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Dr. Stephen Porges | Polyvagal theory, oxytocin, and the neurobiology of love

  • Pairc Ui Chaoimh, The Marina, Ballintemple Cork Ireland (map)

Using the body’s social engagement system to promote feelings of safety, connectedness, intimacy, and recovery from threat and chronic stress.

A workshop with Dr. Stephen Porges and Dr. Sue Carter (USA).


Safety is critical in enabling humans to optimize their potential. The neurophysiological processes associated with feeling safe are a prerequisite not only for optimal mental health and social behaviour, 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 behaviour turns off defences 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. Consistent with a Polyvagal perspective, oxytocin and vasopressin dynamically moderate the autonomic nervous system influencing vagal pathways and anti-inflammatory circuits that help explain the adaptive consequences of love, trust, and social behaviour for emotional and physical health. Thus, interventions that target the capacity to feel safe and use social behaviour to regulate physiological state can be effective in treating psychological disorders that are dependent on defence systems.

The workshop will focus on the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that provides a new perspective and expands our understanding of normal and atypical behaviour, mental health (e.g., coping with stress and depression), and psychiatric disorders (e.g., autism, PTSD). The Polyvagal Theory, by incorporating a developmental perspective, explains how typical and atypical maturation and regulation of autonomic function forms the neural “platform” upon which social behaviour and the development of trusting relationships are based. The theory explains how individuals react to danger and life threat and how experiences of abuse and trauma may retune our nervous system to respond to friends as if they were enemies. The theory may help practitioners understand and identify the features that trigger defensive systems in children, young people and adults. New biologically based behavioural strategies will be discussed that can be applied to clients with low thresholds to respond defensively (e.g., abused and neglected children, survivors of trauma, and patients with other psychiatric disorders).

You will learn:

• Principles and features of the Polyvagal Theory
• How health and illness are manifested in the Social Engagement System
• The adaptive and maladaptive functions of neuroception
• How the vagal brake regulates behavioural and emotional reactivity
• How the Polyvagal Theory provides insights into clinical assessment and treatment
• How oxytocin contributes to a neurobiology of social bonding and love
• How oxytocin is involved in regulating stress and enhancing health
• How oxytocin mediates the impact of social support, social bonds, and trusting relationships on physical and mental health
• How oxytocin and vasopressin act as “neuromodulators” within the theoretical context of the Polyvagal Theory

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