Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, posits that the human nervous system has evolved to promote connection, communication, and self-regulation. It suggests that humans have three physiological states: the safe and social state, the fight or flight state, and the shutdown state. Each of these states is associated with different behaviors and mental states, and we cycle between them in response to our environment. Below are interventions, skills, activities, tools, and exercises used in polyvagal-informed therapy:
An intervention that aims to support individuals in accessing a sense of safety, calmness, and inner strength. Grounded in the principles of the Polyvagal Theory, this intervention focuses on activating the ventral vagal complex, the social engagement system, to regulate the autonomic nervous system. The goal of resourcing is to help individuals develop a personalized toolkit of internal and external resources that they can draw upon during times of stress or dysregulation. These resources act as anchors, providing a sense of stability and connection to the present moment. The intervention begins by guiding individuals to identify resources that evoke feelings of safety, comfort, and relaxation. These resources can vary from person to person but commonly include positive memories, supportive relationships, personal strengths, sensory experiences, and grounding techniques. Once identified, individuals are encouraged to engage with their chosen resources deliberately and intentionally. This may involve visualizing a calming memory, connecting with a trusted person, utilizing sensory tools such as deep breathing or soothing scents, or engaging in activities that bring joy and relaxation.
By actively engaging with these resources, individuals can shift their physiological state from a state of threat or overwhelm to a state of safety and regulation. This supports the activation of the ventral vagal complex, which helps to downregulate the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-digest response). Regular practice of resourcing can have numerous benefits. It helps individuals build resilience and self-regulation skills, enabling them to navigate stressful situations with greater ease. It promotes a sense of empowerment, as individuals recognize their capacity to influence their own state of well-being. Additionally, resourcing can enhance feelings of connectedness and support, as individuals cultivate relationships and connections with internal and external sources of support.
Somatic Experiencing (SE) is a therapeutic approach that focuses on healing trauma by addressing the physical sensations and bodily responses associated with traumatic experiences. It is completed as part of a comprehensive treatment plan aimed at reducing the impact of trauma on an individual’s life. Traumatic events can overwhelm the body’s natural ability to process and release the energy associated with the trauma. Instead, this energy gets trapped in the nervous system, leading to a range of physical and emotional symptoms. The goal of somatic experiencing is to facilitate the completion of the body’s instinctual response to trauma. By gently guiding clients to track their bodily sensations and sensations related to the traumatic event, the therapist helps them access and release the stored energy.
During a somatic experiencing session, the therapist provides a safe and supportive environment for the client to explore their bodily sensations and emotions related to the traumatic event. The therapist may use various techniques such as mindfulness, gentle touch, and body awareness exercises to facilitate the process. Through this process, clients gradually learn to regulate their nervous system and develop a sense of safety and control over their bodily responses. They become more aware of the sensations in their body and learn to listen to the signals it provides, gaining a deeper understanding of their own experiences and needs.
Over time, somatic experiencing can help individuals reduce the intensity of their trauma-related symptoms, such as anxiety, hyperarousal, and emotional distress. It can also lead to an increased sense of resilience, self-awareness, and overall well-being. Somatic experiencing is often used in conjunction with other therapeutic modalities as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for trauma. This may include talk therapy, cognitive-behavioral techniques, and other trauma-focused interventions. The integration of somatic experiencing within a broader treatment approach allows for a more holistic and comprehensive healing process.
Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP):
The Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is a therapeutic intervention developed within the framework of Polyvagal Theory. It is designed to help individuals regulate their autonomic nervous system and improve their ability to feel safe and connected in the world. The protocol primarily targets the social engagement system, which is a vital aspect of the polyvagal system responsible for creating feelings of safety and facilitating social interactions. The SSP utilizes specific auditory stimulation to promote regulation and integration within the autonomic nervous system. It involves listening to specially filtered music that is designed to emphasize frequencies associated with the human voice. These specific frequencies are believed to engage the neural pathways involved in prosodic vocalizations, which are essential for human social communication and connection.
By engaging with the SSP, individuals may experience a range of physiological and emotional responses. The protocol aims to promote a sense of safety and calmness by stimulating the middle ear muscles, which in turn can help regulate the autonomic nervous system. This regulation can lead to improved social engagement, reduced stress responses, enhanced emotional regulation, and increased resilience. The SSP is typically administered in a structured manner, involving several sessions over a specified period. These sessions are often conducted by trained professionals who closely monitor the individual’s responses and adjust the protocol accordingly. While the protocol can be used with a wide range of individuals, it has shown particular effectiveness in populations experiencing difficulties related to trauma, anxiety, sensory processing challenges, and social communication issues.
It is important to note that the Safe and Sound Protocol is just one component of Polyvagal Therapy and should be used in conjunction with other therapeutic approaches tailored to the individual’s specific needs. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified therapist or healthcare professional familiar with the protocol to determine its suitability and implementation for an individual’s unique circumstances.
Trauma-informed Yoga and Movement:
Incorporating mindful movement and breathing exercises can help individuals reconnect with their bodies and learn to regulate their physiological states. Trauma-informed yoga and mindful movement are integral components of a comprehensive treatment plan that incorporates polyvagal therapy for individuals who have experienced trauma. This approach recognizes the impact of trauma on the nervous system and emphasizes safety, choice, and empowerment in the healing process. Polyvagal therapy focuses on the understanding and regulation of the autonomic nervous system, particularly the vagus nerve, which plays a significant role in our response to stress and trauma. Traumatic experiences can dysregulate the nervous system, leading to chronic patterns of hyperarousal or dissociation.
Trauma-informed yoga and mindful movement offer therapeutic interventions that address these dysregulations. By combining yoga postures, breathwork, and mindfulness practices, individuals are invited to reconnect with their bodies, develop a sense of safety, and restore a sense of control over their physical and emotional experiences. In a trauma-informed yoga and mindful movement practice, several key principles are incorporated.
Safety: Creating a safe environment is essential. Trauma survivors may have a heightened sensitivity to triggers and a history of feeling unsafe in their bodies. The yoga instructor or therapist ensures physical and emotional safety by offering clear instructions, providing options for modifications, and respecting personal boundaries.
Choice and Empowerment: Trauma survivors often feel a loss of control over their bodies. Trauma-informed practices prioritize offering choices and empowering individuals to make decisions based on their comfort levels. This can include providing options for postures, allowing individuals to opt-out of certain movements, and encouraging self-regulation.
Mindful Awareness: Cultivating present-moment awareness is central to trauma-informed yoga and mindful movement. This practice helps individuals develop a non-judgmental, compassionate relationship with their bodies, thoughts, and emotions. Mindfulness techniques such as body scans, breath awareness, and guided meditation are integrated into the practice to promote self-reflection and grounding.
Sensory Integration: Trauma can disrupt the integration of sensory experiences. Trauma-informed practices aim to restore this integration by incorporating sensory-focused techniques. These may include gentle touch, grounding exercises, or the use of props to provide support and stability.
By integrating trauma-informed yoga, breathwork, and mindful movement into a polyvagal therapy treatment plan, individuals are supported in their healing journey. These practices offer opportunities for individuals to regulate their nervous system, build resilience, and reconnect with their bodies in a safe and empowering way.
Involves learning to recognize one’s emotional states, understanding what triggers them, and how to manage them. In polyvagal theory, emotional regulation is a crucial skill that involves the ability to manage and modulate one’s emotional experiences in response to various internal and external stimuli. The Ventral Vagal Complex is responsible for promoting feelings of safety and social engagement. When the VVC is activated, individuals experience a sense of calm, connectedness, and the ability to engage in social interactions. Emotional regulation within the VVC involves the ability to experience and express a wide range of emotions in a healthy and adaptive manner, as well as the capacity to self-soothe and seek support from others when needed. The Sympathetic Nervous System, often associated with the fight-or-flight response, is activated in situations of perceived threat or danger. Emotional regulation within the SNS involves recognizing and responding to stress and activating appropriate coping mechanisms to restore a sense of safety and equilibrium. This can include engaging in physical activity, deep breathing exercises, or seeking support from others. The Dorsal Vagal Complex is linked to immobilization and dissociation, often seen in extreme stress or trauma. Emotional regulation within the DVC involves recognizing when feelings of shutdown or dissociation arise and implementing strategies to gradually restore a sense of safety and connection. This may involve grounding techniques, sensory-focused interventions, or seeking professional help when necessary.
Overall, emotional regulation in polyvagal theory encompasses the ability to identify and understand one’s emotional experiences, regulate the activation of the autonomic nervous system, and engage in adaptive strategies to restore a sense of safety, connection, and well-being. Developing emotional regulation skills can support individuals in managing stress, trauma, and interpersonal relationships more effectively, ultimately promoting resilience and overall emotional well-being.
Mindfulness and Grounding Techniques:
In polyvagal theory, mindfulness skills and grounding techniques are essential tools for regulating the autonomic nervous system and promoting a sense of safety, connection, and well-being. These practices help individuals cultivate present-moment awareness, deepen their mind-body connection, and regulate their emotional and physiological responses. Some of the practices include breath awareness; body scans; sensory awareness; and grounding techniques like grounding through the senses, grounding through objects, grounding through visualization and grounding through movement. These mindfulness skills and grounding techniques are designed to support individuals in becoming more attuned to their internal experiences, regulate their emotions, and create a sense of safety and stability within their bodies and the world around them. Regular practice of these techniques can enhance resilience, promote self-regulation, and facilitate healing from stress and trauma.
