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What is the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP)? Is it Right For Me?

A person with a dark ponytail and white headphones stands facing a leafy bush.

What is the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP)?

The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is a therapeutic program that utilizes specially filtered music to support nervous system regulation and promote well-being.

Because the nervous system has many implications for a person’s overall mental health and well-being, SSP can be helpful in many contexts, including for people with trauma, anxiety, sensory sensitivities, emotional dysregulation, and more.

It was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges (who is the researcher behind Polyvagal Theory).

How does it work?

The SSP is thought to work by engaging the middle ear, which is connected to the vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve is a key player in our parasympathetic nervous systems (the system responsible for “rest and digest,” which helps us regulate our bodies after states of high activation and stress).

The music is filtered to only contain tones and frequencies that are associated with safety. These mid-range tones mimic a normal speaking voice, as opposed to higher and lower frequencies, which might be associated with something more threatening, like crying, growling, sirens, or yelling.

By playing this filtered music at a low volume, the muscles of the middle ear are encouraged to “work” a little harder to tune into these external cues of safety.

For a more hypervigilant, activated nervous system — like those who are “stuck” in a fight or flight response, or in an autonomic feedback loop — this may actually shift us away from threat-seeking and into a more easeful state. This can also impact our social engagement system, which is the part of the vagus nerve that responds to feelings of safety and connection.

By tuning into these cues of safety, and strengthening discernment between what is and isn't threatening, many who undergo the Safe and Sound Protocol report feeling emotionally safe, connected, and calmer, along with other mental health benefits.

💡 Interested in a personal review? Read Alma writer Sam Dylan Finch’s personal experience after undergoing the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP).

What is Polyvagal Theory?

Polyvagal Theory’s ultimate aim is to better understand how we engage with the world.

By looking at what happens with our bodies and our nervous systems when our sense of safety is threatened, we can make sense of how we feel, behave, and connect with others.

Especially important to Polyvagal Theory is the autonomic nervous system. The nervous system generally helps you maintain crucial functions for survival, and the autonomic nervous system in particular connects your brain to the most crucial functions of your body.

Among its many functions, the ANS is responsible for supporting us during times of danger, as we see with the “fight or flight” response, known as the sympathetic nervous system.

The ANS is also there to help us ease back into “rest and digest” after a stressful event, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system.

The longest nerve in your body, the vagus nerve, starts with the brain stem and spans all the way to your colon.

The vagus nerve is the bridge of sorts between the mind and body. As the body takes in cues from our external environment, the vagus nerve takes this information back to the brain, ultimately guiding us into and out of states of activation.

This makes the vagus nerve a crucial part not only of our physiological functions, but, as Polyvagal Theory suggests, our mental health and emotional well-being as well.

The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) uses filtered music to engage the vagus nerve with external cues of safety, to support the nervous system in adapting to and establishing safety with more ease.

🎓 For more about Polyvagal Theory, check out Dr. Porges' research.

Is there research behind the SSP?

The SSP is best understood as an application of Polyvagal Theory.

While research around the specific applications of the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is very limited, it’s important to know that the theories underpinning this intervention, and the research that informs its use, are not themselves new.

Most notably, research suggests that stimulating the vagus nerve can have positive mental health effects, and can even impact aspects of physical health as well. This is because the vagus nerve is the main nerve of the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us rest and self-regulate after states of activation and stress.

That said, the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is a comparatively new intervention. The patent, which can be accessed online, was submitted in 2017. It will be years before we have the depth and breadth of research that is available for other modalities and interventions.

Much of the early research around the SSP has focused on autism, but some autistic advocates have pushed back against this application altogether, which I noted in my own review.

Unyte, the platform that distributes the protocol and trains practitioners, regularly publishes case studies from practitioners about the results of the SSP.

These case studies, while not the same as a research study, can be helpful insight into some of the ways the Safe and Sound Protocol is currently being utilized (albeit there may be some positive results bias at play).

All in all, there is compelling research to establish the potential benefits of polyvagal interventions generally, but research specific to the Safe and Sound Protocol is still in its early stages.

Case studies and online reviews are certainly promising, but it’s important to bear in mind that the specific applications of the Safe and Sound Protocol — including best practices, which conditions it’s most suited for, and the long-term impacts — are still being studied.

