Mental Health
What is Polyvagal Informed Therapy?

What is Polyvagal Informed Therapy?

6 min read


Megan Caligiuri

What is Polyvagal Informed Therapy?

Bodies are complicated machines! They not only keep homeostasis (balance) of all of the internal processes, but they also interpret and have to make sense of the outside world as well. Our nervous system is responsible for interpreting our sensory experiences. Any sight, sound, smell, touch or taste that we experience moves through our bodies to our brains. Our brains interpret these experiences and adjust the body accordingly. Example: If your eyes notice a predator headed in your direction, it tells your muscles to run! We have spinal nerves that are connected to our bodily muscle movement and we have cranial nerves that are important for our sensory experiences (think eyes, mouth, ears, neck). Polyvagal theory is an understanding that the cranial nerve system (more specifically the vagus nerve or CN-X) in conjunction with other cranial nerves, send and receive signals in the brain and throughout the whole body.

We've traditionally been taught about fight/flight response as the only response related to stress or trauma. Polyvagal theory posits that there are two branches of the vagus nerve that react during stress: fight/flight and immobilization (or fawn/faint). When the vagus nerve tone is weak due to illness or trauma, we can chronically live between these two states. This can mean sometimes we feel tense or anxious (fight/flight activation) and sometimes we can feel depressed, lethargic or unmotivated (fawn/faint state).

In a strong or toned vagus nerve system and moving out of a stress response, these two states can actually be beneficial to us. Fight/Flight becomes play, exploration, curiosity and social engagement. Fawn/Faint becomes deep and actual rest.

Polyvagal theory informed therapy means that we want to get you out of the negative stress responses and more into positive nervous system engagement. We do this by doing physical exercises to increase vagal tone in conjunction with talk therapy to address emotions and underlying feelings. By increasing awareness of sensations and emotions, as well as toning the vagus nerve, it results in more states of social engagement, play and deep rest.

What Techniques are Used in Polyvagal Informed Therapy?

One foundational technique in Polyvagal Informed Therapy is co-regulation. This approach recognizes the importance of a safe therapeutic relationship where the therapist provides a calming presence. The therapist's soothing and non-judgmental demeanor helps clients shift from states of sympathetic arousal (fight-or-flight) or dorsal vagal immobilization (freeze/collapse) to the more socially engaged ventral vagal state. Co-regulation involves mirroring the client's emotional and physiological states to establish rapport and create a secure space for exploration and healing.

Mindfulness and grounding exercises are commonly used in Polyvagal Informed Therapy to help clients develop greater self-awareness and emotional regulation. These practices teach clients to stay present in the moment and connect with their bodily sensations, thus reducing anxiety and preventing dissociation. Therapists guide clients in identifying and tracking their physiological cues, such as shallow breathing or muscle tension, as well as emotional signals, like fear or sadness. By recognizing these cues, clients can intervene before escalating into a state of distress.

Another valuable technique is the use of Polyvagal mapping, which involves helping clients understand their autonomic nervous system responses and how they relate to emotional experiences. This technique empowers clients to identify when they are shifting into less adaptive states, such as fight-or-flight or freeze/collapse, and learn strategies to return to the ventral vagal state of social engagement. Therapists educate clients about the physiological signs of these states and how they manifest emotionally and behaviorally.

Polyvagal Informed Therapy also incorporates techniques for enhancing social engagement skills. Clients learn to improve their emotional intelligence, active listening, and non-verbal communication. These skills facilitate more positive and connected interactions with others. For clients with social anxiety or difficulties forming and maintaining relationships, these techniques can be particularly beneficial.

Trauma processing and integration are central aspects of Polyvagal Informed Therapy. Therapists assist clients in exploring and making sense of their traumatic experiences while maintaining a focus on safety and self-regulation. By gradually addressing traumatic memories and sensations within the framework of co-regulation and mindfulness, clients can reduce the emotional charge associated with trauma and work towards healing and resolution.

Finally, therapists may utilize a variety of creative and expressive arts therapies, such as art therapy, music therapy, or somatic experiencing, in Polyvagal Informed treatment. These modalities provide alternative channels for clients to access and process their emotions and physiological responses, making therapy more engaging and effective.

What are the Benefits of Polyvagal Informed Therapy?

One of the primary advantages of Polyvagal Informed Therapy is its ability to provide a comprehensive understanding of the autonomic nervous system's role in emotional well-being. The Polyvagal Theory elucidates how our nervous system responds to stress and social interactions, shedding light on why people may experience symptoms like anxiety, panic, or emotional dysregulation. By exploring the theory's concepts, individuals can gain deep insights into their own physiological responses and emotions, leading to greater self-awareness.

Polyvagal Informed Therapy also emphasizes the importance of building a sense of safety within therapeutic relationships. This focus on safety and trust allows clients to gradually explore and process traumatic experiences without feeling overwhelmed or re-traumatized. Therapists trained in this approach create a secure space where clients can engage in co-regulation, a process where the therapist supports the client in regulating their autonomic nervous system. This co-regulation helps clients shift from states of fight-or-flight or freeze/collapse to a state of calm and social engagement.

Furthermore, Polyvagal Informed Therapy offers a range of practical tools and techniques to promote emotional regulation. Clients learn mindfulness and grounding practices that enable them to stay present and manage overwhelming emotions. These skills can be particularly beneficial for individuals with conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), panic disorders, or complex trauma. By learning to recognize their physiological cues and manage their stress responses, clients gain a greater sense of control over their emotional reactions.

In addition, Polyvagal Informed Therapy supports the development of healthier patterns of social engagement. Clients work on enhancing their interpersonal skills, such as active listening, empathy, and non-verbal communication, to foster more positive and fulfilling relationships. This can be especially helpful for individuals who struggle with social anxiety, attachment issues, or difficulty forming and maintaining connections.

One notable aspect of Polyvagal Informed Therapy is its adaptability. It can be integrated into various therapeutic modalities, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and psychodynamic therapy, among others. This versatility allows therapists to tailor the approach to meet each client's unique needs and preferences.

Another significant benefit of this therapy is its capacity to address trauma on multiple levels. While it is effective for individual therapy, it can also be adapted for couples or family therapy to address relational trauma and attachment issues. This flexibility enables clients to explore how their autonomic nervous system's responses impact their interactions with loved ones and empowers them to build healthier, more resilient relationships.

By combining the physiological insights of the Polyvagal Theory with practical therapeutic techniques, individuals can better understand and navigate their emotional landscapes. This leads to increased self-compassion, resilience, and overall mental health improvement. As more therapists embrace this approach, individuals seeking therapy can benefit from a more nuanced and effective understanding of their emotional experiences and greater opportunities for healing and growth.

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About the author

Megan 'Cali' Caligiuri is the Senior Growth Marketing Manager at MyWellBeing. As a seasoned marketing and creative leader with a passion for mental health, Cali is committed to reducing the stigma of therapy, easing the stress of connecting with the right practitioner, and empowering every individual to develop a more loving, healthy relationship with themselves and those around them.

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