SAFE & SOUND PROTOCOL (SSP)
This protocol was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, based on his Polvagal Theory, SSP is a 5 day sound based (auditory) intervention calming the physiological and emotional states. This is derived from 4 decades of research on the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and socio-emotional processes. SSP was designed to reduce stress and auditory sensitivity, enhancing social engagement and resilience.
Our emotional and physiological states are important to how we approach various circumstances. When we have a better regulation, therapeutic outcomes are improved. The regulation or calmness brings balance to our psysiological and emotional systems allowing the client to feel safe. This intervention is know as passive, meaning that the client can benefit from just listening as long as the client feels calm and safe, focusing on the music. SSP brings the client from a state of hyperarousal (fight or flight, defensiveness, cautious or nervousness) to a feeling of safety or calmness. SSP is designed to stimulate nervous system regulation by exercising and systematically challenging the auditory system with specifically processed or filtered music. When the client’s hyperarousal state (flight or flight) is decreased, their social engagement system can work properly. In essence, SSP aims to calm the child’s nervous system so that the client can be more socially engaged.
Studies suggest that attention, state regulation and ability to engage socially are improved. Following the SSP Protocol, ideally children will be better able to focus in school, therapy, and daily life as they experience a calmed emotional and physiological state. The research of various clinical trials, shows that many neurodevelopmental and mental health conditions share common behavioral features such as: compromised social engagement system, over aroused autonomic nervous system, and auditory hypersensitivity or difficulty filtering out background sounds or noises in order to tune into the human voice.
The state of calmness or self regulation allows clients to have a better ability to listen, stay focused and engage with others socially. These clients are able to take in and process what is needed to keep up with social situations. The polyvagal theory shares it’s perception of difficulties that our children have with social interactions and processing speech. It states that when the child’s emotional state is stressed, the nervous system is working over time to regulate or settle down. This then effects the client’s ability to notice or learn details that accompany social interactions such as reading emotions or processing language.
- Based on Dr. Porges’s Polyvagal Theory
- Music is processed or filtered specifically to re-tune the nervous system
- Non-invasive, only 60 minutes for 5 consecutive days
- Enhances or accelerates other therapies
- 3 main areas of focus:
- Social Communication: Social Engagement System – For example, better facial expressions or eye contact, understanding of speech, reciprocal interactions
- Physiological State: Autonomic Nervous system – minimizes emotional or mental stress, improving the ability to regulate behaviors
- Sound Sensitivity, and auditory processing – improvements on the SCAN-3 (measure of auditory processing) and one’s ability to decipher human speech from background sounds and hearing in both ears.
- Has two components
- Structuring a safe context in which it’s given – which is managed by the practitioner or provider – For the intervention to be effective it is necessary for the client’s nervous system to be in a state of safety
- Delivering acoustic features that serve as a neural exercise – which is provided by our clinician.
SSP can be administered by a professional who has participated in the training. Our office has one person who is qualified to do this. Please note: This protocol is not meant to replace other forms of therapy, it is designed to be used in adjunct to other therapies.
The cost is $625 dollars. This would include both a parent intake session ($125) and 5 – 60 minute SSP sessions ($100/per session).
Interested clients would need to contact our office for an intake session. During this SSP intake session, the parents will go over what SSP looks like, how to prepare for SSP, complete rating scales, etc. After the intake session, the parent and child (or the adult client) will need to commit to coming into the office for 60 minutes each day, for 5 consecutive days.
The 5 SSP sessions will be held Monday-Friday, at the same time each day. While the specific protocol does not require same time each day, our office prefers this for scheduling purposes. During the 5 sessions, this intervention involves listening to filtered music that has been processed specifically to exercise the stapedius muscle in the inner ear. This muscle plays a role in how we process speech, facial expressions and other social cues. By exercising and strengthening this muscle, SSP helps clients regulate their response to stress, emotions or auditory information.
The person having the SSP intervention can be accompanied by a safe other person. This can be a parent or guardian, spouse, etc. During the intervention hour, the two will not engage in any conversation, but they may choose to engage in a number of creative activities, either separately or together.
After a client has completed their 5 days, the parent will be asked to complete rating forms shortly after.
ILS has shared on their website: “Given the current health crisis and the need for physical distancing, we have accelerated the release of the digital version of SSP delivery to make it available as soon as we could. What we are providing now is a “beta” version. Beta means that, while we are confident of its functionality, it is still in its early stages without some of the features expected in the final version.”
