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Polyvagal Theory: Neural Exercises for Safety and Social Connection

About the Course

The course will elaborate on how Polyvagal Theory provides a neural foundation for a brain-body medicine that would lead to insights into the treatment of trauma and chronic stress-related mental and physical health challenges. The theory describes how, via evolution, a connection emerged in the brain between the nerves that control the heart and the face. This face-heart connection provided the structures for the “social engagement system” that link sociality with autonomic regulation and explains the important mediating role of physiological state in facilitating either connectedness and intimacy or defense such as fight/flight, hypervigilance, dissociation, collapse, shutdown, and even syncope. The theory leads to better understanding of the relationship between mental and physical illnesses and provides the therapist with a better understanding that calming their client’s autonomic nervous system will foster emergent spontaneous social behavior, more optimally regulated autonomic functions, and reduced hypersensitivities. 

This module will introduce students to the history and origins of the Polyvagal Theory, and its relationship to human evolution. The module allows students an opportunity to hear from Dr. Porges the original research questions which lead him to construct the theory’s explanatory model for what he calls our “biological imperative,” and how the nerves that help us defend in the face of life-threatening danger are also recruited for our ability to maintain social connections. Dr. Porges will also help us understand the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and how our “story” follows our “state.”
This module will explore the helpful functions of the changes we experience in our nervous system (the adaptive functions) and how they are organized in order (a hierarchy). This module allows students to unpack how the regulation of our autonomic nervous system follows a particulate functional design that can be easily understood through a number of examples of how we have evolved to shift from defense to connectedness and how such changes can at times become less fluid when we have faced life-threatening situations, but that ultimately in this ultimate survival machine dwells also a paradox—our journey towards social life.
This module demonstrates the power of our connectedness through the ability for humans to “co-regulate.” The module explores how this “portal” for connection is what is responsible for our ability to unconsciously detect threat without having to think about it! This is what he calls “neuroception,” the autonomic nervous system’s automatic safety detection system.
This module will summarize the polyvagal theory into an accessible insight on how the state of our autonomic nervous system determines our ability to have access to one another as resources for both survival and growth. Dr. Porges will illustrate this through demonstrating how traumatic stress retunes our nervous system for defensive orientation, and how helping professionals can employ the power of neuroception to help trauma survivors renegotiate their nervous system’s accessibility for safer social engagement. Dr. Porges will end the wisdom school course with exciting details on the future directions for applications of polyvagal theory in the world.

Students who take this course will:

  • Describe how specific circuits in the autonomic nervous system are related to social and defensive behaviors.
  • Describe the physical features of the clinical conditions necessary to promote feelings of safety in the client. 
  • Explain why deficits in the Social Engagement System are core features of several psychiatric disorders.
  • Explain how trauma shifts neural states to support defensive reactions and disrupt typical function of the autonomic nervous system
  • Describe a face-heart connection that defines a social engagement system that links our bodily feelings with facial expression, vocal intonation, and gesture.
  • Describe the mechanisms through which voice conveys physiological state and how listening to types of vocalizations and acoustic stimulation can aid in the regulation of biobehavioral states.
Professionals involved in mental healthcare including psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, nurses, occupational therapists, life coaches, educators.
No. