Revealing Men
Revealing Men
Trauma and Male Socialization Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory

Somatic therapist, Ken Porter, is a regular guest on the Revealing Men podcast, hosted by psychotherapist Randy Flood, co-founder and Director of the Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan. On previous podcasts, he and Flood have talked about innovative treatments focused on emotional well-being and their work to remediate the damaging long-term effects that emotional suppression can have on their clients and on males in general. They continue this topic of conversation by taking a look at trauma and male socialization through the lens of Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory.

Polyvagal theory looks at the evolution of the autonomic nervous system and adaptive behavioral strategies. Flood and Porter see this theory as offering a method through which their clients can better understand and control their response to the physiological and psychological effects of trauma while also gaining emotional intelligence. Read excerpts of the conversation below (edited for length) and listen to the full podcast on these platforms: Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher.

Understanding Mind and Body Connectivity

Flood: Ken and I have been talking about polyvagal theory and how it might explain how some men experience the traumatic aspects of male socialization. [This is not to say] that all male socialization is traumatic but that there are certain ways in which, if done rigidly, it can create mental health problems for men.

But before we get into that, I want Ken to talk a bit about his expertise. He comes into my men’s groups and does somatic therapy … a more experiential type of therapy.

Porter: I would say somatic therapy is a practice of learning to listen to information from your body in order to heal emotionally or to strengthen and grow your ability to be more relational with other people; to be more fulfilled in your life.

There are many types of somatic therapy. The type that I primarily practice is Hakomi therapy. It’s basically geared towards understanding unconscious patterns that we all walk around with. And doing that through awareness of the body. Because these unconscious patterns are carried emotionally and any emotion that we experience, we experience it in our bodies. So, the more connected we get with our body, the more we have access to our emotions, and the more we can start to understand what our emotions are telling us.

Flood: I became more acutely aware of the importance of body intelligence when I saw Bodies Revealed years ago in Chicago. You see these specimens of humans and the [electrical] wiring that’s going through the body…it’s so intricate and so complex, and profound. It’s like ‘Oh, okay. Now I get somatic disorders. And I get why people have anxieties and develop ulcers.’ It became very real to me.

[I see] the work we do together …I always have this visual that we’re trying to create different pathways and healing through connecting to our bodies.

Trauma and Unhealthy Male Socialization

Flood: You’ve said that trauma needs to be included when we’re talking about this idea of healthy versus unhealthy male socialization. Why does that seem so important? …Say a little bit about trauma and male socialization.

Porter: We have to look through the lens of trauma and the autonomic nervous system to understand specifically where male socialization can sometimes go off the rails; has sometimes gone off the rails.

I think it would help to just kind of start with a definition of trauma. I think one of the more common definitions is ‘any experience that overwhelms your nervous system to the extent that you can’t respond.’

[For example] Somebody can have an intense experience — a car accident, an experience of violence — and they can respond. They can respond to a violent attacker and protect themselves and protect the people around them. And they don’t end up traumatized because they were able to respond.

But somebody, for whatever reason — either their nervous system shuts down, or they’re on ice and their car’s out of control and there’s not a thing they can do … any number of things — they can’t prevent something terrible from happening.

That tends to be what defines trauma: not a harmful event itself but the inability to protect yourself or prevent that from happening.

I also love Gabor Maté’s framework around trauma: it’s anything that disconnects us from ourselves; disconnects us from our essence. And then, pretty much inadvertently, disconnects us from relationship with other people.

Lions and Bullies: Describing the Autonomic Nervous System

Porter: [The] Autonomic Nervous System. That’s the branch of the nervous system that’s responsible for automatic, unconscious body functions, like breathing, your heartbeat, digestion, hormone release. Things you don’t have to think about. I mean, you can control your breath and you can to some extent control your heart rate, but for the most part, these activities just happen out of our conscious awareness.

Because our autonomic system is regulating breath and heart and digestion, it also has to be constantly aware of whether we’re safe or whether we’re in danger. Because that will determine what it does with all these different systems.

