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Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe


  • Nauset Regional High School, Eastham, MA 100 Cable Road, Eastham, Massachusetts (map)

Safety is critical in enabling humans to optimize their potential. The neurophysiological processes associated with feeling safe are a prerequisite not only for social behavior but also for accessing both the higher brain structures that enable humans to be creative and generative and the lower brain structures involved in regulating health, growth, and restoration.  The Polyvagal Theory explains how social behavior turns off defenses and promotes opportunities to feel safe.  It provides an innovative model to understand bodily responses to trauma and stress and the importance of the client’s physiological state in mediating the effectiveness of clinical treatments. From a Polyvagal perspective, interventions that target the capacity to feel safe and use social behavior to regulate physiological state can be effective in treating psychological disorders that are dependent on defense systems. 

In this workshop, through presentations, experiential exercises, and class discussion, we will learn the principles and features of the Polyvagal Theory and how to apply it in a clinical setting. We will cover how the Polyvagal Theory can demystify several features related to stress-related illnesses and psychiatric disorders such as PTSD, autism, depression, and anxiety. Time will be spent on what the Social Engagement System is and how the brain-face-heart connection evolved. We will discuss how deficits in the regulation of the Social Engagement System relate to the core features of several psychiatric disorders. We will learn how neural process evaluates risk in the environment and triggers adaptive neural circuits which promote either social interactions or defensive behaviors and how the Social Engagement System is compromised by stress and trauma and how to reset it.