What is needed for Remote/Digitial version:
- Internet access the app
- Android device to access the specific music app Per the ILS website, “The digital version of the SSP is clinically the same as the SSP you have always used. It replaces the physical MP3 player as a method of delivering the SSP playlists with an app (Unyte-iLs app) that can be downloaded on any Android device.”
- SSP headphones or those recommended. (ILS Adult Here, ILS Children here, here or here) ILS is very clear that ear buds, on ear or noise canceling headphones are not recommended.
Clinician can create and manage accounts through the app. They are able to view, track and access the process.
During the intake appointment, the clinician will discuss how the technology works, expectations and logistics. Remote delivery can be 30 or 60 minutes each day (5-10 days), based on client’s presenting concerns and their tolerance.
Please note: not every client is a candidate for remote delivery of the Safe and Sound Protocol. Some clients, especally adults with trauma history, would need a personal presense of a therapist for saftey and best results. Those that would not be a good fit for distance / remote SSP are living in an unstable household, history of trauma, experienced a negative life event such as death, divorce or jobloss. Other reasos could be a recent head injury, or medical instability, self injury behaviors and/or suicidal thoughts.
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What changes can you expect?
Presentation by Heather MacDuffie
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Frequently Asked Questions
What age can SSP be used with?
In our office we can use SSP with anyone over the age of 18 months, to adults.
Can my child only complete part of the protocol?
This is not recommended. Families will not see the benefit of the protocol if they do not complete the entire 5 day sequence.
What are some of the areas that can be improved?
- Social & emotional difficulties
- Auditory sensitives
- Anxiety and trauma related challenges
- Stressors that impact social engagementAdditionally, areas or issues that have shown improvement or success:
- Down Syndrome
- Mild TBI
What are characteristics of common clients?
- Difficulty in regulation behavioral state
- Difficulty listening and following directions
- Speech & language delays
- Sound sensitivities (including misophonia)
- Difficulty with giving or understanding facial expressions
Can the protocol be repeated?
Yes, it can. Some families might do another round of the protocol in 3-4 months.
Is it true that you can have stomach issues during or after SSP?
There is a possibility that some clients might report physical symptoms during or right after the protocol. While this isn’t uncommon, this is not a regular occurrence with all clients. Some adults will report some bowel changes or feeling gassy. Children might report their tummy doesn’t feel well. Typically, turning down the volume helps relieve symptoms.
Essentially, when the nervous system perceives a threat, it produces too much stomach acid. When stressed, our bodies release adrenaline, cortisol and histime (along with others…). While not completely understood, the enmetic system has connections to the vestibular and stomach systems both of which are involved in Safe and Sound Protocol. We also know that when we are feeling anxiety our bodies produce histamine which might be what the reflux or nausea could be a result of.
Quick stress lesson:
– When our body is under stress, stress hormone cortisol is released, which calls the nervous system into action.
– Hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal is stimulated by the nervous system which puts the body into ‘fight or flight’ mode.
– Our bodies, stressed, feel like they are under attack, all resources are poured into conserving energy – which shuts down areas such as digestion.
– ADDITIONALLY, the sympathetic nervous system is triggered; releasing neurotransmitters (adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine) which sharpens the senses and put your body on high alert. The sympathetic nervous system also triggers histamine into the bloodstream.
Can the protocol make behaviors worse?
With some clients, there may be an uptick in negative behaviors for a short time. While this is not uncommon, for parents this can be scary. The child is most likely experiencing emotions bigger than what they have experienced before. Many times children who have never been in a settled state feel different, not knowing how to feel given that their bodies and brain have to learn the new normal. As time passes, these children eventually settle into their new state. Suggestions could be increasing physical movement such as going to the playground. Another suggestion would be remaining conscious of how calm and connected the caregiver is to the child, the co-regulation piece is very important.
We also encourage families to experience the protocol when the children are not under alot of stress…avoiding yearly triggers, beginning of the school year, etc.
Can I listen to the music at the same time as my child?
Yes, and No.
The short answer is that it “IS” possible to utilize a slitter and use allow both the child and the parent to listen simultaneously. When doing the protocol together, professionals have seen positive results. On the other hand, for many clients this may not be a good idea because each person is dealing with their own emotions, and at times, the person listening may need a “safe” or regulated person. We would not want the child to be the “safe” or “regulated” person for the adult. This is the case, with many families.
Is this protocol appropriate for those who have experienced trauma?