For example, a lion jumps out from the brush and your autonomic nervous system immediately goes into flight. You just start running. You don’t think about it. Your nervous system just takes over and it starts running your body for you. And it also will immediately shut down your digestion, increase your heart rate, and increase your breath, so that you can have the largest chance of outrunning this lion and getting to someplace where you can be safe.

Flood: Just to bring it to the 21st century. Not many of us are encountering lions. But if we have a young boy who’s being routinely bullied by someone on the playground. And he’s comfortably playing and then all of a sudden, he sees this bully walking across the playground. That might be a similar response. He would maybe start running to some friends and try to get into a group of guys, or running toward the playground monitor so he can protect himself. It would be something like that maybe?

Porter: For sure. Absolutely.

Because our system is constantly scanning for danger, that tends to be its primary job. (Or maybe its primary job is just to keep the body alive.) But maybe its close secondary function is ‘Are we safe or are we not safe?’ I always have to know that.

What is the Polyvagal Theory?

Porter: In the 20th century, the model was this autonomic system has two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic. “Sympathetic” is the fight or flight which everybody pretty much is familiar with now. And “parasympathetic” has just been called rest and digest. So that’s when you’re not running from a lion or you’re not running from a playground bully and your body can just function as normal and digest your food and beat your heart at a comfortable pace.

In the 1990s, Stephen Porges comes along and says actually it’s more complex than that. There are not really two branches, there’s actually three. There’s still the sympathetic. There’s not much difference there: still fight and flight. [But] what we’ve always called parasympathetic, he delineated into two very distinct branches of the vagus nerve: there’s the ventral vagus in front, the dorsal vagus in back.

The ventral vagus is called the “social engagement system.” And then dorsal vagus is called “the shutdown response.” What we used to just lump in together as parasympathetic, are actually radically different modes of operation. [Porges] puts this on an evolutionary timetable:

The dorsal is the most primitive response we have – the shutdown response. So that’s a turtle pulling into its shell; it’s a possum playing dead. You go offline. You go catatonic. And, it might work. It might work to escape a predator. They might say, this one’s dead. I’m not interested. But it’s very primitive

As evolution progressed, animals developed a more complex system of fight or flight. So that now you didn’t just have the option of checking out and hoping for the best, you now have the option to run away or to fight back.

And then, as we progressed into mammals and humans, we developed this social engagement system where instead of trying to find safety through just shutting down, or running away, or fighting, we now have the ability to find safety through social connection. It’s like the kid on the playground. He runs to his friends and now he’s safe because he has his tribe around him. …He reached out for social connection, and he found it, and now he’s safe, and now his system can settle back down and he doesn’t have to stay in flight.

Flood: It’s a more sophisticated, more developed, more evolved way of creating safety and also higher-ordered things like intimacy and connection.

Porter: Exactly. Right. And that’s why it has so much bearing on what we’re talking about and what you and I work with. Especially with men.

Creating Relational Safety in Group Therapy

Flood: Thinking about the guys that we work with in group therapy. How are you trying to apply it [polyvagal theory] to therapy and thinking about their history growing up—what is going on in their body and through that polyvagal lens?

Porter: It’s a great question. I think anytime anybody gets together with other people; the autonomic nervous system is like ‘Bing!’ It’s on alert. ‘Am I safe? Am I not safe?’ It’s checking it out.

You do an amazing job of creating relational safety in the group. Some guys are in group longer than others, and the ones that are newer may still be like ‘I don’t know yet.’ ‘I’m not sure I’m safe here yet.’ But you can see as men stay longer, they tend to feel safer and safer and are able to be more vulnerable.

Flood: You say that newer guys who have these experiences in their male socialization— that says it’s not safe to be open and vulnerable — what I think I hear you saying is that they might have had the experience of being shamed, or being mocked, or being humiliated for being vulnerable. For sharing feelings that admit they’re insecure or they have this shameful experience and they don’t want to share it. But they’re going to take a risk and share it. They are just probably functioning in a more cautious way.

