How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve, Treat Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Autism with The Safe and Sound Protocol with Carol Garner-Houston

Content By: Ari Whitten
How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve, Treat Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Autism with The Safe and Sound Protocol with Carol Garner-Houston

In this episode, I am speaking with Carol Garner-Houston. Carol is the co-founder and chief medical officer of Brain Harmony, a center specializing in treating neurological disorders without pharmaceuticals. Carol will discuss ways to stimulate the vagus nerve, as well as the revolutionary Safe and Sound Protocol, an effective treatment for neurological disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD and autism.

In this podcast, Carol will cover:

  • The vagus nerve (What it is and how it affects your health)
  • How sound affects your brain and nervous system
  • The revolutionary Safe and Sound Protocol to rewire the brain and autonomic nervous system
  • Why feeling safe neurologically is critical for health, energy, and wellbeing
  • The concept of neuroplasticity (And why it matters)
  • How to treat neurological imbalances without pharmaceuticals
  • How the autonomic nervous system affects anxiety, depression, brain fog, and other brain symptoms
  • The first tests to assess your neurological health
  • The importance of having a “Safe and Sound” space at home
  • Who the Safe and Sound Protocol is for

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How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve, Treat Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Autism with The Safe and Sound Protocol with Carol Garner-Houston – Transcript

Ari Whitten:  Hey there, welcome to the Energy Blueprint Podcast. I am your host Ari Whitten and today I have with me a brain and neurodevelopmental specialist, Carol Garner-Houston, who is the Co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Brain Harmony specializing in treating neurological disorders without pharmaceuticals. In their groundbreaking telemedicine program, Brain Harmony applies the principles of neuroplasticity of the brain to treat disorders such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, sensory and auditory processing, stress and sleep, speech and communication, behavior, autism spectrum, attention and regulation, learning and dyslexia, traumatic brain injury and post-concussive syndrome, stroke and Parkinson’s and I assume more. That is quite a list of… I think you pretty much covered every possible brain related issue there, Carol. Carol is an Occupational Therapist with 23 years of experience and the recipient of Health System Innovation Award from the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems serving vulnerable populations. Her outcomes are the best in the world with clients gaining years worth of skills in several months time frame and returning optimal brain performance to injured and diseased systems. So welcome to the show, Carol. Such a pleasure to have you.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Thank you so much. I have been looking forward to it.

Ari Whitten:  Yeah. So I want to say that, you know, I have read quite a bit on Stephen Porges’ work around polyvagal theory and I have delved quite deeply into that. And then one of the things he advocates is a system called ILS which is, I believe it stands for Integrated Listening Systems if I remember correctly. And I found you through that. You were recommended through a mutual friend named Randall who is, was raving about your work. And, so I looked into it, I listened to some podcasts with you and I said, “I need to have you on the show.” So I am glad we are finally making it happen and welcome.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Oh, me too. This is going to be fun.

Ari Whitten:  Yeah. So I just read your bio there. We talked that, I think that gives a nice overview of what you do. Specifically for people listening to this show who are interested in improving their energy levels, improving their brain function and the brain has key roles as far as energy and mood. But also there is a lot of people… One of the things that overlaps with chronic fatigue for many people is brain related symptoms like anxiety and depression and brain fog in particular. So, can you speak to kind of on a high level as far as what you are doing in relationship to some of those symptoms?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Absolutely. One of the things when we attempt to reorganize the neurological system is we first have to go in and calm and soothe and provide comfort. That you started with mentioning Dr. Porges and the Safe and Sound Protocol, that is exactly how we would start with any of our friends or clients that have those types of symptoms. We would go in to soothe the parasympathetic nervous system and we use sound frequencies to do that. Porges has created such beautiful work in regards to using sound frequencies to reach specifically the vagus nerve. And the vagus nerve is connected to all of the autonomic nervous system, the things in our body that happen automatically, like your breath rate and your heart rate. What is super wonderful about the vagus as well is it will connect to the bowel and bladder, connections of the human system as well as the social portal.

And so we first go there, we provide comfort there first. And that is our favorite tool to do that with. Specifically how he does that is he has recorded music with human voices in it. And the prosodic features, when you put the headset on, the prosodic features of those voices will pass through the tympanic membrane in the inner ear to reach the vagus nerve. And you can begin, within five days of this protocol, you can begin to feel that settling, that reset to the autonomic nervous system which is such a gift for any of our friends that you were speaking of. There is lots of trauma involved with those. There is lots of medical trauma and this is the first place that we go. We also use a small little tool that I am wearing now.