Co-regulation involves mutually sharing and managing emotional states with others. It is key to building feelings of safety and connection. Co-regulation is a fundamental skill in the context of Polyvagal Theory, which seeks to understand the complex interplay between the autonomic nervous system, social engagement, and emotional regulation. In Polyvagal Theory, co-regulation refers to the mutual influence and regulation of physiological and emotional states between individuals, especially within the context of social interactions. Co-regulation involves the reciprocal interaction between individuals, where they synchronize their physiological and emotional states, typically through nonverbal cues, facial expressions, vocal prosody, and body language. For example, when two individuals engage in a positive and empathetic conversation, their heart rates may synchronize, and their facial expressions may mirror each other. When co-regulation is successful, it can lead to a sense of safety, trust, and well-being, promoting social connectedness and emotional regulation. It is particularly important in early developmental stages, where infants and young children rely on co-regulation with their caregivers to regulate their physiological and emotional states. However, in situations of perceived threat or danger, the autonomic nervous system can shift into the sympathetic or dorsal vagal states. These states are associated with fight-or-flight responses or immobilization responses, respectively, and can disrupt co-regulation. In these states, individuals may have difficulty engaging in social interactions and may exhibit defensive behaviors or social withdrawal. By understanding the importance of co-regulation, individuals can work to create supportive and safe environments that foster social connectedness and emotional well-being. Techniques such as attuned listening, compassionate communication, and creating a sense of safety can enhance co-regulation and promote healthy social interactions.
Breathing exercises can help individuals regulate their physiological state. Slow, deep breaths can often promote a state of calm and safety.
Diaphragmatic breathing, which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote relaxation. Start by finding a comfortable sitting or lying position. Place one hand on your chest and the other hand on your belly. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, allowing your belly to rise as you fill your lungs with air. Exhale slowly through your mouth, letting your belly fall. Repeat this pattern for several minutes, focusing on the sensation of your breath and allowing any tension or stress to release with each exhale.
Box Breathing involves equalizing the length of each breath and creating a rhythmic pattern. Sit comfortably and imagine tracing the outline of a square in your mind. Inhale slowly through your nose as you count to four, hold your breath for a count of four, exhale through your mouth for a count of four, and then hold your breath again for a count of four. Repeat this cycle for several minutes, maintaining a steady and relaxed pace.
4-7-8 Breathing is recommended for calming the mind and inducing sleep. Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of four. Hold your breath for a count of seven. Exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of eight, making a gentle whooshing sound. Repeat this cycle for several rounds, allowing each breath to become deeper and slower.
Resonant Breathing involves matching your breath to a specific count to create a coherent rhythm. Find a comfortable position and inhale through your nose for a count of four. Exhale through your nose for a count of six. Continue this pattern, focusing on maintaining a smooth and even breath. It is important to find a count that feels comfortable for you, so you can adjust the length of each inhale and exhale as needed.
The polyvagal informed breathing exercises are designed to regulate the autonomic nervous system, shift the body into a state of calm, and promote the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. By practicing these exercises regularly, individuals can cultivate a greater sense of self-regulation and enhance their ability to manage stress, anxiety, and emotional well-being. Remember that everyone’s response to breathing exercises may vary, and it’s essential to find the techniques that work best for you. If you have any underlying health conditions or concerns, it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating new breathing exercises into your routine.
Regular meditation practice can help individuals learn to regulate their physiological state and remain in the safe and social state more frequently. Polyvagal Therapy integrates the principles of Polyvagal Theory into therapeutic approaches aimed at promoting self-regulation and healing. Regular meditation practice is often incorporated into Polyvagal Therapy as a powerful tool to regulate the autonomic nervous system, reduce stress, and cultivate a sense of well-being. Creating a safe and comfortable environment is essential for engaging in meditation practice. Find a quiet space where you can sit or lie down without distractions. You may choose to dim the lights, play soothing music, or use aromatherapy to enhance relaxation. Begin by focusing on your body and sensations to ground yourself in the present moment. Pay attention to the contact your body makes with the support beneath you, feel the weight of your body, and notice any sensations or tension. Take a few deep breaths to center yourself and bring your attention inward. Practice cultivating mindful awareness by directing your attention to the present moment without judgment. You can focus on your breath, observing the sensation of each inhale and exhale, or choose a specific point of focus, such as a word, phrase, or visualization. Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to the chosen focus, without self-criticism. Engage in a body scan practice to bring awareness to different parts of your body. Start from the top of your head and slowly move down, noticing any sensations, areas of tension, or relaxation. Allow your attention to rest on each part of the body and observe it with curiosity and acceptance. Incorporate loving-kindness or compassion meditation into your practice. This involves generating feelings of warmth, compassion, and love towards yourself and others. Begin by offering kind and gentle thoughts or phrases to yourself, such as “May I be happy, may I be healthy, may I be at peace.” Gradually expand this well-wishing to include loved ones, neutral individuals, and even difficult people or challenging situations. As you near the end of your meditation practice, take a moment to acknowledge the time and effort you dedicated to your well-being. Reflect on any insights or experiences that arose during the practice. Gradually bring your attention back to the room, wiggle your fingers and toes, and slowly open your eyes.
Consistency and regularity are key to the effectiveness of meditation practice in Polyvagal Therapy. Aim to establish a daily routine, even if it’s for a short duration, to maximize the benefits. Over time, regular meditation practice can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, reduce anxiety, improve emotional regulation, enhance self-awareness, and cultivate a greater sense of connection with oneself and others. It is important to note that while meditation can be a valuable self-regulation tool, it is not a substitute for professional therapeutic interventions. It is recommended to consult with a qualified mental health professional.
Engaging with certain sounds, rhythms, or music can shift the nervous system toward a more safe and social state. The first step in engaging with sound therapy is to select appropriate sounds that align with the goals and needs of the individual. These sounds can include soothing music, nature sounds, singing bowls, chimes, drumming, or vocal toning. The chosen sounds should be calming, non-threatening, and capable of evoking a sense of safety and relaxation. Similar to meditation practice, creating a safe and comfortable environment is crucial for engaging with sound therapy. Find a quiet space where you can sit or lie down without interruptions. Dim the lights, if desired, and remove any distractions that may hinder your focus or relaxation. Engage in deep listening by directing your attention to the sounds you have chosen. Focus on the subtleties and nuances of the sounds, allowing yourself to fully immerse in the auditory experience. You may notice the rhythm, pitch, timbre, or vibrations of the sounds. Stay present and attentive, letting go of thoughts or distractions that arise. The sounds used in sound therapy can influence the autonomic nervous system, particularly the vagus nerve, which plays a vital role in regulating physiological and emotional states. Certain sounds, such as low-frequency tones or rhythmic patterns, can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting relaxation and a sense of safety. This activation of the parasympathetic system can help counterbalance the effects of stress and dysregulation.
Sound therapy in Polyvagal Theory also focuses on developing interoceptive awareness, which is the ability to perceive and interpret bodily sensations. By attuning to the sounds and their impact on the body, individuals can enhance their awareness of physiological responses and emotional states. Pay attention to any shifts in breathing patterns, heart rate, muscle tension, or overall sense of calmness or arousal. After engaging with the sound therapy session, take a few moments to reflect on your experience. Notice any sensations, emotions, or thoughts that arose during the session. Consider how the sounds influenced your autonomic nervous system and emotional well-being. This self-reflection helps integrate the experience and deepen your understanding of the impact of sound on your regulation.
It’s important to note that sound therapy in the context of Polyvagal Theory is often integrated into therapeutic settings and led by trained professionals, such as music therapists or sound healers. These professionals can create tailored soundscapes and guide individuals through the process to ensure safety, effectiveness, and the appropriate use of sound techniques. Engaging with sound therapy within the framework of Polyvagal Theory can be a powerful tool for self-regulation, stress reduction, and emotional well-being. However, if you have specific health concerns or are receiving treatment for mental health conditions, it is recommended to consult with a qualified healthcare provider or therapist before incorporating sound therapy into your self-care practices.
Expressive Arts Activities:
Activities such as drawing, painting, or journaling can help individuals express emotions and experiences in a non-verbal way, promoting regulation and integration. Expressive arts activities can be integrated into the practice of Polyvagal Theory to support self-regulation, emotional expression, and the exploration of inner experiences. These activities provide individuals with creative outlets for processing emotions, fostering self-awareness, and promoting connection. Here are some examples of expressive arts activities that can be used in the context of Polyvagal Theory:
Art Therapy involves the use of various art mediums, such as painting, drawing, sculpting, or collage, to express thoughts, emotions, and experiences. Through the process of creating art, individuals can explore their inner landscape, externalize their emotions, and gain insights into their own reactions and patterns. Art therapy offers a non-verbal means of communication and can be particularly beneficial for individuals who struggle with verbal expression or have experienced trauma.
