The Polyvagal Theory

Stephen Porges ICP+P Institute

Stephen Porges, PhD

December 10, 2016

Chair

Nancy Wachtenheim, MSW

Stephen Porges, Ph.D., is Distinguished University Scientist  at Indiana University Bloomington, where he is developing a Traumatic Stress Research Center. He is also Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, as well as Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He has served as president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences.

In 1994, he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, linking the evolution of the vertebrate autonomic nervous system to the emergence of social behavior. He is currently writing his second book on the Polyvagal Theory and has published over 250 scientific papers.

How safe am I? Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory provides a new perspective on the autonomic nervous system’s function in responding to safety and danger. Through the process of “neuroception,” neural circuits (outside the realm of conscious awareness) detect cues such as body and facial movements and vocalizations, and distinguish whether the environment is safe, dangerous, or life threatening. Adaptive behaviors are then triggered that promote either social engagement or defensive behaviors (fight/flight or shutdown). When the nervous system inaccurately assesses safety or danger, which is common among survivors of abuse and trauma, the nervous system is retuned. This retuning may lead to incorrect evaluations of people and situations resulting in maladaptive physiological reactivity and an increased potential for dysfunctional behaviors and psychiatric disorders. Porges’s presentation will help clinicians evaluate reactivity, understand bodily responses to trauma and stress, and recognize the effect of physiological states on the patient’s ability to engage in the therapeutic process. Features of moment-to-moment nonverbal communications that signal safety or risk will be highlighted.

Learning Objectives

Through participating in this workshop — the presentations, experiential exercises, and discussions – participants will be able to:

  1. Describe the foundational principles and features of the Polyvagal Theory.
  2. Discuss how to apply features of the Polyvagal Theory in clinical settings.
  3. Use the Polyvagal Theory to demystify several features related to stress-related illnesses and to psychiatric disorders such as PTSD, autism, depression, and anxiety.
  4. Describe the Social Engagement System and how the brain-face-heart connection evolved.
  5. Articulate how deficits in the regulation of the Social Engagement System relate to the core features of several psychiatric disorders.
  6. Track how neural processes evaluate risk in the environment and trigger adaptive neural circuits, which promote either social interactions or defensive behaviors.
  7. Identify when a client’s Social Engagement System is compromised by stress and trauma and help to reset it.
  8. Integrate a Polyvagal perspective into clinical assessment and treatment of mental and physical health conditions.
  9. Describe how a face-heart connection defines a social engagement system and links our bodily feelings with facial expression, vocal intonation, and gesture.
  10. Identify how contextual features trigger different physiological states through a process of Neuroception.