It is the Alpha-Stim that is also a nice tool that we use. It produces the alpha waves in the brain, which combat anxiety, insomnia, and depression. So we can give in this case, when I use this tool, within 20 minutes. And then with the other tool you can start to receive very calming input within five days. After that we will use very specific frequencies with the use of the focus protocol that has frequencies that are set to impact very specific parts of the brain. So our friends who are looking for more energy, that cognitive fog, those things that you mentioned, we are going to first connect the brain body with some lower frequencies, but we are essentially going to the higher frequencies which elevates mood, creativity, enthusiasm, the higher cognitive functions such as executive functioning, and speed of processing.

So what is fantastic is, is we love using these tools. Several of the clients that we have used it with were so severely depressed and with that comes that severe lack of energy and they just couldn’t get out of bed. So we comfort their system, we start rolling in a couple of our protocols. It softens the edges. But then once we get to these higher frequencies on our weekly telemedicine phone calls, I will pick up the phone, and one day I picked it up and this lovely woman who has been suffering for, since her adolescent years says, I said, “How are you?” She says, “I got out of bed today!” And it was so significant and it is so exciting that you can use sound frequencies to impact your energy level and your mood.

The Polyvagal Theory

Ari Whitten:  Now let’s step back a little bit because there is a lot to unpack in what you just said. For everyone listening who has no idea who Stephen Porges is, who knows nothing about the vagus nerve, who knows nothing about polyvagal theory, let’s explain some of those concepts because I feel like everything that we are going to talk about in this Podcast is going to connect into those. So let’s go there first and make sure we have laid the groundwork for everybody to understand what is to come.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Okay. Absolutely. So anytime you say the “polyvagal theory,” that is the vagus nerve that they are referencing. And the “poly” part is how many pieces is connected into the human system and how important it is to have a very well regulated autonomic nervous system which is required for function. So we use, the vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve. And it connects, like I mentioned, to the major organs of the human body and it develops. He is such a fascinating read. He has several books so it is just very exciting. And you could really read and we could talk about it in depth for hours because he essentially begins talking about how the lower evolution and the lower frequencies as it went through evolution allows for certain sound frequencies. Specifically the lower frequencies, the predatory sounds, very reptilian, very part of the primitive brain for them to be able to perceive the vibration of a predator and the sounds of a predator.

Ari Whitten:  Real quick, for people who maybe don’t understand low frequencies and high frequencies, can you give an example? And I know I am, I don’t know how, you know, awkward I need to make this as far as you making animal sounds or something like that. But I just want to make sure people understand the difference between low and high frequencies.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Okay. Yes. So the lower frequencies are definitely the lower voices. It is just in the predatory type of sounds…

Ari Whitten:  It is like deeper bass tones.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Deeper. Deeper bass and cello sounds there. It is at the… The human system is built to perceive those sounds and have a response to it. It is part of our makeup of who we are. So, for example, those lower frequencies, we consider those between zero and 750 hertz. And so for that in that space, for so many, we are trying to give you an explanation of the connection between the primitive brain with that reptilian type of response. Right? So those, reptiles are close to the ground, they have lower and they can read lower frequencies. They perceive the vibration as well as the sounds and they have been set to know, to run, fight or flee from those sounds.

That is an interesting point because so many who are sensitive to sounds or just have that high level of anxiety, frequently it is because their ear, for whatever reason, we can talk about the causal relationship, but their ears are only perceiving the low frequencies. So, as that is going in their ear it is just sending to their autonomic nervous system a fight-or-flight response. That is why that is the first thing we go to is to calm that fight-or-flight response. And Porges has taught us how to do that with sound frequencies to reach into the tympanic membrane, reach that vagus nerve, reset it, and then use the prosodic features which are the human voices, the human aspects that can soothe an individual. Those are then sent into the music and it calms the nervous system that way. So hopefully as I begin to talk about this, it is complex science in there, but we want to make it, break it down so it is very easy to understand and swallow.

Ari Whitten:  Yeah. Now let’s delve a little deeper into the polyvagal theory. So different parts of the vagus nerve, what are these different parts and what do they do or control or how do they relate to our experience in life?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Yes. So that is the autonomic nervous system, breath rate, heart rate. It is also connected to bowel and bladder as well as the social portal of the human system. We are all intended to be social creatures to survive. We were required to breastfeed. We need a family to build shelter and collect food. It takes a very long time for a human to become independent. So that social piece is very important and it is very much so anatomically connected to the vestibular apparatus inside the inner ear as well as the major organs I mentioned before, as well as to all the muscles of the face and the oral motor muscles as well. So what that means is, is that when you can use a tool like this, you can actually activate the social portal of the human system and it will stimulate. During the protocol you can see some of their cheeks may be getting pink because it is that vagus nerve is being awakened and reset. It also can help stimulate the ocular motor muscles as well as those ocular motor muscles are then used for eye contact. But not just superficial eye contact just by looking at someone. I am talking about that deep connection that you can have and communication with someone nonverbally just through the use of your eyes. That is that human connection that so many people are looking for, whether it has been blunted by trauma or maybe it just never really was activated for the growing individual. We can activate it with the use of the polyvagal theory and its expression through the Safe and Sound Protocol. It is really quite fascinating and can be just what an individual needs to begin to pull themselves off of the couch or pull themselves out of a very, a state that they need out of.