Music Therapy utilizes the therapeutic elements of music, such as rhythm, melody, and lyrics, to support emotional expression, relaxation, and social engagement. Individuals can engage in activities like songwriting, playing musical instruments, or listening to carefully selected music. Music therapy can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, promote emotional connection, and provide a container for exploring and processing feelings.
Dance/Movement Therapy involves using movement and body awareness to explore and express emotions. Through guided or spontaneous movement, individuals can release tension, enhance body awareness, and connect with their inner experiences. Dance/movement therapy focuses on the interplay between bodily sensations, emotions, and interpersonal connections, promoting regulation and self-expression.
Drama/Role-Playing Games allow individuals to step into different roles or personas, offering a safe and creative way to explore emotions, perspectives, and social interactions. Through improvisation or scripted scenarios, individuals can embody different characters, explore different aspects of their own identity, and gain insight into their patterns of relating. Drama activities can also facilitate empathy, perspective-taking, and understanding of others.
Creative Writing and/or Journaling provides a means of self-reflection, emotional expression, and narrative exploration. By putting thoughts and emotions into words, individuals can gain clarity, process their experiences, and identify patterns or triggers. Writing can also serve as a tool for tracking progress, setting intentions, and cultivating self-compassion.
These expressive arts activities provide alternative pathways for self-expression, self-regulation, and the exploration of personal narratives. By engaging in these activities, individuals can tap into their inherent creativity, promote emotional well-being, and develop a greater sense of self-awareness and self-compassion. It’s important to note that while expressive arts activities can be used as a complement to therapy, they are not a substitute for professional mental health support. If you are dealing with significant emotional distress or mental health concerns, it is recommended to seek guidance from a qualified therapist or counselor who can provide individualized support and integrate these activities into a comprehensive treatment plan.
In polyvagal therapy, a professional counselor may incorporate biofeedback devices as a tool to support their clients’ understanding and regulation of their autonomic nervous system (ANS). Polyvagal therapy, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, focuses on the role of the ANS in regulating emotions, behavior, and social engagement. It recognizes the importance of the vagus nerve and its influence on the body’s response to stress and safety cues.
Biofeedback devices provide real-time physiological data to individuals, allowing them to observe and gain awareness of their bodily functions and reactions. They can be used in polyvagal therapy to enhance the client’s understanding of their ANS responses and aid in developing self-regulation skills. Here’s how a professional counselor might utilize biofeedback devices within this therapeutic approach:
Assessment: At the beginning of therapy, the counselor may use biofeedback devices to gather baseline data on the client’s physiological responses, such as heart rate variability (HRV), skin conductance, or respiration patterns. This assessment helps identify patterns of dysregulation and guides the treatment planning process.
Psychoeducation: The counselor can use biofeedback devices to visually demonstrate the relationship between the client’s physiological state and their emotional experiences. By linking physiological markers to emotional states, the counselor helps the client understand how their body responds to different situations, such as feeling calm, stressed, or triggered.
Awareness and Tracking: Biofeedback devices can assist clients in developing body awareness by providing real-time feedback on their ANS responses. For instance, if the client is prone to anxiety, the counselor may ask them to wear a heart rate monitor and observe their HRV patterns during various activities. This allows the client to recognize when their autonomic state shifts and to correlate it with emotional experiences.
Regulation Techniques: Once the client has gained awareness of their physiological responses, the counselor can introduce specific regulation techniques using biofeedback devices. For example, if the client struggles with self-soothing during moments of stress, the counselor might teach them deep breathing exercises while monitoring their respiration rate or heart rate. The client can then visually see the impact of these techniques on their physiological state, reinforcing their ability to regulate their ANS.
Progressive Exposure: Biofeedback devices can be used in gradual exposure therapy, where the client confronts anxiety-inducing stimuli or memories in a controlled manner. The counselor can monitor the client’s physiological responses throughout the exposure and help them develop strategies to regulate their ANS and reduce distress.
Treatment Evaluation: Biofeedback devices can provide objective data for evaluating the effectiveness of polyvagal therapy interventions. By comparing pre- and post-treatment physiological measures, the counselor and client can observe progress and identify areas that require further attention.
It’s crucial to note that the use of biofeedback devices in therapy should always be guided by a trained professional. The counselor should have expertise in interpreting the data and integrating it into the therapeutic process. Additionally, a collaborative and trusting relationship between the counselor and the client is essential for effective implementation of biofeedback techniques in polyvagal therapy.
The use of imagination and visualization with guided imagery can be integrated into polyvagal therapy to support clients in regulating their autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses and promoting a sense of safety and relaxation. Whether used in person or through audio recordings and videos, guided imagery can be a powerful tool in helping clients access their imagination and create positive sensory experiences. Here’s how a professional counselor might utilize guided imagery within the context of polyvagal therapy. Before introducing guided imagery, the counselor focuses on creating a safe therapeutic environment and building a trusting relationship with the client. This foundation is crucial in polyvagal therapy as it supports the client’s sense of safety, which is essential for effective regulation. Guided imagery often begins with relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, to help the client enter a state of relaxation. This aids in activating the parasympathetic branch of the ANS, which is responsible for rest and recovery. In person, the counselor may guide the client through a visualization exercise, providing verbal cues and descriptions to engage the client’s imagination. The script might involve inviting the client to imagine a safe and serene place, such as a beach, forest, or garden. The counselor may guide the client to explore the sensory details of this imagined environment, such as the sights, sounds, smells, and textures present. By engaging the client’s senses, guided imagery helps evoke a relaxation response and promotes feelings of safety and calm.
Audio recordings are a convenient way to provide clients with guided imagery sessions outside of therapy sessions. The counselor can create customized recordings tailored to the client’s specific needs and preferences. These recordings can be listened to at the client’s convenience, allowing for repeated practice and reinforcement of relaxation and regulation skills. In addition to audio recordings, videos can be used to enhance the guided imagery experience. The counselor may curate or create video content that aligns with the client’s preferences and therapeutic goals. These videos could feature serene nature scenes, calming music, or soothing visuals. Visual cues can deepen the client’s engagement and immersion in the imagery, facilitating a sense of safety and relaxation.
Throughout the guided imagery process, the counselor can weave in polyvagal concepts to help the client understand the physiological aspects of their experience. For example, the counselor may explain how engaging in guided imagery activates the ventral vagal branch of the ANS, promoting feelings of safety and social connection. This psychoeducation helps the client connect their subjective experiences with the underlying neurophysiology, enhancing their self-awareness and regulation skills. Guided imagery can be practiced during therapy sessions and encouraged as a regular self-care activity for the client outside of sessions. The counselor can provide clients with audio recordings or videos for ongoing use, empowering them to regulate their ANS responses independently. Remember, the use of guided imagery should be adapted to each client’s needs, preferences, and therapeutic goals. It is essential for the counselor to remain attentive to the client’s responses and adapt the imagery to ensure it aligns with their comfort level and emotional readiness.
Virtual Reality Headset/Game Console
Virtual reality (VR) technology has gained significant traction in various fields, including mental health therapy. When it comes to polyvagal therapy, which focuses on regulating the nervous system, VR can be a valuable tool to supplement the therapeutic process. Here’s how a therapist can use virtual reality to enhance polyvagal therapy:
Creating Safe Environments: Virtual reality allows therapists to create simulated environments that can help clients feel safe and secure. By immersing clients in a controlled virtual environment, therapists can carefully introduce stimuli that trigger the client’s nervous system response. This controlled exposure enables gradual desensitization and helps clients build resilience.
Real-Time Monitoring: VR systems can track a client’s physiological responses, such as heart rate, respiration, and skin conductance. These measurements provide therapists with real-time feedback about a client’s autonomic state, helping them better understand the client’s physiological responses to different stimuli. This information can guide therapists in tailoring interventions to regulate the client’s nervous system effectively.
Stimulus Regulation: Through VR, therapists can present various visual and auditory stimuli that provoke specific responses from clients. By carefully selecting and manipulating these stimuli, therapists can help clients activate and regulate their nervous system in a controlled and supervised manner. For instance, therapists can use VR to expose clients to anxiety-provoking situations gradually, allowing them to practice self-regulation techniques.
Immersive Relaxation Techniques: VR can create immersive experiences that aid relaxation and stress reduction. Therapists can guide clients through virtual environments designed to induce a sense of calm and safety. This can include serene nature scenes, tranquil environments, or guided meditations in visually engaging settings. The immersive nature of VR enhances the effectiveness of relaxation techniques and promotes a deeper therapeutic experience.
Enhancing Emotional Awareness: Virtual reality environments can simulate specific emotional situations that clients may struggle with, such as public speaking or confrontations. By immersing clients in these situations, therapists can help clients observe their emotional and physiological reactions, facilitating increased self-awareness and understanding. Clients can practice emotional regulation techniques within the VR environment, preparing them for similar real-life scenarios.
Increasing Empathy and Perspective-Taking: Therapists can use VR to foster empathy and perspective-taking skills. Clients can be placed in virtual scenarios that allow them to experience situations from different perspectives, such as being a victim or an observer. This immersive experience can help clients understand others’ experiences, leading to increased empathy and improved social connections.
