory Board, to share his expertise on the topic of chronic stress.
From your own research or that of others, what have you learned about stress that you didn’t know or that surprised you?
Polyvagal theory identified our body’s
What stresses you out, and how do you manage the?stressors?in your life?
What makes me feel most uncomfortable is a violation of social interaction. If people turn their heads away from me, lose emotion in their voices, drop intonation during an interaction, it just doesn’t feel right. When this occurs, you feel it in your gut; I feel it in my gut.
I call it biological rudeness. And, of course, it’s been worsening over the last century as we’ve gone from face-to-face?
We all need to be better informed about stress. What is something we should know to increase our stress IQ?
We need to develop skills to monitor and respect our body’s responses to environmental triggers, including low-frequency sounds and background noises (low-frequency sounds, for example, are evolutionarily associated with predators), and disruptions in face-to-face interactions, which shift our physiological state and bias our reflexive, “no-think” detection of risk or danger, even when there is no valid risk or source of danger in the environment.
What would you recommend to help people lower their daily stress levels and function better in the midst of a stressful situation, incident, or moment?
Learn to appreciate and respect that it’s natural to respond defensively to specific cues in our environment (again, for example, the low-frequency sounds and vibrations associated throughout our evolution with predators).
Learn that it may be necessary to physically move out of specific contexts that may be overwhelming (that is, where you’re experiencing sensory overload). Learn methods to recruit specific calming neural pathways through shifts in breathing patterns and social interactions with individuals who use soothing voices and reciprocal expressions of safety, or through listening to rhythmic, melodic vocalizations — therapeutic music engineered to mimic the rhythms and sounds of mothers; for example, singing a lullaby — that send profound signals of safety to the body.
Why did you become involved in research related to stress?
I did not start with an interest in stress or stress physiology. I was interested in?
Stress entered my own vocabulary after I developed the?polyvagal?theory, which provided an evolutionary-based explanation of the?neurophysiological?shifts that occur in response to challenges in the body or the environment. The theory provided an opportunity to further explain the?neurophysiological?mechanisms underlying our defense strategies by elaborating on the mobilization defense system that supports fight-or-flight behaviors, and a very ancient immobilization defense system shared with almost all vertebrates that automatically shuts us down when our nervous system — without us engaging in conscious thought — determines that fight-or-flight isn’t a viable response.
Have you ever experienced a meltdown? If so, where and why?
Like anyone reading this, I have vulnerabilities. When there is no opportunity to “co-regulate” with another — to communicate face-to-face with someone so that we calm down, feel safe, and generate a cooperative narrative, then we are all vulnerable to survival reactions of fight-or-flight, such as a meltdown, and potentially to immobility and shutting down, as in a panic attack.