Who Can Benefit from the SSP

In theory, many types of people can benefit from nervous system regulation tools like the SSP. When asked about some of the benefits of the Safe and Sound Protocol, practitioner Jess Jackson had this to say:

For a nervous system that has been primed to detect threat and has experienced less safety, [the SSP] can be a big change . . . the ways you interact with the world around you and the people in it can become more embodied and easeful. This means you might notice changes in your relationships, boundaries, embodiment, and sensory experiences, along with shifts in your self-protection and connection responses.

Jess Jackson, Soft Path Healing

While the applications of the SSP are still being explored, these are the experiences currently represented in case studies:

There are also some applications being explored for chronic pain, illness, and injury. As with any kind of therapeutic intervention, you should discuss with your care team and providers what makes the most sense for you personally.

It’s worth noting that interventions like the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) should not be approached as a “treatment” or “fix” for neurodivergent people.

We don’t need neurodivergent people to be less neurodivergent — we need tools that support our resilience, authenticity, agency, and safety exactly as we are!

How do I know if the SSP is right for me?

Some of the biggest mental health impacts of the SSP tend to happen around three major areas:

  • Social engagement (connection, trust, co-regulation, boundaries, etc)
  • Threat detection (things like hypervigilance, anxiety, felt safety, reactivity)
  • Emotional regulation (distress tolerance, resilience, mood)

SSP practitioner Jess Jackson had this to say about the ideal SSP candidate: “Folks who are curious about their body and nervous system, and also folks who struggle to connect with and understand their body and nervous system, are often a good fit for the SSP.”

They added, “Folks who have tried so many healing modalities, and have tried so very hard to heal post-trauma, are often a good fit for SSP, [as well as] folks who are looking for a gentle modality that offers a lot of room for adaptations and flexibility.”

Jess says many of their clients have experienced trauma, sensory overwhelm, nervous system symptoms (always feeling off or on, feeling highly activated or shut down, etc) and/or some types of chronic pain.

🤔 Curious what else you should know before trying the SSP?

My article, 8 Things to Know Before Trying the SSP, offers core questions for exploring whether or not the Safe and Sound Protocol is right for you.

Is there anyone who shouldn’t do the SSP?

An experienced SSP practitioner can help you determine if there are contraindications in your unique history that warrant caution.

Because the SSP works primarily on the middle ear, folks with a history of ear-related conditions (past or current) should first consult a professional.

If there are concerns around active psychosis or suicidal ideation, this may point to the need for other crisis interventions to be in place before attempting the SSP.

With that in mind, while it can be tempting to say that the SSP should only be attempted when the circumstances are just right — with minimal upheaval, an ideal environment, and abundant support — Jess points out that most of our lives don’t work that way.

“I think if there is a willingness and readiness to explore the SSP, and enough support that folks don’t feel totally overwhelmed and alone, they can go for it!" Jess explains, "Because the SSP itself can help increase support and stability and capacity.”

Some factors that can reduce overwhelm and increase support during the SSP could include finding an SSP practitioner that you trust, undergoing the SSP in a supported group environment, and working with an outside therapist before, during, and after the SSP to process your experience.

We don’t enter healing spaces already healed, and in the SSP, you don’t need to. Your life doesn’t need to be perfect. Your supports don’t either. It’s about — what’s that good enough support for me, in my real life, right now?

Jess Jackson, Soft Path Healing

What to Expect While Listening

The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is a bit like “elevator music” — the music itself may sound a little generic, unremarkable, and even cheesy at times, and you don’t need to pay close attention to it for it to be effective.

Depending on your practitioner’s recommendation and your reaction upon listening, how much you listen to at a time may vary, but the general recommendation is to start slow.

While the standard recommendation used to be listening over the course of five days, many people have found this pacing to be too fast. Your practitioner may recommend something completely different.

While listening, you can engage in a variety of light activities. You might fold laundry, doodle in a notebook, play with a fidget toy, color or assemble a puzzle, do breathing exercises, or simply daydream.

Physical exercise or cognitively demanding tasks during the SSP are generally discouraged (so, anything that interferes with nervous system regulation, or “resting and digesting”).

Most listening sessions will happen with your SSP practitioner, either in-person or remotely, as what you experience while listening can indicate where real time adjustments may be needed. Being supported during the process can make a meaningful difference in how you integrate it.

Are there side effects?