When Flight or Fight Seem Your Only Options

Porter: Porges says that our first impulse as a mammal is to reach out for social engagement. That’s what we come into the world with. When we’re first born, our first impulse is to reach out to mama: feed me, hold me, keep me warm, keep me safe. I’m going to cry if I’m not immediately assured that somebody’s here for me. I want to look into [her] eyes and I want to see [her] looking back at me with kindness and love so that I know ‘Okay, somebody’s here, they’re going to take care of me.’ It’s our first impulse.

But if we reach out for social engagement, we reach out for connection, and we don’t get it, then we go back down the hierarchy.

The next place we go is flight. What that looks like is, if the lion is chasing you, you’re literally running. But in our modern world – like you said, we don’t have too many lions prowling around – what that tends to look like is more like distraction. We get on social media. We get on our phones. We indulge in addiction or whatever obsessive thing we do to remove ourselves from whatever might feel dangerous. It’s mostly unconscious. Maybe almost completely unconscious.

We try to find safety by escaping, by running away figuratively or literally. And, if we don’t find safety there—we’re drinking, we’re doom scrolling, whatever, and we still don’t feel safe—then we go down the hierarchy one more step, which is the fight response.

Again, in the wild, what that looks like is you’re running from the lion and the lion is catching you. And then it’s like one more step and your nervous system just takes over again, grabs the nearest rock or stick, and turns around and then you fight. Again – it’s unconscious. You don’t have control over it. It’s what your body is going to do. In our modern world, what that tends to look like is aggression or getting into a mindset of fairness and justice and unfairness and injustice. …It’s more like obsessive thinking or overt angry behavior and yelling and aggression.

Male Socialization and Instinctive Behavior

Flood: I think when we’re talking about traditional masculinity, there’s kind of this idea that a real man doesn’t back down. There’s an emphasis on physicality, and being more intimidating, bigger, stronger. (Then again, it gets more sophisticated as we, hopefully, mature.) But there is a sense that if I’m going to be masculine then I’m going to use my sense of physical prowess and strength to create safety for myself.

Porter: Absolutely. Again, as Porges would say, that’s not our first instinct. That’s not our natural instinct. That, I believe, is socialized into us as males, largely. Because without the socialization, without the unhealthy socialization, we would all be encouraged to reach out for connection and support if we’re not feeling safe.

Like say, ‘Hey, just say you’re not feeling safe or say you’re scared. It’s okay.’ ‘Come to mommy and daddy and say I’m scared and we’ll pick you up and hold you and reassure you or we’ll ask you what you’re scared about.’ That would be a nice way to grow up whatever gender you are.

But when our socialization doesn’t allow that, doesn’t permit that kind of vulnerability, then we’re going to go to flight, and if that’s not tolerated—well, no, you can’t run away because real men don’t do that, tough boys don’t do that, but you can fight—then we’re just going to go back. Social connection didn’t work. Flight didn’t work. Okay, I’m just automatically going to go to fight and I’ll get some validation for that from the culture that I’m growing up in. I’ll just hang out there; just be aggressive. And then when I grow up, I’ll be maybe a domestic abuser because that’s okay – the other things are not.

The Irony of the “No Fear” Male Mantra

Flood: I think of that edict of ‘no fear.’ You see that on bumper stickers. Typically, it’s not on a female’s, on a Prius, it’s more on the bigger trucks and stuff. I’m stereotyping. But there’s that sense of real men don’t have fear. What we know, is that that’s part of being human.

Sometimes it’s not safe to express fear, and we have to regulate it and manage it. But I think it’s better if we have connections where we can acknowledge that human aspect of being scared. And by naming it, it can actually help manage it versus always trying to deny.

Porter: The irony of course is that somebody’s that posturing so strongly to say I’m not afraid and they’re being aggressive with it; they’re in fight. And fight by definition means that they’re terrified!