Homework and Skill-Building: Virtual reality can serve as an interactive and engaging tool for clients to practice therapeutic techniques outside of therapy sessions. Therapists can prescribe VR experiences for clients to use at home, allowing them to practice self-regulation skills and integrate the learned techniques into their daily lives. VR provides a structured and controlled environment for clients to reinforce their therapeutic progress independently.
It’s important to note that while virtual reality can be a valuable supplement to polyvagal therapy, it should not replace the therapeutic relationship and guidance provided by a trained therapist. VR technology should always be used in conjunction with appropriate clinical expertise to ensure clients receive the necessary support and guidance throughout the therapeutic process. It’s important to note that although the above tools and interventions are rooted in polyvagal theory, each person is unique and may require a personalized approach to therapy. Always consult with a mental health professional for treatment advice and strategies.
Polyvagal Theory, Safety & Connection
Accurate Autonomic Awareness
(AAAW) a technique used to help people learn to identify their autonomic nervous system (ANS) state. The AAAW involves paying attention to three autonomic landmarks: heart rate, breathing, and facial expression.
Ventral Vagal Anchors:
A technique used to help people learn to identify their autonomic nervous system (ANS) state and to anchor themselves in a state of safety and calm. The AAAW with Ventral Vagal Anchors involves paying attention to three autonomic landmarks: heart rate, breathing, and facial expression. In addition, it involves identifying a safe and calming place or activity and using it to anchor yourself in a state of safety and calm.
The Art of Befriending
Befriending the Autonomic Hierarchy:
A technique used to help people learn to regulate their autonomic nervous system (ANS) and to move from a state of sympathetic dominance to a state of ventral vagal dominance. The PBEH involves paying attention to the three branches of the ANS: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the dorsal vagal system (DVS), and the ventral vagal system (VVS).
A technique that uses the metaphor of a tree to help people understand and regulate their autonomic nervous system (ANS). The goal of the autonomic tree exercise is to help people identify the type of tree that they are currently experiencing. Once people have identified the type of tree, they can then use one skills for each type of tree. For stressed trees, use slow, deep breathing, grounding, or self-soothing techniques to move to a state of safety and calm. For frozen trees, use trauma-informed care, such as EMDR or somatic experiencing, to move to a state of safety and calm. For safe trees, use mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or yoga, to stay in a state of safety and calm.
The Practice of Reconnecting
A technique used to help people reconnect with their bodies and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves paying attention to three aspects of body language: facial expression, posture, and breathing. Facial expression: When you are in a state of safety and calm, your face is relaxed and open. When you are in a state of stress or danger, your face may become tense or closed. Posture: When you are in a state of safety and calm, your posture is upright and relaxed. When you are in a state of stress or danger, your posture may become hunched or tense. Breathing: When you are in a state of safety and calm, your breathing is slow and deep. When you are in a state of stress or danger, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid.
Continuum between Survival and Social Engagement:
A technique used to help people reconnect with their bodies and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves paying attention to three aspects of body language: facial expression, posture, and breathing. It also involves identifying the state of your nervous system, which can be either in survival mode or social engagement mode. See: body language exercise.
Social Engagement Scale:
A technique used to help people reconnect with their bodies and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves paying attention to three aspects of body language: facial expression, posture, and breathing. It also involves identifying your current state of nervous system on the Social Engagement Scale. The Social Engagement Scale is a 10-point scale that measures how connected and engaged you feel with others. On the low end of the scale, you may feel withdrawn, isolated, and fearful. On the high end of the scale, you may feel connected, engaged, and safe.
A technique used to help people reconnect with their bodies and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves paying attention to three aspects of body language: facial expression, posture, and breathing. It also involves identifying your current state of nervous system on the Social Engagement Scale and writing it down in a notebook. The notebook is a tool that can help you to track your emotional state and to identify the triggers that cause you to become stressed or anxious. The notebook has three columns: The date of the event. A brief description of the event. Your state of nervous system on the Social Engagement Scale.
To use the Neuroception Notebook, simply take a few minutes after each event to write down the date, event, and your state of nervous system. By tracking your emotional state over time, you can begin to identify the triggers that cause you to become stressed or anxious. Once you have identified your triggers, you can begin to develop strategies for coping with them. When writing down your state of nervous system, be honest with yourself about how you are feeling. When describing the event, be as specific as possible. Make a point of using the Neuroception Notebook every day. The Neuroception Notebook is a valuable tool that can help you to improve your emotional health and well-being. If you are struggling with stress, anxiety, or other emotional issues, I encourage you to consider using the Neuroception Notebook.
Attending to the Nervous System
A technique used to help people become more aware of their autonomic nervous system (ANS) and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves identifying words that begin with each letter of the alphabet that describe the qualities of the three states of the ANS: sympathetic, dorsal vagal, and ventral vagal. The sympathetic state is associated with the “fight-or-flight” response. When the sympathetic state is activated, the heart rate increases, breathing becomes shallow, and muscles tense up. The dorsal vagal state is associated with the “freeze” response. When the dorsal vagal state is activated, the heart rate slows down, breathing becomes shallow, and muscles relax. The ventral vagal state is associated with the “rest-and-digest” response. When the ventral vagal state is activated, the heart rate slows down, breathing becomes deep and regular, and muscles relax.
Sitting or lying in a comfortable position and closing your eyes. Taking a few slow, deep breaths and relaxing your body. Then, thinking of a word that begins with each letter of the alphabet that describes the qualities of each state of the ANS. For example, a word for the sympathetic state might be “startled,” a word for the dorsal vagal state might be “paralyzed,” and a word for the ventral vagal state might be “relaxed.” Thinking of these words, paying attention to how they make you feel. Do you feel more stressed, more relaxed, or somewhere in between? By becoming more aware of the qualities of each state of the ANS, you can learn to better regulate your emotions and respond to stress in a more healthy way.
I encourage you to be patient with yourself and the process. It may take some time to learn how to accurately identify the qualities of each state of the ANS. I remind you to be kind to yourself. If you find yourself feeling stressed or anxious, don’t judge yourself. Simply take a few slow, deep breaths and focus on one of the words that you identified for the ventral vagal state. I invite you to practice the exercise regularly. The more you practice, the better you will become at identifying the qualities of each state of the ANS and responding to stress in a healthy way. The Autonomic Alphabets exercise is a valuable tool that can help you to improve your emotional health and well-being.
A technique used to help people become more aware of their autonomic nervous system (ANS) and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves using the letters of your name to identify different states of the ANS. To do the Autonomic Names exercise, simply sit or lie in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a few slow, deep breaths and relax your body. Then, think of a state of the ANS that begins with each letter of your name. As you think of these states, pay attention to how they make you feel. Do you feel more stressed, more relaxed, or somewhere in between? By becoming more aware of the different states of the ANS, you can learn to better regulate your emotions and respond to stress in a more healthy way.
Autonomic Short Stories:
A technique used to help people become more aware of their autonomic nervous system (ANS) and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves writing short stories that describe different states of the ANS. To do the Autonomic Short Stories exercise, simply sit or lie in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Take a few slow, deep breaths and relax your body. Then, think of a state of the ANS and write a short story that describes it. For example, if you are thinking of the sympathetic state, you might write a story about someone who is running away from a bear. As you write, pay attention to how you feel. Do you feel more stressed, more relaxed, or somewhere in between? By becoming more aware of the different states of the ANS, you can learn to better regulate your emotions and respond to stress in a more healthy way. For example, some short stories that you might write about different states of the ANS follows. Sympathetic: A person is running away from a bear. Their heart is racing, their breathing is shallow, and their muscles are tense. Dorsal Vagal: A person is hiding in a dark closet. They are feeling scared and alone. Their heart rate is slow, their breathing is shallow, and their muscles are relaxed. Ventral Vagal: A person is sitting in a park, enjoying the sunshine. They feel relaxed and content. Their heart rate is slow, their breathing is deep, and their muscles are relaxed.
Attending over Time:
A technique used to help people become more aware of their autonomic nervous system (ANS) and to improve their emotional regulation. The exercise involves attending to a specific object or person over a period of time and noticing how your body responds. To do the Attending over Time exercise, simply find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Bring your attention to an object or person in your environment. Notice how your body feels as you attend to this object or person. Do you feel more relaxed, more stressed, or somewhere in between? Continue to attend to the object or person for a few minutes. Notice how your body changes over time. Do you feel more relaxed, more stressed, or the same? When you are finished, take a few deep breaths and open your eyes. Notice how you feel. Do you feel more relaxed, more stressed, or the same? This exercise is a valuable tool that can help you to improve your emotional health and well-being. Here are some examples of objects or people that you might attend to for the Attending over Time exercise: A flower, tree, pet, loved one, or a beautiful scene in nature. This exercise can be adapted to fit your individual needs and preferences. You can experiment with different objects or people, different lengths of time, and different levels of focus. The goal is to find a way to attend to something that helps you to relax and feel safe.
