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Polyvagal Theory with Kerry Cullen
Episode 4222nd February 2024 • People Soup • People Soup
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Hi there and a very warm welcome to Season 5 Episode 42 of People Soup – it’s Ross McIntosh here. 

P Soupers - here's the second of my chat with Kerry Cullen. Kerry is an embodiment coach, facilitator, chartered psychologist and an expert in Polyvagal theory.

In this episode, Kerry unpacks polyvagal theory for us in a really accessible way. She starts with a description of polyvagal theory and then goes on to talk about its three organising principles and the work of Stephen Porges and Deb Dana. Kerry illustrates the organising principles by looking at her life changing diagnosis through the lens of polyvagal theory. And we also begin to consider its usefulness in the workplace.

And, P Soupers, there is so much that resonates with ACT, too.

People Soup is an award winning podcast where we share evidence based behavioural science, in a way that’s practical, accessible and fun. We're all about Unlocking Workplace Potential with expert perspectives from Contextual Behavioural Science.

Another first for Season 5 is that I'm adding a transcript, wherever possible. There is a caveat - this transcript is largely generated by Artificial Intelligence, I have corrected many errors but I won't have captured them all! You can also find the shownotes by clicking on notes, keep scrolling for all the useful links.

You can find all the details of my ACT in the Workplace Train the Trainer Program over on our partner's website, Contextual Consulting.

The discount code for 20% off the Program is PSOUP20

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Transcripts

PART TWO

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[00:00:06] Kerry: So the neuroception, this internal surveillance system, and we're looking at the cues of safety and danger. And I think , what's interesting is that actually, you know, we might think of the cues of danger as kind of the big ticket things, like, natural disaster or, you know, big things, but actually a cue of danger for your nervous system can just be too much.

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[00:00:56] and people really noticed it in their system, the effect of that. So from a nervous system point of view and from polyvagal point of view, we can see that it's just been too much for your nervous system.

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[00:01:21] In this episode, Kerry unpacks polyvagal theory for us in a really accessible way. She starts with a description and then goes on to talk about its three organising principles and the work of Stephen Porges and Deb Dana.

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[00:01:45] and p supers, there is so much that resonates with ACT, too. [00:02:00] Now, for those of you who are new to PeopleSoup, hello! Welcome! Great to have you on board. we are an award winning podcast where we share evidence based behavioral science in a way that's practical, accessible, and fun. Our mission is to unlock workplace potential with expert perspectives from contextual behavioral science.

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[00:02:30] Paul Flaman in partnership with Contextual Consulting, you'll find the link in the show notes. It's coming up soon, in April and May this year. I've trained hundreds of adults using this training protocol, and also hundreds of trainers too. Thanks to Joe Oliver at Contextual Consulting, There's a code for the course which gives you a 20 percent discount, and that code is PSOOP20. You'll find all the links in the show notes.

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[00:03:26] You're all helping us reach more people with stuff that could be useful. And each review will receive one of the new PeopleSoup bookmarks, which should have gone to print by the time this episode airs.

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[00:03:50] So Kerry, I really want to introduce Polyvagal theory to the pea supers

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[00:04:06] What is PVT?

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[00:04:37] Will I say that again?

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[00:04:41] thinking in my head

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[00:05:01] Wow,

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[00:05:19] The VAGUS NERVE

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[00:05:46] How it impacts how we show up,

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[00:05:53] Kerry: because it's so long and it, yeah, it's touching into different areas.

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[00:06:01] Kerry: I think it's wandering in the sense that it's covering it, it's into different areas so it's quite a long nerve

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[00:06:10] Ross: and when you talk about gut, it just makes me think about gut instinct and

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[00:06:18] Kerry: And actually it's just interesting you mentioning ancient wisdom there because I think that's important to touch on. To me, polyvagal theory, It is actually ancient wisdom that we know inherently within our bones, you know, it's that we know this and polyvagal theory is just making more explicit what we implicitly already know.

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[00:06:53] Ross: Boom. I love that we're connecting people with their inner wisdom. And for me, the things that resonate in a way that, well this makes sense, I already know this at some level, are the most powerful things. Because I think that's what attracted me about ACT. It just feels so human and, and, relatable and

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[00:07:24] Kerry: yeah. So the three organizing principles, the first one is neuroception. And neuroception, Stephen Porges calls it, like our inner surveillance system. So our body is constantly in conversation with the environment around us. So we've, we've constantly got this internal surveillance system running, if you like, and this is going on beneath our level of conscious awareness.