And, that’s to me why this is so important to address. Because until you can find pathways to get back to that social engagement, you’re going to just keep trying to manage this fear. And sadly, so many men spend their entire life just trying to manage their fear by staying in fight, by staying aggressive, armored.

Flood: And it’s just beautiful to see men learn the nutritious value of actually receiving connection and affection and affirmation. And opening up and sharing feelings and having other men validate and hold space for that.

That doesn’t mean that that makes them soft or emasculates them. It just means it makes them human. They can still hang on to their masculinity but be able to have that flexibility or fluidity to see ‘what context am I in?’ Do I have a place where I can share and make connections? And then I have these other places where I’ve got to suck it up and self-regulate and not show vulnerability. And how can I do both?

Porter: It is really beautiful to see. Men who can get to that place where they can find that vulnerability.

The Transition from Dysregulation to Self-regulation

Flood: There’s this term I ran into when I was looking into [polyvagal theory]: coregulation. And I was thinking about that. Charlie [Donaldson] and I in our book [Mascupathy …] called it the man-pack. How men socialize in fraternities or team sports or bowling league or whatever. How does coregulation work in a more healthy way perhaps or how can it work in a good way, a nutritious way?

Porter: It’s a good question of where the line is between healthy and unhealthy. Because there are two terms that are important here: self-regulation and coregulation.

Self-regulation means I notice that I’m in fight. I don’t want to stay here because this is dysregulation. It doesn’t feel good. I’m all jacked up and I want to settle my system down. So, I’m going to do some breathing. I’m going to pull out my tools and move myself back into ventral. I can regulate myself, regulate my own system.

Flood: The context is that the person is not truly in a fight or flight situation. They’re not encountering a lion. They’re not being assaulted. They’re in a situation socially and something is said and all of a sudden, they feel this surge, this heat that rises in their chest that tells them ‘danger, danger.’

And you’re saying that part of emotional intelligence is to know that that fight/flight thing can happen inside of us and then to have the consciousness or the mindfulness to say ‘Oh, here it is. Now what do I do.’ You’re saying there are self-regulation techniques.

Porter: And in those moments where our nervous system is not reacting to what’s happening in reality, in real present time, it’s reacting to something that we experienced maybe decades ago. Something where we were treated or mistreated in a certain way and this person said this certain thing to us and it just was so similar that our system goes ‘Oh, my gawd! This thing is going to happen to me again!’

So, yes, exactly, emotional intelligence is being able to recognize the difference between ‘Am I really in danger right now or is this just some traumatic response or reenactment happening?’

If [I] can recognize ‘Yeah, I’m not really in danger right now. I’m just reacting to something from the past,’ then I can self-regulate and I can get myself back into this place of social engagement, this ventral place.

How Men’s Support Groups Can Model Healthy Coregulation

Flood: We see that happening in group. We have a person who gets triggered by something that is said in interaction with the group and then we are, in the moment, able to see that they are dysregulated. They’re kind of agitated and they’re speaking in a pitched voice or something.

And, in that moment we can intervene as therapists and say what’s going on. Let’s just slow this down. And then that’s the way in which they become more aware that [they] have this self-regulation capacity. And then they want to learn that rather than to just fall into the old patterns and just start acting out or yelling or shutting down.

Porter: And to come back to the coregulation. That’s also happening in group. And it’s really important and it’s really helpful. Because we are communal beings. We need each other.

So, if I’m a therapist or even just a friend and I’m with somebody and they’re dysregulated and I’m dysregulated—You gotta chill! You gotta just settle down! You gotta calm down! —but I’m not calm, I’m not helping them calm down, they’re going to coregulate. Their nervous system is going to attune with mine.

But if my nervous system is calm and I can say ‘hey, you know, let’s try some breathing,’ and I’m doing it from a calmer place, a calmer nervous system, their nervous system is going to say, ‘I like that. I want some of that. I want to attune to that.’

That’s one beautiful thing about the container that you create in your groups. There is that atmospheric safety that when one person gets dysregulated, they can draw on the strength of the more regulated group.