It activates that. It embraces the textures of the human experience. And it is fabulous because your background is in psychology, right? And we talk about mood and emotions and things of that nature. And when we talk about the social portal of the human system, it really, it is not just a concept. It is an anatomical feature and we can follow it with anatomy into all of these features. And then the best way that I know how to express it is how the SSP affects so many of our clients that are using it.

The Safe and Sound Protocol

Ari Whitten:  What is SSP?

Carol Garner-Houston:  That is short for the Safe and Sound Protocol. So usually clients are reaching out to us for either themselves or a family member. And then when that unit and our protocols are sent to their home, we help them open the box and we teach them how to use them. As they go through this five days of this new listening program, it reawakens all kinds of activity for the brain while calming the sensory systems. So that fight-or-flight, that defensive type of reaction is soothed. And I have heard several of our adult clients talking about, “I didn’t realize that the Safe and Sound Protocol was going to be marriage counseling.” Because as it activates that social portal and the human is allowed to process human speech better, the communication is deeper. The nonverbal giving and reading of cues is deeper. We frequently hear that people are expressing affection and emotion much more easily and as well as verbalizing them, adults and children for that matter. There are giving us all kinds of wonderful feedback of this tool really pushing them into that connectedness that is uniquely human

Ari Whitten:  Now, within polyvagal theory there are sort of these three branches, the ventral vagal, dorsal vagal and sympathetic branch. Can you talk a bit about what a person’s experience might be or what their dominant emotional states and sort of ways of being or the facial expressions and ways of interacting with others might be depending on which of those three branches is optimal or, sorry, which of those three branches is dominant, I should say?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Well, a good example would be when you are not feeling that connectedness at all with others and that is a real problem. You can have that blunted affect of your face, right? Where you are talking with someone and it is just a little bit flat all through the conversation. You can see that in all kinds of different diagnoses – after stroke, traumatic brain injury, things of that sort. You can have the superficial branch and as it does the muscles of the face and the eyes. You have different branches, again, that can do, that have that fight-or-flight response in there. And I say that over and over because there is that defensive response, that rigidity in thinking, that “no” to new ideas, that “no” to wanting to move, that “no” to wanting to evolve is part of your autonomic nervous system and the vagus nerve is the king of how to reach that and reset it.

There is also, too, a part of the nerve that will, and which is also part of the fight-or-flight, which is the bowel and bladder control. So if we have adults who have sustained an injury to the brain or we have a child who just doesn’t have that brain-body connection to have the bowel and bladder be potty trained, we can build it by exposing them to the Safe and Sound Protocol. It reawakens that brain-body connection specifically with the bowel and bladder because that is part of the fight-or-flight response. The individual will need to, you know, if you think back and when we were in the times where we had to hunt our food, you know, if a tiger is coming or you are hearing those predatory sounds and you know what is coming, the human body is set up to eliminate so then you can move and run faster.

Right? And so there is certain parts that are going to work, too, and the blood vessels will go more towards the core of the body in case you lose a finger or an arm. All the blood, they are trying to pull it into the core of the body. So all of these pieces are working together. And it is just fabulous how it goes throughout the entire human system and how it reaches from all the different branches into that social portal. Because when you think of fight-or-flight, you know, you think, “Wow, how is that connected to how I, you know, socially communicate?” But it is all very connected with that, the polyvagal aspect of the vagus nerve.

The importance of social support and interpersonal connection

Ari Whitten:  Right. So that was actually, my next question ties into what you just said there which is, you know, the old sort of conception of the autonomic nervous system was either you are stressed or relaxed. So either sympathetic or parasympathetic and the polyvagal theory is quite a bit more complex than that. But one of the interesting layers to the story that is much more emphasized within polyvagal theory is this social portal, this interpersonal relationships. And you talked a bit about, you know, for example, facial muscles and how that relates to expression of emotions and communication. How does sound tie into specifically the social portal and interpersonal connection?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Yes. Okay. So he uses… You know, just as the brain needs oxygen and ketones and glucose for metabolic function, it also requires stimulation in the form of sensory input for optimal performance. So we use the vestibular system and the cochlea inside the inner ear. They are actually part of one system and it converts sound, movement and vibration into electrical signals. And thus sound through its affect of the inner ear is a nutrient to the entire brain and the neurological system. So this Safe and Sound Protocol uses, he just so beautifully matches the anatomy and evolution and rolls it into the production with the sound, a listening program. So all the individual needs to do is put the headset on and press play for that day. And what is recorded into that are those, the prosodic features that are set to impact the neurological system. It speaks to it through sound. It exercises the muscles, the teeny tiny muscles of the inner ear in such a way that it can activate parts of the brain. It is a stimulation for that social portal. All the muscles of the face, get your heart rate, you know, at a better, even keel. And when you feel comforted and you are safe, neurologically safe, then you start to see those little sparkles of social initiation or a deeper level that wasn’t there that was potentially blunted or disrupted.