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[00:08:19] And then the third is actually in relationship with other people. So what's happening in the space between us. And I really love what Stephen PORGES says about this, because he says, The nervous system doesn't do appropriate, it just does what it does to keep you safe.

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[00:08:39] Kerry: yeah, it is, it is, isn't it? It's so reassuring.

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[00:08:45] Ross: And, and in ACT we talk about a similar thing. We talk about. Our minds producing some unhelpful stuff that can then influence how we show up and that unhelpful stuff is generated because of the way our minds have evolved to keep us Safe, But the contexts in which we're operating are very different from when we lived in caves. Sorry I digress, but

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[00:09:25] Kerry: Yeah. And for all of us, right, there are always situations where we show up and we feel like we've been a bit of an arsehole

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[00:09:35] Kerry: it's, we can have that compassion. You know, and I can remember going to do a presentation, this is a good few years ago now, to a group of MBA students, and I stood up to do my presentation, I'm really well prepared, I'm quite, you know, quite comfortable, but my voice just goes and I go into complete shutdown in my system.

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[00:10:19] But actually looking at it from a nervous system perspective actually makes the most sense with the most compassion to understand what happened.

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[00:10:31] Kerry: Yeah,

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[00:10:35] making much sense.

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[00:10:59] It's shared about, you know, losing my voice in public. I can trace back, you know, through my family, this fear of being seen.

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[00:11:14] ways of looking at the world from our ancestors.

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[00:11:19] Ross: Absolutely agree,

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[00:11:43] Ross: I so resonate with this because I've got a very strong, unhelpful thought that's there a lot of the time. And it basically articulated as, what will the neighbors say? What will people think about me?

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[00:11:58] Ross: And I know that's [00:12:00] inherited.

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[00:12:01] Ross: And I'm not

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[00:12:04] that with my mum,

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[00:12:06] Ross: but it's fascinating to think that at one point in my ancestry, perhaps, that

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[00:12:13] Kerry: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. And necessary to, to, to survive or be safe, you know. Yeah.

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[00:12:24] Kerry: So yeah, so the neuroception, this internal surveillance system, and we're looking at the cues of safety and danger. And I think what might be, what's interesting and to point out to your PSUPUs is that actually, you know, we might think of the cues of danger as kind of the big ticket things, you know, like, you know, natural disaster or, you know, big things, but actually a cue of danger for your nervous system can just be too much.

[:

[00:13:23] and people really noticed it in their system, the effect of that. So from a nervous system point of view and from polyvagal point of view, we can see that it's just been too much for your nervous system.

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[00:13:41] Kerry: Yeah. Yeah. And that actually leads into the second principle. We think about that, you know, that. that losing that sense of choice or agency. We can think about what happens in our nervous system in terms of a ladder. So this is the beautiful work of Deb Dana. So Deb [00:14:00] Dana took Stephen Portis's work and then she made it very accessible in terms of, well, how do we actually work with this in a very practical way?

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[00:14:13] Ross: you know I'm a big fan of the ladder.

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[00:14:35] To here

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[00:15:05] And we have this sense of flow and ease. So there's not too much tension, or, you know, thinking of Goldilocks, it's like the perfect bowl of porridge, there's not too much tension. We're not in collapse either. So we have this sense of flow, and that's where we can access the curiosity. That's where we can access collaboration.

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[00:15:46] And what's really interesting is the story that we tell ourselves is different depending where we are on the ladder. So the story from that top of the ladder is one of possibility [00:16:00] and one of curiosity.

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[00:16:06] Kerry: yeah, And we're human, Ross.

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[00:16:09] yeah!

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[00:16:15] Ross: Yeah, but I guess in act terms that's like towards moves, that's us being

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[00:16:28] general, there's a sense of a gut instinct when that is happening, when we're doing our towards moves. So ventral vagal,

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[00:16:37] ladder.

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[00:16:39] Ross: and this is the conversation you had with your consultant, you helped him. Get into that ventral vagal space with you. Is that right?

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[00:16:59] So that's the top of the ladder. And remembering, so our story follows state. So we're finding that sense of curiosity. If then there is more preponderance of cues of danger that come in, so going back to neuroception, so we're starting to pick up these cues of danger happening below our level of conscious awareness, we will find ourselves slipping down that ladder, and now we'll start to move into more of a defensive state.

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[00:17:45] Ross: Hmm.