Attending to Autonomic Pathways
Daily Pie Charts:
This exercise uses the visual design of a pie chart to tune into the ways a day is comprised of a blend of dorsal vagal, sympathetic, and ventral vagal states and the relationship between states during the day. As soon as clients can predictably name their three states, this exercise becomes a useful tool. We tend to give our days a label—this was a good day or a difficult day, a quiet day or a busy day—based on one particularly intense moment or on a string of related experiences. When you name your days in this way, you often miss the moments that didn’t fit the pattern. When considering the day through an autonomic lens, looking at the relationship between states and the relative amount of time spent in each gives a more complete picture of your daily experience. With a pie chart, ventral vagal, sympathetic, and dorsal vagal experiences are seen as part of an integrated autonomic system. The global flavor of your day is a result of the contributions of each. The design of a pie chart offers a simple image of the overall sense of a day and brings the feeling of the day alive in shape and color.
Daily Tracker-Three Different Things:
This exercise brings explicit awareness to the ways a client’s autonomic patterns are shifting. In the midst the therapy process, it’s easy to miss the small moments that mark the beginning of change. This exercise is an easy way to create a habit of recognizing and naming the hopeful signs of a system that is reorganizing. An end-of-the-day reflection during which you listen to the subtleties of autonomic change is a good way to look back at the autonomic path you’ve traveled. With a habit of autonomic reflection, implicit knowing and explicit awareness combine to bring you into a deeper understanding of the ways the autonomic nervous system shapes your days. Remembering that the autonomic response is always considered an adaptive one, don’t look for what is better, but instead look for what is different. A regular tracking practice brings attention to the small shifts in patterns that highlight the ways your system is reorganizing.
The Autonomic Request for Connection:
This exercise brings explicit attention to the implicit signals being sent between autonomic nervous systems. By focusing on the pathways of the social engagement system, clients learn to discern signs of welcome and warning and use that knowledge in making decisions about connection. The autonomic nervous system is a relational system. Through your biology you are wired for connection. Eyes, voices, faces, and gestures telegraph cues that it is safe to explore a relationship. The elements of the social engagement system are essential to assessing safety and danger. Yet, through the ways the nervous system has been shaped by your personal experiences, you might miss or misread those invitations.
An ongoing stream of signals of welcome and warning are received and sent through the pathways of the social engagement system. The muscle around the eyes (the orbiculares oculi) opens and closes the eyelid and contributes to the wrinkles around the eyes that express emotions. This is where the nervous system looks for signs of warmth and an invitation to connect. Prosody (patterns of rhythm, tone, frequency in the voice) is an important nonverbal signal and sends messages of welcome or warning to another nervous system. Facial expressions convey social information. An unmoving face is seen as sign of danger, while a mobile face is experienced as alive and sending social information. Finally, turning and tilting the head signals availability and interest. You can begin to understand the conversation that is taking place between two nervous systems when you are aware of the cues you are sending and can accurately interpret the cues you are receiving. As you become familiar with this way of listening, you’ll find you are able to navigate relationships more skillfully.
Pathways to Playfulness:
“Playfulness occurs in a protected context and is easily disrupted by stress” (Bateson, 2014, p. R13). Playfulness is a state of mind supported by the autonomic state of ventral vagal regulation and a great way to exercise the vagal brake (Porges, 2015b). Studies suggest playfulness is a quality that is not set but can be enhanced and invited into daily living (Neyfakh, 2014). While we are serious beings, problem solvers wanting to make sense of the world, we are also playful beings wanting to let go of our problems for a moment in time. To play is a challenging experience and is especially difficult for many people. In order to play, we have to stay in the safety of a ventral vagal state while feeling the mobilizing energy of the sympathetic nervous system. This exercise explores building a capacity for playfulness. You can be playful both by yourself and with others. Playfulness and a sense of well-being go together. A playful attitude supports seeing new perspectives and being able to cope with adversity. As Dr. Seuss (1960) said, fun is good. You may be occupied by the serious issues that bring you to therapy and think you’ve lost the ability for playfulness. You may think there’s no place in your life for being playful, that it’s a luxury rather than an everyday experience, something to look at once therapy has ended. Playfulness is an important part of wellbeing and emerges when there is a neuroception of safety and an active ventral vagal state. A therapist or other supportive relationship can help you discover who you are as a playful person.
As you begin to understand how you play, the next step is to create time to play. This exercise can help you find moments to play
and expand your repertoire of playful experiences. Playfulness is an important quality that contributes to well-being. As you find ways to create opportunities for moments of playfulness, you can become a more playful person and experience the joy and creativity that accompanies that. Play is often a missing experience in our busy and hectic lives. When our environment is filled with cues of danger, the autonomic nervous system remains on guard, focused on protection, making play a nonessential, nonsesnical, and even unsafe choice. Many of us have had limited opportunities to engage in play. With the clinical focus on the challenges that brought you to therapy, play is often overlooked in the therapy process. Yet, play is an essential element of healing. Finding ways to routinely bring moments of play into therapy sessions. Play can be as simple as sharing a moment of laughter and friendly banter. Your therapist may introduce play early in therapy as a reminder that even in the midst of complicated trauma work, the autonomic nervous system has the capacity to engage in moments of play.
Humans are inherently social beings, yet also have a desire for moments of solitude to “cultivate the inner word of the self and experience self-discovery, self-realization, meaning, wholeness, and an enhanced awareness of one’s deepest feelings and impulses” (Hollenshorst & Jones as cited in More, Long, & Averill, 2004 p.224). Solitude has been shown to have a deactivating effect on the intensity of high-arousal responses, such as excitement and anger,
and to be activating of low arousal responses, such as calm and ease (Nguyen, Ryan, & Deci, 2018). In experiences of solitude, many people report feelings of intimacy and a stronger feeling of closeness to another person while others feel a religious or secular spiritual connection (Long & Averill, 2003). Creativity often blossoms in solitude, as does self-reflection that can lead to self transformation (Long & Averill, 2003). “Unique among the species, we have the ability to sit and mentally detach ourselves from our surroundings and travel inward . . .” (Wilson et al., 2014, p. 75). “Stillness is the moment when the buried, the discarded, and the forgotten escape to the social surface of awareness . . .” (Seremetakis as cited in Lepecki, 2001). Stillness
is a joining of the ventral and dorsal vagal circuits that allows you to sit alone in silence and feel restored or share a moment of quiet with a friend. As these two pathways come into connection, with the sympathetic nervous system quiet in the background, you feel immobilization from the dorsal vagus joined with the experience of safety from the ventral vagus and can enter into the state of being safely still (Porges 2017c).
Personal Preferences around Solitude:
This exercise brings attention to the autonomic experience of solitude and can help you identify where and when you search out solitude and how much solitude you need. When you have an understanding of the the concrete elements that support your ability to safely find moments of solitude, you are more likely to attend to your need for spending time alone. Solitude is not the same as isolation or loneliness, which have been shown to have a multitude of negative physical and psychological outcomes. Entering voluntarily into moments of solitude has positive benefits for well-being. Practicing a moment of solitude is an autonomic exercise that creates an experience of feeling centered and peaceful.
To do this exercise, follow this path. Locate the experiences of solitude and loneliness on your autonomic hierarchy. Feel the difference between them. Explore where in your daily environment you find solitude. Nature is often the place where people go to find privacy to escape to, when they are surrounded by the demands of the day, and the autonomic nervous system is needing some room to breathe.
Reflect on your daily experiences to discover where you choose to find solitude. Identify what kind of natural habitat are you drawn to. Notice where in your everyday natural environment are the places you can predictably visit and feel the benefits of solitude. Solitude is a state of being and doesn’t have to take place in isolation. Solitude is also found in spaces where there are other people. Identify the places and spaces you visit every day that include other people and also offer you an opportunity for a moment of solitude.
Notice when you reach for solitude. Consider what is happening in your life that prompts you to seek quiet. Look at your physical environment.• Consider the actions of people around you. Reflect on the number, frequency, and kinds of requests for your time and attention. Identify how much solitude you need. Focus on your moments of solitude and the length of time that brings a sense of nourishment. Consider when a few moments of solitude meets your needs. Compare that to when you need a longer experience of solitude to feel nurtured. Notice how you know when your system has taken in enough solitude and you’re ready to rejoin the world outside yourself.
Solitude is often confused with loneliness. Solitude is an experience of feeling safe while loneliness activates a survival response. Use the autonomic hierarchy to understand the difference between these two states.
Attending to Stillness:
Over the course of evolution, humans developed the ability to become still as a way to rest and renew. Sometimes, instead of feeling nurtured by stillness, the beginning of calm can bring cues of danger and a sense of vulnerability. As your autonomic nervous system begins to move from action to quiet, you might feel your sympathetic nervous system reacting with mobilizing energy or you might feel pulled into dorsal vagal collapse. Bring curiosity to identifying the elements that add safety to your experiences of rest so you can find your way to the places where you can receive the benefits of moments of quiet. This exercise is a practice that aims to promote feelings of safety, relaxation, and connection by engaging the ventral vagal complex (VVC) of the autonomic nervous system.