Ari Whitten:  Now, how does this tie into energy, cognitive function, emotional resilience, like all of those symptoms that I mentioned also that sometimes tie in with people with, that overlap with chronic fatigue. Where does this sort of, where does the Safe and Sound Protocol and these different frequencies of sound tie into those things?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Well, when you are in one of those diagnoses, you know how it feels, you know how immobilizing it can be. And without that feeling of safety it is incredibly difficult to leave your home, to want to try and do anything new with a friend, anything to stimulate the brain, to do new and exciting things. And it becomes dormant and cyclical and can be very negative in its own right. The brain gets stuck and it just goes around and around into whatever, you know? And if you are not changing what you are doing, then it just stays in that negative cyclical route. So we use this SSP and the sound frequencies. It is like a jumpstart to the brain and the social portal. It reawakens the human experience.

I had a client, for example, who, he was unable to leave his home besides doing his work because of the sensory system was just so sensitive. He had lots of past trauma from his childhood which left him unable to receive or perceive or give good social cues to others. So he was stuck in this rut and he felt that no one was able to see him for who he was or that he had something valuable to offer. And when he would pick up his head to look at them, like going through the grocery store, all his brain saw was negative cues and it told him to withdraw. After the Safe and Sound Protocol, when he went to the grocery store his story to me on our phone call was just glorious as he began to say, “As I walked down the aisles and I, my eyes just, you know, quickly gazed through whether it was, you know, the aisles and there were different people walking. When I caught someone’s eye,” he said, “it was as if like they recognized me and their face just gave a very gentle smile as they walked by.” But for him, that was so significant because he couldn’t receive it before. It had been blunted and depressed from the past trauma and the disorganized sensory system that does plague so many of us, children through adults, especially with all of the different aspects of what can hamper that. So his experience with that really got him out and further started his creativity and he began then to, because he was able to be creative because he was now safe and calm, he could do more things. He had his creative juices and he got his music back loaded on iTunes. And then from there people were contacting him and talking about deeper quality of human experiences that not only could he receive, but he could very well verbally communicate in a way that he hadn’t his entire life.

So something like the gift of opening the social portal of human engagement after making sure that the human feels neurologically safe. It just makes logical sense when you hear the words. But to experience it over and over with our clients is really just such an exciting gift to work with each individual because you know what you are doing for them. You are essentially changing the trajectory of what they are doing. So then for him, he would say, “Okay. In the past when I would try to exercise, I would, you know, give myself lots of negative talk because I had to do it. I was supposed to do it.” And he would get into a groove and say, “All right, here I go.” And he would exercise himself until he either hurt himself and then that was it or got so sore that that was his justification for, “Okay. Yeah. I can’t do anymore. I don’t know, you know. It is too much. I can’t do it.” With the Safe and Sound, after that, he started to exercise but he went gradually. He started slowly and then he could feel the positive impact of that. He began to change that negative loop of what he was saying to himself and his self-soothing skills, that inner dialogue, and he could gradually increase to where he was enjoying exercising and then getting, of course, the chemical benefits and all of the pieces to that, that then further helps your energy and further helps your state of mind, further prevents the sense of fog. So that is just why our job is so exciting, is taking these tools and then watching how it is expressed in each neurological system in a different way, but with these common threads.