In the case of early childhood stress, the middle ear does not become attuned to human vocalizations; child’s ear focuses on low frequency sounds, of which are associated with danger. As we will notice, these children are distracted by background noises and do not respond to the human voice and miss out on social engagement opportunities.
Recent advances in the area of brain interventions for toxic stress and trauma have led to innovative treatment strategies. One of which is the Safe and Sound Protocol.
Can SSP fix my child's learning disability?
Many people wonder how SSP will impact their child’s learning disability. Each child’s response is unique. It can be hard to separate the social impact of the disability from the disability itself. Learning is partly a social process, thus improving the social engagement system, this can help some kids who struggle to learn. For example, while SSP cannot “fix” the disability itself, it can lesson the times they shut down when they are confronted with a challenge or decrease the emotional reactions that the child might have to the way they approach school or academics. Some children we have seen improvement in their ability to stay on task with an assignment, or their regulation when completing an assignment.
Can you expand the science behind SSP?
Most families want to know more about the science behind the intervention. The Polyvagal Theroy states that in mammals the regulation of the autonomic nervous system centers around listening and vocalization. Mammals are different than reptiles because 2 bones in the ear are detached allowing us to hear low amplitude and high frequency sounds in the human voice. The bones in the middle ear are a direct entry to our autonomic nervous system. Muscles (Stapedius) in the middle ear provide input to the brain through vegus nerve stimulation. When the stapeduius muscle is weak the brain struggles to attend and interpret sound & facial cues, as well as other dysregulation issues. These are outside of our conscious control. SSP exercises this muscle increasing the range of input the client can take in. When the way we take in sound is distorted, it disrupts the entire autonomic nervous system, interfering with the social engagement system.
The Polyvagal Theory addresses the origins of the difficulties some children have with social interactions and processing speech. The theory continues that if the child’s emotional state is stressed or confused, the nervous system is working overtime on trying to calm down. This heightened behavior state makes the child unavailable for noticing or learning the subtleties that come with social interactions such as reading emotions and processing similar words correctly.
Which cranial nerve is effected?
The music trains the auditory pathways by focusing on the frequency envelope of human speech. As the client learns to process these speech-related frequencies, they improve the functioning of two cranial nerves that are important for promoting overall social behavior.
- Cranial Nerve VII (Facial Nerve) helps clients focus on human voice and tune out irrelevant frequencies.
- Cranial Nerve X (Vagus Nerve) enables self-soothing and autonomic regulation.
Why is the effect stronger in adults than children?
It has been noticed among practitioners that some adults who have completed the protocol can experience some intense emotions for a short time after SSP. The thought is that these adults feel emotions or begin to process in a way that they are not used to experiencing prior to SSP. SSP can be beneficial for children AND adults, however it’s not always the best option for an adult to do it alone without support if they have a trauma background. After SSP clients will notice that changes take place in their social engagement system, the ANS is more regulated, and the individual can start to process their world in a different way, as well as their past experiences or traumas. As one can imagine this can be overwhelming, which is why there is a therapist available to help provide support. While parents or caregivers will more likely be able to provide or seek out support for their children, many times adults will not have the supports or will attempt to push through.
If my child does not like a song can we skip that portion of the music
Short answer: no.
Longer answer: They do not want people to skip over songs because each song is an integral piece to the protocol. The special modulation to the music is what makes this different, and should not be altered.
We've heard that SSP can be useful with clients who have experienced trauma, is that true?
In our experience, yes. Porges explains through his Polyvagal theory that individuals who have experienced some sort of trauma have difficulty connecting with others and forming relationships. As we know our physiological state dictates our behaviors. Additionally, clients who have experienced trauma have nervous systems that are on alert or heightened, assuming danger is near. They are constantly in a state of arousal and struggle to regulate. SSP has been helpful in both of these areas, both allowing clients to be in a state of calm, which effects their ability to connect with others and regulate their own emotions and behaviors.
What types of therapies does SSP help with?
Safe and Sound Protocol can increase the effectiveness of counseling or psychotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy.
Who is my practioner and what do they do?
The Practioner is the clinician who faciliates the entire process. The Clinician meets with the client’s family (in person or virtually), provides the equipment in office (or access virtually), determines the best course of action or treatment plan for the client and their family, as well as directives of what to be doing during SSP sessions. There should also be pre & post evaluations. At Step By Step Counseling Jennie Wilson is our practioner or clinician who has been through the training and is qualified to administer the protocol. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, National Certified Counselor, Registered Play Therapist Supervisor, Autplay certified and EMDR certified. She is passionate about SSP and promoting it to anyone who could benefit from it.