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[00:17:54] We're probably going to recognize this within ourselves, all of us . It's that sense [00:18:00] of, you know, your heart's going a bit faster, there's more tension in your body. So physically to me, it's like we're a bit ahead of ourselves. You know, the energy's a bit forward, we're talking a bit faster. whereas when we're at the top of the ladder, we feel on top of things.

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[00:18:44] And we can get a seeking behavior. So it's like we're trying to seek and look for things. So I know for me, when I'm in this middle of the ladder, that I will find myself like looking for something online that I don't really need. Or I'll find myself looking at houses or, you know, it's like looking for something.

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[00:19:18] Ross: Hmm.

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[00:19:26] Ross: So that could be a whole variety of things. For you it might be looking at stuff online that you perhaps don't need, but making purchases. It could, could it, could it be like endless scrolling on social media?

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[00:19:49] Ross: Have you been in our house? Man alive, yeah. That is sometimes, there's too much choice. And like,

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[00:19:59] [00:20:00] And then they have to revert to lists from other people.

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[00:20:43] Ross: Got you. So it's that defensiveness.

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[00:20:51] Kerry: Yeah, it's more of one of us against the world.

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[00:21:12] Kerry: And what's really interesting, Ross, about this place, we go back to the vagus nerve and how it goes over our hearing and our eyes,

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[00:21:35] and if we go back into our survival states, you know, it was safer to misinterpret something as danger that's neutral than the other way around. So in practical terms, it's like when you get an email, if you've ever had this, you've got an email, if you read it in sympathetic and you might go, talking for myself now, what an asshole, you know.

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[00:22:01] Ross: God yeah. and the danger is if, I guess, if we carry that forward, if I get one of those emails and I just Type my response

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[00:22:24] Kerry: Yeah. And we're getting stuck in a dynamic

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[00:22:27] a workplace we can see that dynamic just becoming deeply deeply embedded. We're building our trenches, we're making them deeper and becoming more resolved that We're right Yeah This is why I think polyvagal is one of the key foundations to Evolving in the workplace of being more effective and kind and curious and compassionate humans.

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[00:23:20] Ross: Love that so it's about noticing and then

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[00:23:27] Kerry: the ladder?

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[00:23:29] Kerry: So remembering it's a hierarchy, so the first place we go is the middle, that's too much energy. Then the bottom of the ladder is actually the big guns of our nervous system. and actually this is where Stephen Porges theory really changed what we understand about Neuroscience.

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[00:24:08] it's having that kind of down effect on your system, but in a survival way. So if it's in a positive way, then that's about the rest and restore. So that means that we have ventral, vagal, and this sense of this dorsal is, is what we call this bottom of the ladder. But if it's in a survival sense, it's actually making us play dead, essentially.

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[00:24:59] That has consequences, you know. So instead, we dissociate. So we're there. But it's like our nervous system takes us away from the table. So it's more of a collapse in our system. And so it's taken us away from being present.

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[00:25:18] Kerry: And, The other thing to say about these places on the ladder, they're not buckets. we can tip in a little bit into that having too much energy, you know, or we can tip in a little bit the dorsal. or we can find ourselves, you know, it's like a continuum that we can, it can lead into, you know, real feelings of hopelessness.

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[00:25:57] It's like, I don't know what I can do about [00:26:00] this. I've got, you know, I can feel even as I say that in my system, you know, it's that sense of overwhelm.

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[00:26:15] resources to to change that

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[00:26:18] of how we're showing up.

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[00:26:40] But for other people, the bottom of the ladder is actually more of a home away from home. It is for me. The bottom of the ladder is more where I'll go to. So it can also help in the world of work about bringing in understanding. Because if your home away from home is that middle of the ladder, Okay, and you're interacting with me and I get very overwhelmed by something and I go to the bottom of the ladder.

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[00:27:25] So it can be really helpful to actually understand how we show up and what's behind that.

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[00:27:46] I don't know, maybe they're at the bottom of that ladder.

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[00:27:50] To here

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[00:27:54] Kerry: Now that's a really good question. I think when we're at the bottom of the ladder, we're not as accessible, [00:28:00] so we're not as engaged, right? That's, that's the truth of it, because there is that sense of disconnect.

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[00:28:15] Ross: got it. Cause, cause when people are like that, when I'm trying to hold

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[00:28:20] people feel less accessible. That's the

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[00:28:25] Kerry: They're distant. Yeah. Yeah.