The importance of the brain feeling safe

Ari Whitten:  Now, you have talked a bit about safety. You have used the words, you know, “making people feel safe” a few times. And there is also the Safe and Sound Protocol. You have already alluded to this a bit, but can you speak directly to why neurological safety, to actually have your brain in a state, you know, this is not technically scientifically correct, but for practical purposes to have your brain in a state of feeling safe, why is that so important and what does it translate into?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Well, feeling safe is absolutely the number one primary, it is just a number one human need. You have to be able to neurologically feel safe. It is not just talking to yourself that, “I need to be calm,” “I need to feel safe” or, “I feel safe in this state.” You can still feel, you know, unsafe if you are in your own home if your neurological system and your past history of trauma has just, it has just set your system onto this route. The SSP is used and is being incorporated into the typical psychology and psychiatry realm because we can get to the root and reset that autonomic nervous system, activate better communications. So those therapy and cognitive therapy sessions are much more productive after you use something like the Safe and Sound Protocol, which is providing neural safety. It is not trying to convince someone to be safe or that whoever the predator is may be locked up, but they still feel right in here all the time of that fight-or-flight. If you know that state you know how uncomfortable it is. You know how it decreases your ability, you know, it increases your anxiety and your stress. You know, how difficult it is to have clear thoughts. Because with that stress it will shut off your creativity and that social piece that allows for that intrinsic human joyful experience. So that is really essentially how we use that SSP for trauma and the outcomes have been significant.

Ari Whitten:  In your work you talk a lot about neuroplasticity. Why is the concept of neuroplasticity so important to this whole discussion? What does it actually mean? And what, on a practical level, what are, how do your therapies relate to the concept of neuroplasticity?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Well, the neuroplasticity is the basis of why we get to do what we are able to do and why all these tools are as powerful as they are. Neuroplasticity means that the brain is going to change based upon the input that it is given. So we are going to give it the most organizing, the most calming and the most therapeutic input possible. The neuroplasticity of the brain knows no age and no diagnosis. So what that means is, is that we can make changes in the brain, of course as children, as they are growing, but also in someone who is 98 years old because the brain does not know how old it is. It just knows how to change. So that is what is so exciting because the past, you know, medical route was thought that you will develop and then essentially you hit like a plateau and then that is it. It is all just a decline from there. And we have definitely broken through that paradigm and now it is just whoever wants to make that next leap and whoever wants to do that next piece that really needs out of a rut and needs something to push them through into the next chapter. We use these protocols to get it done.

How the Safe And Sound protocol can be used in people with autism

Ari Whitten:  Interesting. So, what other kinds of syndromes and symptoms can this be used for? I know you work a lot with kids and, for example, kids who are on the spectrum or other kids with neurodevelopmental issues. But where do you find the best results? And, I guess, how does the Safe and Sound Protocol, how do some of these methods tie into let’s say specifically dealing with a kid who is autistic?

Carol Garner-Houston:  So our friends on the spectrum absolutely have, usually have, the symptoms are lots of that fight-or-flight response, very disorganized, very sensitive sensory system, maybe sensitive to sounds. They very much so will lack that speech and language communication, verbal, nonverbal, as well as that, just that whole social piece of human existence as well as regulatory, having very difficult time regulating themselves. So we use a tool like the Safe and Sound first, which is absolutely fantastic because the… When you are trying to teach someone speech and language if it is not developing typically, essentially I remember the words that Dr. Minson, who is the creator of the Focus Program and the Integrated Listening Systems. He said that, “The mouth cannot produce what the ear cannot hear.” So how logical it would be to first expose that individual to the Safe and Sound Protocol because it uses human voices.

It will help you process human speech better. And if you can process human speech better, then you can articulate it better. It will be that connection from the brain to the oral output is there as well. And now that, you know, as we talk about that social portal of human engagement, there is that spark. There is that fire of human engagement. Very different from maybe some other therapies that will try to teach eye contact or social skills by using a script or using external rewards like a skittle for every time, you know, a person gives an eye contact. You know, yes, you have technically checked that box. But, no, in regard to as far as what a parent would like to see as their human connectedness with their child. We foster that with the use of the SSP. Again, that regulatory piece, that high anxiety, the vagus nerve, we calm it with the prosodic features in the Safe and Sound Protocol and it can help them be more regulated.

When you are more regulated and you feel safe again, neurologically safe, then we can begin to rewire the brain with certain sound frequencies that are intended for very specific functions in the brain. So first we start with a zone one of sensory motor. That allows, it builds a balance of brain-body connection. It improves behavior and emotional regulation as well as laterality, knowing both sides of your body. So those are very basic, central nervous system human skills that we need to lay first. And then from there you can layer in the higher frequencies of cognitive function such as attention, executive function, behavior and regulation. It gives an accelerated maturity to the brain so that the individual can then make better choices. But first you have to do it in this very clear bottom up approach. Because with the autism spectrum, there is development but there is major holes in the central nervous system and these listening programs will fill those holes from a bottom up approach.

And at the top what comes out is more sequential development, more typical development. And as long as there is progress being made on a weekly basis where the parents can see the progress in front of their eyes, it is very motivating. It is very much so going to positively impact their energy level, their perception, their aspect of fatigue and depression because those are so closely related. You know, we were talking about our friends with autism, but it is the family that is carrying that diagnosis as well. And so usually the child in that case would be the catalyst of why we have gotten these tools in the home and we begin our process. But of course we share them with other family members because why not? You have the most powerful tools in the world to make you become faster, stronger and smarter.