To begin the exercise, find a quiet and comfortable space where you can sit or lie down. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing yourself to settle into the present moment. Next, bring your attention to your body and notice any sensations that arise. Pay attention to your breath, observing the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation. Allow your breath to naturally deepen and slow down, encouraging a sense of relaxation. Now, shift your focus to your heart area, imagining a warm and soothing sensation spreading from your heart throughout your body. Visualize this warmth as a healing energy that promotes a sense of safety and calmness. As you continue to focus on your heart area, bring to mind a memory or a situation that evokes feelings of joy, love, or gratitude. It could be a cherished moment, a loving relationship, or a beautiful experience. Allow yourself to fully immerse in the positive emotions associated with this memory, letting them fill your entire being. As you bask in these positive emotions, envision them radiating outward from your heart, connecting you with the world around you. Visualize a gentle glow or a wave of warmth extending from your heart, reaching out to others and fostering a sense of connection and compassion. Stay in this state of stillness, relaxation, and connection for as long as you wish, savoring the feelings of safety and well-being. When you are ready to conclude the exercise, take a few more deep breaths, gently bring your awareness back to the present moment, and open your eyes.
The “Attending to Stillness” exercise helps activate the VVC, promoting a sense of calm and social engagement. By intentionally focusing on positive emotions and fostering a connection with yourself and others, this exercise can be a powerful tool for reducing stress, cultivating inner peace, and enhancing overall well-being. Stillness is a complicated autonomic experience and many people who try it find sympathetic mobilization interrupts their ability to rest, or they get pulled into dorsal vagal collapse when they begin to become quiet. By attending to the qualities of places that support safety in quiet, this exercise helps you first identify where you can safely experience stillness and then experiment with entering those places.
Moments to Savor
Savoring is a process of attending to and appreciating positive life events (Bryant as cited in Geiger, Morey, & Segerstrom, 2016). Trauma can disrupt the ability to savor. Feeling negative emotions in a normally positive moment and an inability to experience positive affect can create secondary guilt and shame at the inability to experience joy (DePierro, D’Andrea, & Frewen, 2014). These experiences then set up a pattern of ongoing dysregulation. The
practice of savoring is an active strategy to build ventral vagal resources. Savoring is linked to psychological resilience, positive health outcomes, and a sense of well-being (Geiger, Morey, & Segerstrom, 2016; Phillipe et al., 2009; Speer, Bhanji, & Delgado, 2014). Momentary savoring enhances positive mood, while an ongoing practice of savoring maintain levels of happiness (Jose, Lim, & Bryant, 2012).
An exercise that aims to promote feelings of safety, connection, and positivity. It encourages individuals to focus on past experiences that bring them joy, happiness, and a sense of well-being. The exercise begins by finding a quiet and comfortable space where one can relax and reflect. The individual is then guided to recall specific moments from their life that they savor, cherish, and feel grateful for. These moments can be anything from a personal achievement, a special event, a meaningful interaction, or even a simple everyday experience. While remembering these moments, individuals are encouraged to engage their senses and fully immerse themselves in the positive emotions associated with those experiences. They may visualize the scene, remember the sounds, smells, and textures, and relive the emotions they felt during those moments.
By savoring these snapshots, the exercise activates the ventral vagal complex, the social engagement system responsible for promoting feelings of safety and connection. Engaging in this exercise regularly can have various benefits. It helps individuals shift their focus from negative or stressful experiences to positive ones, cultivating a more optimistic and resilient mindset. It also strengthens the capacity to experience gratitude and joy, enhancing overall emotional well-being. Ultimately, “Savoring Snapshots” is a practice that allows individuals to intentionally savor and celebrate the positive moments of their lives, nurturing a sense of well-being, and fostering a deeper connection with themselves and others.
To savor is to take a moment of ventral vagal regulation and the feeling of a sense of safety and experience a story of connection to self, to another, or to nature. Because savoring is a quick practice whereby you capture a ventral vagal moment and hold it in your conscious attention for just a short time. Moments to savor routinely happen in the course of everyday living. Because a 20- to 30- second snapshot is all that is needed to benefit from the practice, it is easy to savor during the natural flow of your day.
Connecting inward to attend to the challenges of sympathetic and dorsal vagal survival responses along with the resources of the ventral vagal system is a foundational skill. Expanding outward to identify ways you are resourced through connecting to art and nature is also important. Each offers connection to the ventral vagal state of regulation through easy to access experiences. Art can move you to tears with its beauty, prompt a moment of
transformation, and change your self-image or world view (Pelowski, Markey, Lauring, & Leder, 2016). Viewing art is a complex experience that engages the body and mind in a process that unfolds over time (Brieber, Nadal, Leder, & Rosenberg, 2014). “Art viewing engenders myriad emotions, evokes evaluations, physiological reactions, and in some cases can mark or alter lives” (Pelowski et al., 2016, p. 1).
Your ability to return to autonomic regulation following a stressful event is supported through connection with nature (Brown, Barton, & Gladwell, 2013). Nature scenes are autonomically regulating and restorative. Technology that simulates the natural world brings an autonomically regulating effect (Kahn, Severson, & Ruckert, 2009), while listening to the sounds of nature brings an increase in autonomic regulation (Gould van Praag et al., 2017). Another way to connect with nature is through fractals—the simple patterns in nature that repeat over and over with increasing complexity (e.g., the nautilus shell, a leaf, a pinecone, broccoli buds, dandelions, ice crystals, clouds). Viewing fractals reduces physiological stress levels (Taylor & Spehar,
2016). The regulating autonomic response to fractals appears to be universal and is elicited in periods of time as short as 10 seconds (Taylor, 2006).
Intentionally bringing experiences of art and a connection with nature into daily life is an uncomplicated, easily accessible way to enter into moments of ventral vagal regulation.
Attending through Art:
An exercise that utilizes art as a means of self-expression and regulation. THis exercise aims to promote self-awareness, relaxation, and connection by engaging in the creative process. Viewing art opens up possibilities for seeing the world in new ways. Both the body and the mind are involved in the experience. Engaging with forms of art that bring a ventral vagal response can change the way clients think and feel. This exercise invites clients to investigate their autonomic response to different kinds of art and make art a part of their everyday lives. Art comes in many forms and no special training is necessary to benefit from seeing it. Art speaks to the body through your autonomic pathways and brings responses that can lead to new ways of thinking about yourself and the world. Finding ways to invite art into your life is an act of listening to your autonomic nervous
system and discovering the particular ways you connect.
Exploring the ways that are easily available to you to see and be with art. Museums, artists’ workshops, public art spaces, arts festivals, an illustrated art book, online artistic image and photo galleries, and videos of art slideshows set to relaxing music are just some of the options. Identify the kinds of art you are drawn to. View different kinds of artwork (photography, sculpture, drawing, painting, ceramic, mosaic, textiles, and other forms of art) and notice
how you respond. Decide how and how often you need to connect to art in order to feel as if you have enough art in your life.
Finding a quiet and comfortable space where you can focus on your artistic expression. Gathering art supplies such as paper, pencils, paints, or any other medium of their choice. Attending to one’s internal state and using art as a tool to express and regulate emotions. Closing your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and connect with your bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings. This mindful attunement can help ground you in the present moment. With this heightened awareness, you can then engage in the creative process. Choosing to draw, paint, sculpt, or engage in any artistic form that resonates with you. The focus is not on creating a masterpiece but on using art as a means of self-expression and exploration.
During the art-making process, paying attention to the sensations, movements, and emotions that arise. Choosing to reflect on your experiences by asking questions such as “What does this color represent?” or “How does this brushstroke make me feel?” This reflective stance promotes self-discovery and fosters a deeper connection with oneself. Engaging in this exercise activates the ventral vagal complex, the social engagement system. This activation can lead to a sense of safety, relaxation, and connection, enhancing overall well-being. Regular practice of this exercise allows individuals to cultivate self-regulation skills, develop a greater understanding of their emotions, and promote self-care and self-expression. It provides an avenue for creative exploration and an opportunity to tap into the healing and transformative power of art.
In summary, the Attending through Art exercise integrates the principles of the Polyvagal Theory with the creative process to promote self-awareness, regulation, and connection. By engaging in art as a form of expression, individuals can deepen their understanding of themselves, enhance their emotional well-being, and nurture their sense of connection with their inner selves.
Attending in Nature:
This exercise brings attention to the naturally occurring autonomic benefits found in nature. With the recognition that nature is nourishing both in live experiences and through images, attending to a connection with nature becomes an easily accessible regulating activity. Nature, both in real life and through viewing images, offers relaxing and restorative opportunities. Abundant in the natural world are fractals, simple patterns that repeat over and over creating increasing complexity (the nautilus shell, a leaf, a pinecone, broccoli buds, dandelions, ice crystals, clouds). Viewing fractals for just a few
moments brings a regulating autonomic response. Find the particular places and ways to connect with nature that bring your ventral vagal system alive.
Attend to the natural environment around you and track your responses. Identify the places that bring you into ventral vagal regulation, sympathetic mobilization, and dorsal vagal disconnection. Visit the places that are regulating for you either in person, through images, or in a combination of both. Look for fractals as you move through your day. Stop for a just a few seconds to take them in. Find images of fractals or objects that have the characteristics of fractals and notice the ones that bring an intense ventral vagal response. An internet search will bring up a wealth of iimages, and the plants and trees around you offer living examples. Display fractal images or objects in a way that you can easily return to them. (A screen saver, photos on your phone, or a flowering plant or cactus in your home or office are some suggestions.)