Many SSP practitioners have emphasized that significant side effects, in their experience, often emerged with clients who did “too much, too fast” — meaning they listened to the playlist for too long, and/or at an inappropriate frequency, often with practitioners who didn’t attune to the needs of their client.

This typically looks like greater sensory sensitivity, emotional overwhelm or shutdown, and can even look like activation states (like fight, flight, freeze, and fawn).

These can be indicators that the nervous system has undergone stress, rather than being “stretched” in ways that can expand capacity and resilience overtime.

A competent practitioner will ideally intervene before you’ve become flooded, and will work to establish the kind of environment needed to create a positive and attuned experience for you.

That said, some side effects are still possible under the best of circumstances!

Some side effects may include:

  • Fatigue and drowsiness
  • Sleep changes (like vivid dreams or difficulty falling asleep)
  • Headaches
  • Sensory sensitivity
  • Emotional intensity
  • Shifts in physical sensation (for example, old injuries can seem to flare, sensation can be regained where it was lost, or some parts of the body may “tingle”)
  • Digestive issues

If any side effects are experienced during the Safe and Sound Protocol, they should be temporary, and many will not experience side effects at all.

Regardless, that doesn’t mean a client should “power through” and ignore their discomfort!

Be sure to communicate openly with your practitioner about your experiences, good or bad, as going at a pace that you feel comfortable with is essential.

Can I listen more than once?

Generally speaking, it’s recommended that you wait six months after completing the protocol before trying it again.

Please be sure to follow your practitioner’s instructions about how frequently and how long to listen to the SSP for.

If you feel the pacing is off, communicate this and work together to make adjustments that you feel good about.

After listening, the effects of the SSP are thought to take about eight weeks to integrate, but you might continue to see shifts as you undergo other forms of therapy after the SSP, even therapies you may have attempted in the past that weren’t as impactful before.

Because the Safe and Sound Protocol hasn’t been around for a very long time, we can’t fully know the long-term impacts of the SSP, including how results compare between those who listen to the playlist once versus those who revisit it later on.

How will I know if it’s working?

Everyone’s nervous systems are different, and that means their SSP experience will be different, too!

Some folks will experience meaningful changes in their first ten minutes of listening, while others will say that very little happened and the shifts came much later.

Some people may initially feel what Jess describes as akin to the "washing machine spin cycle." It may take time to adjust to changes within the nervous system, and it may take time to fold and put away the metaphorical clothes that came through the wash.

Some positive shifts you may notice with the SSP include:

  • Stronger self-advocacy/assertiveness
  • Increased self-trust and relational safety
  • Greater awareness of needs and body cues
  • Less sensory overwhelm
  • Decreased startle responses/reactivity
  • Greater capacity for responding rather than reacting
  • Increased ability to feel, process, and move through big feelings
  • Stronger connection between “knowing” and “feeling”
  • Greater attunement to hunger cues/shifting relationship to food
  • Improved mood and excitability
  • Greater distress tolerance and resilience
  • Ability to ease into rest (rather than resisting it or shutting down)

🔍 For additional insight into what shifts with the Safe and Sound Protocol may feel like, check out this personal review.

Next Steps

What should I know before trying the SSP?

📚 Read more: 8 Things to Know Before Trying the SSP

Is the SSP on Spotify? Where do I listen?

The Safe and Sound Protocol is not on streaming platforms. It’s important that you listen to the SSP with the guidance of a practitioner who can help you with pacing and grounding during this experience.

The SSP is only available through the Unyte platform, accessed via phone app through a certified practitioner.

How do I find an SSP practitioner?

At this time, the most direct way to find a practitioner for the Safe and Sound Protocol is to be matched with one by Unyte, the company that distributes the playlist, through this form.

The SSP is currently a conjunctive intervention.

This means it is recommended for folks who are undergoing therapy. The SSP can enhance the therapeutic experience, while therapy can be supportive in integrating any shifts that happen with the SSP.

If you need a therapist, you can browse Alma’s directory of over 20,000 licensed clinicians, some of whom may be able to offer the SSP upon request.

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Sam Dylan Finch
Sam Dylan Finch

About the Author

For nearly a decade, Sam has harnessed the power of digital media to empower readers, challenge stigma, and make mental health content accessible to all. He currently works as Content Marketing Manager for Alma; he previously worked as Content Marketing Director at Oar Health, as well as at Inflow – ADHD, Healthline, Psych Central, and Upworthy.

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