So why not? And then what happens is the entire family begins to all move forward and then function begins to return. So you can take a child who is severely on the spectrum where the family is planning for this individual to be dependent upon them the rest of their lives. That is a very difficult, and with no progress being made, very cyclical. And they just really just kind of keep growing and getting bigger. But, and that is a very difficult state to be in every day. But once you are able to start, you feel that progress being made and you see it in front of your eyes, it can change everything. You take a friend who is severely on the spectrum to now, they are just, they are just, you know, they have like Asperger type symptoms but they can test on standardized assessments, which means they can get a higher education, which means they can get a job that they can be more sustainable with. And that can change an entire, the trajectory of an entire family.

Ari Whitten:  Yeah, absolutely. I want to get really practical right now and talk what does an actual session with you look like? What kinds of things, and I guess let’s start at maybe the beginning of what a first session might look like and what is this sort of diagnostic process look like as far as how you are getting a sense of what are the symptoms or the developmental issues that are going on there? So what kind of diagnostic processes are you using? And then can you get really specific as far as what a session might look like as far as what kinds of things you are doing in that session with the person?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Absolutely. So, when a client comes to see me for the first time, we are going to do an evaluation which usually lasts about 90 minutes. We are going to assess gross motor, fine motor, visual, perceptual, reflex maturity, auditory processing as well, and as well as ocular motor control. We use as many standardized assessments as we can. So we will use the Peabody, if you are younger, developmental scales. We will use the BOT, the Bruininks for an older individual. And we, that is where we get to figure out, okay, how well can you use your bilateral coordination and your manual dexterity? How well can you use paper, pencil to write? How well can you complete sentences? How well can you, how good is your balance, for example? We always will be assessing the balance first because it is a primary building block of the central nervous system from which all other skills that we were talking about are dependent.

And as we mentioned, these listening programs and the treatment of it go straight to vestibular and that is why they are so powerful and that is why we assess it in our evaluation first. We have them do tasks with their eyes open. And then we can isolate the vestibular system by occluding their vision and they will do the same task, but with their eyes closed. And, when they, you know, when they waiver and they fall over with their eyes closed, it lets you know that they depend heavily on their vision to know where they are in space. And so that allows for us to see, okay, there is that hole in the vestibular system that we are going to need to fill. So we use, we also use the Beery for visual motor integration. That is copying shapes of increasing complexity. It is not letters and it is not numbers. That is done on purpose.

It is just how you are perceiving those images on the page, which again is so important for academic success as well as for work and for your education. So that is another standardized assessment that can give us, not only, you know what your scores are, but it can give you an age equivalency. So you will have a good idea. Okay, if my chronological age is nine years, 11 months, and my, you know, writing is coming back at five years, six months, you know just how far behind you are. Or if you have an individual who is older, you know, you really can understand when you have a 25-year-old or you have a 39-year-old. And we do these and give them the age equivalencies of their scores, it really helps them understand and prioritize how important this type of work is.

We do our standardized assessments in that regard. We also use the SCAN-3 as far as auditory processing is concerned, major piece to your ability to process sensory input accurately. It is a very interesting process that you feel that you are hearing and listening, but maybe you are only catching parts and bits of it or you are catching the beginning of a word but not the end. So then you just guess what the end is and then you are changing the entire message of what the individual is saying to you. And we can figure that in the SCAN-3. It tests how well you can process speech with background sound like auditory figure sound as well as with competing signals where we give two words at the same time and the individual is going to try to repeat both words. From there you can really get an understanding of how well their auditory processing maturity is evolving.

And a signature piece, though, of what we do and of what any good therapist is going to do if you are in rehabilitation is you are going to test for reflex maturity. And this is so important because we are all born with reflexes that help us survive outside of the womb. And so we have that startle reflex when you are an infant and if you had them laying on the bed and you dropped something, their whole body moves as one unit and they did the startle reflex. That is also very much so linked if you don’t… That is supposed to integrate definitely by year one. But the trend in the community we are finding is that we still have adults with this very infantile reflex pattern, which means that that startle reflex is still very much on for them all day long. Again, linking back to that neural feeling of not being safe.

And so it is understandable when you start doing this work, we begin to give them very specific exercises that can break apart those infantile reflex patterns. And what you see is it positively impacts physical development as well as emotional regulation. Lots of times we do more on reflex first when clients have night terrors or nightmares or things that wake them up or are sleepwalking. So it is very interesting how all of this is connected and how it is connected to your sense of safety. So reflex maturity is very important. We also look as far as attention. We will look… Anytime someone comes to me with attention concerns or an ADHD diagnosis, the attention deficit hyperactive disorder, that the hyperactive part, how we get our hyperactive friends off the ceiling is we definitely expose them to the Safe and Sound Protocol first.