We are exposed to the regulating influences of the natural world as we move through our daily lives. By bringing attention to these experiences nature becomes an active resource. Learning to intentionally connect with nature is a way to build our ventral vagal capacities.
Shaping the Autonomic Nervous System: The Right Degree of Challenge
Energy and Actions Map
Energy and action maps, as described within the context of the Polyvagal Theory, help us understand the behavioral responses associated with each branch of the autonomic nervous system. These maps illustrate how the different branches influence our energy levels and the types of actions we are likely to engage in. When the ventral vagal complex is dominant, individuals feel safe and connected. They have high energy levels and are more likely to engage in social interactions, collaboration, and exploration. This state is associated with positive affect, empathy, and the ability to regulate emotions effectively. In contrast, when the sympathetic nervous system is activated, individuals may experience increased energy levels but with a focus on defensive behaviors. This can manifest as fight or flight responses, aggression, or heightened arousal and vigilance. When the dorsal vagal complex is dominant, individuals may exhibit low energy levels and a sense of disconnection. They may withdraw socially, experience feelings of sadness or depression, and engage in behaviors associated with immobilization or dissociation.
Understanding the energy and action maps can help us recognize and respond to our own and others’ physiological and emotional states. By creating a safe and supportive environment, we can help regulate the autonomic nervous system and promote feelings of safety and connection. The Polyvagal Theory provides valuable insights into how our autonomic nervous system influences our responses to stress and social interactions. By understanding the dynamics between the different branches and the associated energy and action maps, we can foster environments that promote safety, connection, and well-being.
Activities that shape the autonomic nervous system fall along a scale of passive to active. There are times when thinking about moving, remembering a connection with a friend, or simply looking up toward the sky is the right choice and other times when you need to take action, put your body in motion, or head out into the world and seek social connection. Choose an experience that brings a return of energy when the dorsal vagal immobilizing collapse is present, a way to safely discharge energy when feeling the frenetic activity of the sympathetic state, and an action that deepens the feeling of regulation when anchored in the safety of ventral vagal.
Glimmers and Glows
Sometimes simply navigating a day filled with responsibilities feels like an autonomic challenge. These are glimmer days, when noticing micro-moments of ventral vagal energy helps us stay regulated and ready for connection. Other days feel more open with time to pause and deepen into the longer experience of a glow. Both experiences shape our system and strengthen our connection to ventral vagal regulation. The concepts of “glimmers” and “glows” are used to describe specific aspects of our neurophysiological states. Glimmers and glows refer to positive cues and signals that indicate safety, connection, and social engagement. They are essential for creating and maintaining healthy relationships and facilitating a sense of well-being. Here’s a breakdown of these concepts:
Glimmers represent subtle signals and cues that help individuals perceive safety and trust in their environment and relationships. Glimmers can be conveyed through various means, such as vocal prosody (the melody and rhythm of speech), facial expressions, eye contact, body language, and touch. These cues indicate that the person we are interacting with is approachable, responsive, and non-threatening. Glimmers are associated with feelings of safety and a shift toward social engagement.
Glows, on the other hand, are the experiences of positive states that arise from connecting with others in a safe and supportive manner. When we experience glows, our autonomic nervous system responds by activating the parasympathetic branch, which is responsible for calming and restoring our bodies. This activation promotes relaxation, social engagement, and a sense of well-being. Glows can be characterized by feelings of warmth, connection, trust, and social joy.
Both glimmers and glows are important for creating and maintaining healthy social connections. They help us feel safe, connected, and supported in our relationships, which in turn promotes our overall well-being. By understanding and recognizing these cues and positive states, individuals can cultivate healthier and more fulfilling social interactions, fostering a positive feedback loop of safety and connection.
This exercise is an active search for micro-moments of regulation. Looking for these moments brings a new level of autonomic awareness. Finding them begins to change our expectations around our daily experiences. Glimmers are the micro-moments of ventral vagal experience that routinely appear in everyday life yet frequently go unnoticed. To ensure survival, human beings are built with a negativity bias. This means you are biologically wired to pay more attention to negative events than positive ones and can often miss the ventral vagal moments that coexist with moments of dysregulation. Things like seeing a friendly face, hearing a soothing sound, or noticing something enjoyable in the environment go unnoticed. A fundamental step in shaping your system is seeing a glimmer, pausing to take it in, and then beginning to look for more.
Set an intention to look for a certain number of glimmers each day. Choose a number that feels doable to begin. If glimmers are an unfamiliar experience, watch for a single glimmer. As finding glimmers becomes easier, set a new goal. Notice when you feel a spark of ventral vagal energy. Look for glimmers in your daily activities. Glimmers happen regularly, but because they are micro-moments you need to be on the lookout for them. See, stop, and appreciate your glimmers. Create an easy way to acknowledge a glimmer when it happens. You might bring attention to the moment by simply saying “glimmer” or with a small movement (perhaps your hand on your heart). Track your glimmers with something like a daily glimmers notebook or
keep a running list. Look for glimmers in specific places, with particular people, at certain times. Find the ways your glimmers routinely appear. Share your glimmers. You might text your glimmers to a friend, make talking about daily glimmers a family nighttime ritual, or share your list of weekly glimmers to share with your therapist. Find the way that works for you.
As glimmer experiences accumulate, we naturally turn toward finding more. Creating a practice of recognizing glimmers is a reminder that among many experiences of dysregulation, there are also regularly occurring micro-moments of regulation. Just a simple acknowledgement of those moments can
temper the intensity of our responses to the challenges in our daily lives. Glimmers also predictably happen in therapy sessions. Look for them and stop to name them.
From Glimmer to Glow
This exercise builds on the skill of recognizing glimmers to create a more expansive ventral vagal experience. When we hold a glimmer in our awareness for a longer period of time, the experience deepens and the story that accompanies it comes to life. When you recognize the micro-moment of a glimmer, you feel the spark of your ventral vagal system. Just as sparks can be used to ignite a fire, glimmers can be turned into the deeper experience of a glow. With a glimmer, you pause just long enough to acknowledge that a ventral vagal moment is happening in the flow of your day. With a glow, stop and celebrate the glimmer. Take time to soak it in and give it deeper meaning.
Notice a glimmer and stop and let the experience fill you. Move beyond a few seconds and stay with the experience for a half a minute or more. Give the glimmer time to become a glow. Feel what happens as you move from connecting for a micromoment to a longer experience of taking in. Listen to the story that accompanies the glow. Describe your experience of the glimmer and the glow. Notice how the experience changes. For example, a particular
glimmer moment might be described as quick hit of happiness that brings a smile, and when you turn it into a glow, the experience feels like basking in the warmth of the sun while breathing a sigh of contentment.
Once you’re skilled at noticing glimmers, start practicing this exercise in sessions so you get the feel of holding a glimmer in awareness for a longer length of time. Glow moments are still relatively short (up to a minute), which makes them accessible for most of us but can, for some individuals, activate a sympathetic or dorsal vagal survival response. Work with your therapist to increase the time you hold a moment in awareness and stay in
the experience of ventral vagal deepening.
Shaping Your Story through Sound
The Sound of Your Voice
This exercise is a way for clients to get to know how different tones of voice change the way they feel. By manipulating their tone of voice and tracking responses, clients begin to become aware of how the way they speak impacts their own experience and can begin to look at how the sound of their voice impacts the way they are experienced by others. The autonomic nervous system uses tone of voice as a way to discern safety. You respond to intonation before you take in information. The way you speak changes the way you feel, the story you tell, and changes the way people around you hear what you are saying.
The Music in Your Life
Music is all around you, affecting your physiology and your feelings. Along with activating a ventral vagal response, music has a paradoxical effect that allows you to safely connect to, and even enjoy, your sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.
Music is a readily available resource, which makes it something your clients can easily explore on their own and you can bring into your sessions. Create connection by listening with your clients to their selections. Add the experience of reciprocity by sharing your own music preferences.
Shaping through Movement
All that is important is this one moment in movement.
Movement is an essential life process. When you catch something moving out of the corner of your eye, you turn your attention to look for something that is alive. A leaf blowing, a candle unexpectedly flickering, and shadows in the sunlight each bring a sudden sense that something alive is nearby. Humans, like all living things, respond to stimuli with movement and how that happens is in part regulated by the autonomic nervous system. The ability to turn toward and fully experience body sensations as you move is therapeutic (Lucas, Klepin, Porges, & Rejeski, 2018; Rejeski & Gauvin, 2013). Movement practices are a form of autonomic exercise that shapes the system. Both the actual physical act of moving and bringing movement to life in your imagination activate the autonomic nervous system (Collet, Di Rienzo, El Hoyek, & Guillot, 2013; Demougeot, Normand, Denise, & Papaxanthis, 2009).
Moments of Movement
This exercise helps clients identify a continuum of movements for each autonomic state. The continuum can then be used as a guide to safely navigate dorsal vagal and sympathetic moments and maintain a ventral vagal experience. Movement occurs along a continuum of expression: simple through
complex, micro-movements to full body motions. Each autonomic state has different levels of energy that you can connect with and use to shape your experience. Intentional use of movement is a way to engage your dorsal vagal and sympathetic states, making them less intense and persistent, and it’s also a way to deepen your ventral vagal capacities.