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[00:28:33] Kerry: Yeah. Also interesting to think about, leadership. understand that dynamic because, you know, you talked about the middle of the ladder. I think that can happen if somebody is more dorsal and somebody's home away from home is more sympathetic.

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[00:28:59] Ross: oh my gosh, that, that is it isn't it?

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[00:29:01] Poss SPoons

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[00:29:13] me get that in my head.

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[00:29:23] So the top, ventral vagal, or flow, that's where we have that sense of connection and curiosity and where we do our best thinking and creativity. Then we slip down into the middle of the ladder when those cues of danger increase and that's when we've got too much energy.

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[00:30:10] we're more in our defensive states. I think we should also mention at this point as well, for your P Soopers Ross. That we do have blended states, and that's important to mention, that we can have our ventral, top of the ladder, that can be holding our sympathetic, the middle of the ladder.

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[00:30:53] We're moving forward. We've got momentum.

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[00:30:56] Kerry: So it's a high performance place, and it's also a play place, it's where we can be playful. The thing is, if we try and hang out there too long, we'll slip into sympathetic.

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[00:31:17] We'll slip out of it eventually.

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[00:31:28] Ross: Hell yeah.

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[00:31:36] Ross: Quacky, it's like unpacking behavior in the office, step by step.

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[00:32:04] It's where our cells can regenerate. And we might think of that, you know, it's when we've got some stillness, meditation would come in there, or breath work, but when we're in that place where we're just feeling restored.

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[00:32:25] Kerry: yeah, yeah,

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[00:32:27] Kerry: So the final principle then is around co regulation. And I love this principle because it's about the space that lies between us. So if we think about when a baby is born, it's essential for them to be with a caregiver. That relationship is essential for them to survive. So we're hardwired for connection.

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[00:33:15] us to have a sense of connection with other people in some shape or form. And I love, there's a quote by Neil Greenberg, and he says, Resilience doesn't always lie within us, but between us. And I just love the possibility of that, so. Like for me, when I was at the bottom of the ladder with my diagnosis, I really benefited from those people who could be around me, who could get themselves to the top of the ladder and be in ventral vagal to hold me in my dorsal state and help me bring some of that ventral online.

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[00:33:58] Kerry: Yeah,

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[00:34:41] Kerry: absolutely. And from a biological perspective, in polyvagal terms, it looks at how this co regulation happens.

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[00:34:50] Kerry: It's to do with what's called the social engagement system. it's actually to do with The kind of eye heart connection, actually, it's all this area. It's that upper area of the nervous system of that vagal nerve.

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[00:35:24] it's soothing to listen to your voice. So that that's one area. And then the pace of our voice as well. how are we pacing our voice? And it's also very individual because how we show up is how our nervous system has been shaped, right? So actually there is also for us, how we experience somebody's voice can be different to how somebody else experiences it.

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[00:35:52] Ross: That's amazing because people have been very kind about how they found my voice very relaxing [00:36:00] before.

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[00:36:11] Kerry: yeah.

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[00:36:20] Kerry: Yeah,

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[00:36:28] and arriving at this workshop to

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[00:36:34] why is he going so bloody slow?

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[00:36:39] Kerry: yeah, yeah,

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[00:36:42] that. And actually, if we look at that, we might propose that perhaps for some of those people, the home away from home is more sympathetic, right? And remember that the pace of sympathetic is actually quite fast. So a slower pace can feel unsafe because for some people when sympathetic is their home away from home, they really don't want to dip into dorsal there's a feeling if I stop and go there, I'll never be able to get back up.

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[00:37:14] Kerry: that is within us already, right? That's the thing, isn't it? You know,

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[00:37:47] And then it's to do with your middle ear as well. So that social engagement is, a fascinating area.

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[00:37:54] [00:38:00] Kerry in the bag. Hold on to your hats though, because next week there's a bit more on polyvagal theory with Kerry. We thought you might like a deeper dive and there's a tremendous takeaway too. Now, we need your help. You can support us and help us reach more people with this behavioural science. So

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[00:38:24] Ross: Number one, share it with one other person. Number two, subscribe and give us a five star review, whatever platform you're on.

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[00:39:00] Thanks to Andy Glenn for his spoon magic and Alex Engelberg for his vocals. Most of all, dear listener, thanks to you. Look after yourselves, peace supers, and bye for now.

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[00:39:21] Ross: Oh, that's very kind of you and thank you. I do love doing it.

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