But also, as well, I am going to assess the functional movements of their eye. It is not visual acuity, near and far, and it is not the health of the eye. We are occupational therapists. We are looking at the function. So we are going to assess and see if the eyes can quickly do psychotic eye movement, which is the movement required for reading. We are also going to assess whether or not the eyes can track very smoothly like a marble in syrup in a horizontal plane. You are going to want to see that and you are not going to want to see this jumpy motion when they are trying to track something. That is going to negatively impact your reading. That is going to negatively impact your ability to catch a ball. We are also going to look at convergence and divergence. And that is the human’s ability to do near to far point copying.

So if you are looking at something close to you, my eyes both need to come together as a team very smoothly, very effortlessly so you can focus on what is close to you. And then when you pick up your head to look at something far away, you want your eyes to diverge as a team. So you can gain the information, whether it is written, whether you are listening to someone on your team or you are being given instructions from a supervisor. You need to be able to have these basic neurological skills to receive the information as expected. So ocular motor skills for attention is absolutely the number one thing. Yes, you can give someone, you know, pharma with some speed in it to speed up the brain so they can, you know, attempt to compensate for the lack of attention. But you really have to tighten up that ocular motor because if you can’t fixate on an object for more than 10 seconds well and your eyes float away, well then there goes your attention. So it is a very important building block to those higher cognitive functions, such as behavior, social skills, and attention. So let’s make sure we hit all of our areas. Fine motor, gross motor, visual, perceptual…

How Carol helps her patients

Ari Whitten:  Yeah, I think that gives a great explanation of the diagnostic aspect of things. What about on a practical level? And I know that you can’t possibly relay all of the details of everything that you do as far as the therapies in a five minute answer. But, can you just kind of give people an idea of what you might do with them if, let’s say you are working with people via telemedicine, you are doing Skype calls with them, what kinds of things would they be doing with you while on the call?

Carol Garner-Houston:  Okay. So on the calls, we are going to set our friends up and teach them how to use the listening protocols first and foremost, and how to get the most from those sessions. So again, most of the time we are starting with our Safe and Sound Protocol first. If you come to see me in the clinic session, in the clinic for that first session we are going to bring you to our Safe and Sound room where we have built a very small encapsulated, very womb like, low lights, little Christmas lights. We have lots of very easily tolerated sensory objects that can engage an individual. It is a very quiet setting. It has very sedentary types of activities, coloring, legos, drawing, building things because you want the heart rate to be very low while we reset that autonomic nervous system. The Safe and Sound Protocol is done in a quiet environment or as quiet as you can get it in a house if you have six children, right?

So we are also the practical application of those protocols and we will help you find that just right balance. But, we are going to help you set that environment up in your own home which is so beautiful about our telemedicine program because you are not dependent upon getting your child or your family member or yourself to a clinic to get the neurological organization. That is just separating and making it harder accessibility to care. That is why we have created this telemedicine platform. We ship you the modalities and we coach you through it. So we teach you, “Hey, when you are doing the Safe and Sound Protocol, you are going to want to be one person with the individual who is doing it and you want to facilitate and look for eye contact and grab it with your own eyes and hold onto it. You are going to want to, whatever they are talking to you about, you are going to want to reflect the expression of what they are talking about in your face because you are going to, you are having the opportunity of re-imprinting upon them the social features of voice and how it changes, and the meaning of voice and the meaning of facial expressions.”

So we are going to help the individual families reproduce that in their own home. It is a fascinating process. It is a beautiful process for a family. These little spaces that are created, they are not just physical spaces. They are engagement spaces that actually can extend outside of a structure. So if you built a room for the Safe and Sound, it is that experience together that you then leave with, that you use in your kitchen or you are using on your way driving in the car. So we teach our parents, our caregivers, our individuals themselves to create this in their own home to get the most of their protocols. We will then schedule a video conference once the individual is in a good listening routine. And that way I have a, like the CliffsNotes of our standardized assessments from the clinic setting. We have the CliffsNotes of those. I have taken out the major indicators to measure the state of their neurological system and I will put them through a series of exercises so I can see how those pieces are functioning. And then I can customize your listening program even further to accentuate more of the skills you are looking for as well as roll in neural exercises to further accelerate development.

Ari Whitten:  Fascinating stuff. So, one thing I want to come back to. We have talked about, you know, some of the brain symptoms that overlap with chronic fatigue – anxiety, depression, brain fog. You have also mentioned ADHD. We have also covered autism. I know that there is some other applications of this like in prenatal applications. I am curious about newborns. I have a newborn daughter myself who is about a month old now, so I would be very curious to hear your take on what might be useful for her as far as any sound suggestions. But I think for people listening who are maybe, you know, they have heard everything you have had to say but maybe they are still wondering, “Well, does this apply to me? Does this, will this help my set of symptoms?” I would love to have you just say kind of very directly who you feel the kind of people are and the kinds of symptoms that have the most gain from this therapy with you.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Congratulations. Yes. The most exciting clients I like to work with because the characteristics I know that I can very quickly get in there and we can see great outcomes, that is attention deficit, definitely for sure. The hyperactivity and the inattention. The sensory processing, any learning delays in executive functioning, it is really just a reflection of the state of the brain. And it is alright if you didn’t have it, if genetically you just weren’t set up or if you were and then you lost it through trauma, injury or disease. We can rebuild those connections in the brain in the comfort of your own home. So I love as well working with anxiety, depression, post traumatic, all of those are definitely areas of, you know… Just, it is very easy to take their intake paperwork and get them motivated because I know what is coming for them for sure.

That brain fog and speed of processing is something very, that we are still trying to catch on film. We see it all the time. We hear it all the time. We can measure it. And then of course our highest form of success is what the clients report. But trying to catch that on film can be difficult. And we have caught it on film with several children. But that can be difficult to publish because once your child is viewed, you know, or you have this very slow sense of processing and it is caught on film. Really you only want to show the outcome, which is the awesomeness. Everybody wants to run away from the past because, and I get it. So why not? But we do, we have lots of great video of just watching how the brain just awakens from a dormant and cyclical state with rigidity in thinking.

Which, once I say that term, some people will think of it as stubborn or they don’t want to do anything or that… Those are actually more just the state of the brain. And as you build more connections, as you awaken different parts, you get flexibility in thinking, you get that neural desire to move and want to create. That has been very exciting and can be something that you foster in all types of different diagnostic settings and essentially you really don’t need a diagnosis to see improvement with these protocols. Essentially what we address are the characteristics that you are looking to improve and we will fine tune your protocol to accentuate what you are looking for.

Ari Whitten:  Beautiful. A great explanation Carol. And I thank you so much for your time. This has been really fun and fascinating stuff. I mean the role of sound in influencing the autonomic nervous system and how that ties into learning and attention and anxiety and depression and feeling neurologically safe and how that ties into things like anxiety, depression and the whole social portal and how you are interacting with other people. I think this whole sort of network of how the nervous system is affecting our experience of life and our way of relating to others, I think it is all just fascinating stuff. For people who are interested in working with you, I know you have a free consultation for people listening to this. We are going to set up a link to that for people to get this free consultation with you at, all one word, brainharmony. So, I am curious though, Carol, are you going to have enough bandwidth to be able to do free consultations with…? I am sure a lot of people are going to be reaching out to you.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Yes. And my business partner who is also my sister and has been trained, she has been a hospital administrator for years. She is now my business partner. So when you pick up the phone, she will call and between myself and her and several other therapists we will get that intake paper rolling for you, let you know what we are able to do. And then we set you up, we will ship you the equipment and then I will help you open the box. We will schedule a date and time. I help you open the box. I teach you how to use it, get you started on the listening program. We let the equipment do the heavy lifting. It is the easiest therapy I have ever experienced because you just, you know, it is you just don some headset and let the headset do the work. Then when you start to feel elevated and a little better and you are starting to feel that shift, then we can layer in deeper qualities of experiences and neural exercises to further achieve the goals you are looking for.

Ari Whitten:  Beautiful. Well, I certainly hope that you have the bandwidth to handle all the people who are going to be reaching out to you. Again, everyone listening, if you are interested in doing this, if you are interested in doing a free consultation with Carol, I highly encourage you to do that. I think, you know, I have seen some of the results they are posting. I think it is extremely impressive the kinds of results that they are getting with people with these brain related symptoms. And, again, I highly encourage you to reach out and do one of these consultations. You can go to and there will be a link there to set up a free consultation with Carol. So Carol, thank you again so much. Really, really enjoyed this. Absolutely fascinating, and have a wonderful evening.

Carol Garner-Houston:  Oh, thank you so much and enjoy your growing family.

Ari Whitten:  Thank you.

How to Stimulate the Vagus Nerve, Treat Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, and Autism with The Safe and Sound Protocol with Carol Garner-Houston - Show Notes


The Polyvagal Theory (6:53)
The Safe and Sound Protocol (14:11)
The importance of social support and interpersonal connection (18;50)
The importance of the brain feeling safe (26:20)
How the Safe And Sound protocol can be used in people with autism (30:22)
How Carol helps her patients (44:51)

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