Changing Neurological Patterns

Flood: Think of the coregulation and trauma that some men we work with have experienced. Where they had an emotional reaction or they were just being their childish selves. And they do something that’s upsetting to a parent or older sibling. And then that parent gets dysregulated and yells, and screams, and shames, and such.

They … perhaps bring that [experience] here to us and expect that that’s going to happen here.

Porter: Exactly.

Flood: Part of the healing process is that they can get dysregulated and then all of a sudden, a positive coregulation experience happens.

Porter: And that’s hard to accept even when it happens because you’re so wired to believe that it’s not going to happen. And then even when it happens, it’s hard to see it and accept it. Or think that was just a one-off that’s never going to happen again.

One of the key pieces of Somatic therapy is that—you can’t really change your neurological patterning until you have an experience that contradicts what your wiring is telling you is going to happen.

Your wiring says, ‘I know what happens here. They’re going to yell at me. They’re going to leave me. They’re going to shame me. I know. I’ve seen this movie before.’ But then when you go through a healthy experience you say ‘Okay. My amygdala is telling me this is what’s going to happen, but I’m learning these tools. I’m going to regulate my nervous system, then I’m going to try to do this a different way and I’m going to ask for what I need.’

You go through all that and you have a positive experience. Then it’s like ‘Okay, I just did this. I just had this experience. The neurons can start to rewire and say alright, we have a different pathway now. We don’t have to always go down this one. We have a new route.

Healing Mind and Body by Creating New Connections

Flood: There’s so much wiring that goes from the limbic system where these emotions happen. And then all this wiring says fight or flight, or we have to shut down or bad things are going to happen. The therapy is about creating the wiring to be able to settle the limbic system down. Having different experiences creates neuro pathways to settle some of those more primitive parts of our brain.

It’s interesting to look at that we’re changing brains as well as changing hearts and belief systems. Sometimes cognitive behavioral work is changing how people think and behave. It’s a little more complex than that!

Porter: Really one thing that we’re doing is we’re changing people’s physiology. The autonomic response is physiological. It’s like heart. Breath. Muscle tension. The tools for changing that – most effective tools that I know – are physiological tools. Changing your breath pattern (very physiological), there’s nothing cognitive about it. Putting your hand on your heart. Putting your hands on your face.

The Far-reaching Impact of Emotional Intelligence

Flood: So often in marriages and family relationships, people are getting emotionally hijacked. They’re in a place of defensiveness. They’re fighting. They’re yelling. Trying to get the last word in. No real human connection is going to happen when you’re in that mode, right? So, if you can’t learn how to self-regulate and, as a marriage, coregulate, then you’re not going to have the kind of love and connection that you want.

It’s just the idea of even more peace in our communities, more peace in the world, one human at a time. It’s like let’s create peace by creating peace with ourselves. Let’s create peace by creating peace with the people close to us. The more we can teach self-regulation, coregulation, the better we’re going to be able to create safer, more loving, more healthy communities.

Porter: That’s exactly it. That’s so powerful.

Flood: Aspiration for the work we do. We help change these men and then they go out into their marriages, their relationships being a parent, their friendships, and …

Porter: Raise a healthier, new generation.

You Don’t Need to Know About Neuro Chemistry to Change Your Life

The Revealing Men podcast looks behind the curtain to reveal what’s really going on with men. This episode took a deep dive into neurochemistry and theories. Flood and Porter are committed to changing (healing) minds one person at a time. If you’re dealing with childhood trauma, PTSD, addictions, or other issues that are derailing your life, the Men’s Resource Center offers you a chance to take control. We provide remote counseling and in-person counseling services.

For information about our men’s support groups and individual and group psychotherapy programs, contact the Men’s Resource Center online or call us at 616-456-1178.  Also, feel free to reach out if you have questions about this segment, ideas for a topic, or would like to be a guest on the Revealing Men podcast.

More Revealing Men podcasts featuring Ken Porter: