Daniel E.

The Magic of Polyvagal Theory:
Inviting Vulnerability and Facilitating Safety Through Coregulation, Touch, and Micro Interactions (2020)
by Stacey Madden Procyk

...As coordinator of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium in the Kinsey Institute and developer of the Rhythm of Regulation Clinical Training Series, [Deb] Dana (2018b) became fascinated with the polyvagal theory and worked with Porges to deliver a comprehensive version of the theory to the therapeutic community, which manifested the book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (Dana, 2018b). Dana (2015) also described the complex theory as concisely as possible in her “Beginner’s Guide to Polyvagal Theory :acrobat:.” Her latest book, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection, which is being released in April of 2020, will serve as a guide for therapists eager to apply polyvagal theory in their practices.

In her attempt to present the theory to a more psychologically, less scientifically minded audience, Dana (2015) described it as identifying “a biological order of human response that is active in all human experience” (para. 1).

We come into the world wired to connect. With our first breath, we embark on a quest to feel safe in our bodies, in our environments, and in our relationships with others. The autonomic nervous system is our personal surveillance system, always on guard, asking the question “Is this safe?” Its goal is to protect us by sensing safety and risk, listening moment by moment to what is happening in and around our bodies and in the connections we have to others.​

This intent listening happens far below awareness and far away from our conscious control. Dr. Porges, understanding that this is not awareness that comes with perception, coined the term neuroception to describe the way our autonomic nervous system scans for cues of safety, danger, and life threat without involving the thinking parts of our brain. Because we humans are meaning-making beings, what begins as the wordless experiencing of neuroception drives the creation of a story that shapes our daily living. (paras. 3-4)​

Dana (2015) described the autonomic nervous system as composed of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic branches. The system responds to stimuli through three pathways that each have a specific pattern of response that is “in service of survival” (para. 5). She explained that the sympathetic branch represents the pathway that prepares one for action, responding to cues of danger and triggering the release of adrenaline, which fuels the fight-or-flight response. In her description of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, she introduced Porges’s discovery of a hierarchy of response that is built into our autonomic nervous system.

Dana (2015) wrote, “In the parasympathetic branch, the remaining two pathways are found in a nerve called the vagus,” which “travels in two directions: downward through the lungs, heart, diaphragm, and stomach and upward to connect with nerves in the neck, throat, eyes, and ears” (para. 7). The vagal nerve is divided in two: The ventral vagal pathway responds to cues of safety and supports feelings of being safely engaged and socially connected. In contrast, the dorsal vagal pathway responds to cues of extreme danger. It takes the individual “out of connection, out of awareness, and into a protective state of collapse. When we feel frozen, numb, or ‘not here,’ the dorsal vagus has taken control” (para. 7)...

Findings from the Literature: Psychoeducation

In order to effectively practice polyvagal-informed psychotherapy the clinician must first take steps to educate clients on the relationship between their emotional state and their nervous system and their ability to self-regulate and coregulate distress, not only in therapy sessions but in their everyday experiences as well (Dana, 2015, 2018b). This begins with a lesson on the anatomic nervous system (ANS) and how it works. Once familiar with the three states of the ANS described in the previous chapter, the clinician can work with the client to assign personal meaning to the states by way of associating personal experiences and feelings with each one. This is often done by asking clients to become aware of their own personal internal and external experiences in each state of safety or fear. For instance, a clinician may invite their clients to complete the following prompt: “In a ventral vagal state of safety, I feel . . . and the world seems . . . ”. Similar prompts can be given for the parasympathetic dorsal state of apprehension and the sympathetic dorsal state that triggers the release of adrenaline and incites a flight-or-fight impulse (Dana, 2018a 24:40).

This information forms a template from which the client and clinician can work to further explore each of these states and how to move fluidly between them. It can also provide a common language, which may include terms or phrases that hold exclusive meaning to a particular client. An individual may describe their ventral vagal state as a “moment of sweetness” or their dorsal vagal experiences as “the dark place.” These phrases can be used within the therapeutic container, making the language personal and less clinical sounding, fostering a deeper connection and sense of understanding between the client and clinician. Dana (2019) described this crucial aspect of polyvagal-informed therapy:

Now clients have both a mental picture and a language for their “ladder” of the anatomic nervous system activation at any given moment. Importantly, client and therapist now share this language so that during a session they have a useful shorthand for noticing, naming and addressing these ever-changing states of arousal. (p. 21)​


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