Clients are often surprised to realize they can use organized movements to shape their experiences of dysregulation. From a state of dorsal vagal conservation, movement needs to be gentle and often involves imagining a movement before enacting a movement. Simply being in a place where other people are present without a requirement to connect can bring the right degree of autonomic challenge to support beginning mobilization. In the intensity of sympathetic mobilization your clients are looking for an organized way to use and safely discharge their energy. Because the ability for clear thinking is impaired in a dorsal vagal or sympathetic state, having a movement continuum as a guide supports your clients when their autonomic state makes it difficult for them to make a choice and is a reminder to recognize and savor their ventral vagal experiences.
Movement is not always an option. Personal and environmental circumstances sometimes make it difficult to take an action. When that happens, imagined movement is the next best choice. This exercise helps clients connect to the benefits of movement through imagery. Motor imagery is a way for you to be in motion when the environment you’re in doesn’t support moving, when physical challenges make moving difficult, or when making a movement doesn’t feel safe and instead activates a protective survival response. Imagined movement practices, either as a replacement for or as a complement to movement, are another way to get the benefits of moving and experience safely moving through space.
Identify a movement you are drawn to but haven’t brought into action yet. Play with it. Imagine yourself safely bringing the action to life. See yourself doing it. Sense your body moving on the inside. Feel the emotions that accompany your moving. Hear the story of who you are as you move. Once you get the feel for imagined movement, create a series of movements. Use your imagination to move in ways you have always wanted. Make time each day to bring one of your moments of movement to life on the inside. Notice if, over time, using motor imagery invites bringing the movement out of your imagination into the world or if it is autonomically nourishing when it remains an imagined experience.
Movement is a good example of needing to find the right degree of challenge to have an action be resourcing rather than dysregulating. Some of your clients will find that imagining certain actions supports their ability to feel safe enough to then enact the action in real life. Other clients are nourished through imagining a movement, but a sympathetic flight or dorsal vagal immobilization response takes over when they think about their private, internal experience becoming visible. However your clients sense and see themselves safely bringing a movement to life, the experience of being a mover brings
new information that can be integrated into the story of who they are.
Walking a labyrinth activates a subtle pattern of mobilization and calm and opens the mind to new experiences. This exercise offers clients multiple ways to engage with labyrinths, create repeated experiences of autonomic shifts, and explore new ways of thinking. People have been walking labyrinths for centuries. Unlike a maze, a labyrinth has one path and no dead ends. Often thought of as a path to transformation, when you enter a labyrinth, there is a release of connection to the everyday world, a sense of receiving wisdom when you reach the center, and a subtle shift in your sense of yourself and
the world when the circuit is completed. When walking a labyrinth there is first a slight increase in mobilization followed by a return to calm making this a gentle autonomic exercise.
Investigate labyrinth-walking options. The location of thousands of labyrinths around the world as well as access to virtual and printed ones are available at https://labyrinthsociety.org Walk a full-size labyrinth. Navigate a virtual labyrinth on your computer. Trace a printed labyrinth. Walk a labyrinth with your fingers using a finger-walking guide. Identify your physiological response to each of the different labyrinth-walking options. Which ones feel the most regulating? Notice any ways your thinking shifts over the course of your labyrinth walk. Keep track of the stories about yourself and the world that you connect with on your labyrinth walks. Find an easily accessible form of labyrinth-walking you can use to return to regulation when you notice a rise in stress. Combine different forms of labyrinth-walking to create a regular practice.
With the variety of ways to connect with a labyrinth, this becomes an accessible way for your clients to reduce psychological and physiological stress and gently shape their systems. While using labyrinth walking as an autonomic shaping exercise, your clients may experience an accompanying shift in the ways they think about themselves and see the world.
Shaping through Breathing
Find Your Breath
“Find Your Breath: Shaping Through Breathing” is an exercise derived from Polyvagal Therapy (PVT) that focuses on regulating the autonomic nervous system by engaging in conscious breathing. PVT is a therapeutic approach developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, which emphasizes the importance of understanding and working with the body’s nervous system responses to promote emotional and physiological well-being.
The exercise begins by encouraging individuals to find a comfortable position, either sitting or lying down, and bringing their attention to their breath. The aim is to shift the focus from the external world to internal sensations, particularly the rhythm and depth of one’s breath. Participants are encouraged to observe their breath without trying to change it initially. They can notice the natural inhalations and exhalations, paying attention to the sensations in the nostrils, chest, or abdomen as the breath flows in and out. After establishing this baseline awareness, the exercise guides individuals to intentionally modify their breath pattern. This involves consciously lengthening the inhalation or exhalation, extending the pauses between breaths, or exploring different rhythms that feel comfortable and soothing. The key is to engage in slow, gentle, and deliberate breathing.
By consciously altering the breath, participants activate the vagus nerve, a major component of the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for relaxation responses. This activation helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, promoting a sense of calm and safety. As the breath slows down and deepens, the body receives signals that it is safe, allowing for relaxation and restoration. Throughout the exercise, individuals are encouraged to notice any shifts in their physical sensations, emotions, or thoughts. They can observe whether the slow and intentional breathing helps them feel more grounded, centered, or relaxed. This mindful awareness helps cultivate a deeper connection with the body and its signals, enhancing self-regulation and emotional well-being.
“Find Your Breath: Shaping Through Breathing” is a simple yet powerful exercise that can be practiced regularly to support nervous system regulation and overall stress reduction. By engaging in conscious breathing, individuals can tap into their body’s innate ability to promote relaxation, resilience, and self-healing.
Understand Your Breath
“Understand Your Breath: Shaping Through Breathing” focuses on harnessing the power of breath to regulate the autonomic nervous system and promote emotional well-being. This exercise is designed to help individuals develop awareness of their breath patterns and learn how to shape their breathing to shift their physiological state.
The exercise begins by encouraging individuals to find a comfortable sitting or lying position, allowing their bodies to relax. They are then guided to observe their breath without trying to change it, simply noticing the rhythm, depth, and sensations associated with each inhalation and exhalation. This initial step helps foster present-moment awareness and a connection with the body. Next, participants are prompted to explore different breathing techniques that can influence their nervous system’s response. This may involve slow, deep breaths to activate the calming parasympathetic response or quick, shallow breaths to stimulate the sympathetic response associated with increased energy and alertness. By experimenting with various breath patterns, individuals can learn how to shift their physiological state and achieve a sense of balance and regulation.
Throughout the exercise, individuals are encouraged to pay attention to any physical, emotional, or mental sensations that arise during the breathwork. This heightened awareness allows them to notice how their breath influences their overall state and empowers them to make conscious adjustments as needed.
“Understand Your Breath: Shaping Through Breathing” is an empowering practice that can be utilized as a self-regulation tool in moments of stress, anxiety, or emotional overwhelm. By gaining a deeper understanding of their breath and its connection to their nervous system, individuals can cultivate greater emotional resilience and well-being in their daily lives.
Follow Your Breath
Follow Your Breath: Shaping Through Breathing aims to regulate the autonomic nervous system and promote feelings of safety, calmness, and connection. During the exercise, individuals are guided to focus on their breath as a way to engage the calming aspects of the vagus nerve, which plays a crucial role in the regulation of our physiological and emotional states. The exercise begins by finding a comfortable seated or lying position and bringing attention to the natural rhythm of the breath.
The practitioner or therapist may instruct individuals to take slow, deep breaths, emphasizing longer exhalations to activate the body’s relaxation response. This intentional breathing pattern helps activate the vagus nerve’s parasympathetic branch, which promotes rest, relaxation, and social engagement. As individuals continue to breathe consciously, they are encouraged to notice any physical sensations, thoughts, or emotions that arise without judgment. This practice of non-judgmental awareness allows individuals to observe their internal experiences and develop a compassionate relationship with themselves.
Throughout the exercise, the therapist may guide individuals to explore the sensations and feelings associated with their breath. This can include noticing the movement of the breath in the body, the rise and fall of the abdomen or chest, or the sensation of air passing through the nostrils. The exercise may also incorporate other elements such as grounding techniques, visualizations, or affirmations to enhance the sense of safety and relaxation. These additional elements can help individuals shift their attention away from stressors or negative thoughts and foster a sense of connection with the present moment.
By engaging in Follow Your Breath: Shaping Through Breathing regularly, individuals can learn to regulate their nervous system, reduce feelings of anxiety or overwhelm, and cultivate a greater sense of well-being. This exercise is often used in the context of therapy, but it can also be practiced independently as a self-care tool for managing stress and promoting emotional resilience.
Shaping through the Environment
Green, Blue, and Flowering
A Ventral Vagal Space of Your Own
Shaping through Reflection
Writing Your Reflections
Reflecting with Compassion
A New Rhythm of Regulation
Recognize a New Rhythm
Reflect a New Rhythm
Regulate a New Rhythm
Create If-Then Statements
Exercise the Vagal Brake
Connecting to Others / Belonging
Rules of Reciprocity
Personal Conection Plan
Clusters of Connection
Connecting to Something Greater than Self