Polyvagal Theory in Psychotherapy: A Comprehensive Guide

Silhouette of woman in lotus position sitting in sea and meditating

Polyvagal Theory is a relatively new area of research in the field of psychotherapy that has gained increasing popularity in recent years. Developed by Stephen Porges, this theory seeks to explain the complex relationship between our nervous system and our emotional experiences.

The theory is based on the understanding that our nervous system has evolved over time to adapt to different situations, and that this evolution has resulted in the development of three distinct neural circuits. These circuits are known as the ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal systems.

The ventral vagal system is responsible for our social engagement and is associated with feelings of safety and connection. This system is activated when we are in the presence of others and feel safe and secure.

The sympathetic system is responsible for our fight-or-flight response and is activated when we perceive a threat. This system is responsible for the release of adrenaline and cortisol, which prepare our body to either fight or run away from danger.

The dorsal vagal system is responsible for our freeze response and is activated when we perceive a threat that we are unable to fight or flee from. This system is associated with feelings of helplessness, disconnection, and dissociation.

According to Polyvagal Theory, these three neural circuits work together to regulate our emotional experiences. When we feel safe and secure, the ventral vagal system is dominant, and we are able to engage in social interaction and connection. When we perceive a threat, the sympathetic system is activated, and we prepare ourselves to either fight or flee. If we are unable to fight or flee, the dorsal vagal system is activated, and we freeze, disconnect, or dissociate.

Polyvagal Theory has important implications for psychotherapy, as it provides a framework for understanding how our nervous system responds to different emotional experiences. By understanding how the ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal systems work together, therapists can help clients regulate their emotional experiences and feel more safe and secure.

One of the key ways that therapists can use Polyvagal Theory in psychotherapy is through the use of somatic experiencing. Somatic experiencing is a type of therapy that focuses on the connection between the body and the mind. By helping clients become more aware of their bodily sensations and how they are connected to their emotional experiences, therapists can help clients regulate their nervous system and feel more safe and secure.

Another way that therapists can use Polyvagal Theory in psychotherapy is through the use of mindfulness techniques. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. By practicing mindfulness, clients can learn to regulate their nervous system and become more aware of their emotional experiences.

Polyvagal Theory is a promising area of research in the field of psychotherapy that has the potential to improve our understanding of the complex relationship between our nervous system and our emotional experiences. By incorporating this theory into psychotherapy, therapists can help clients regulate their emotional experiences and feel more safe and secure.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre manages a group practice of three close-knit queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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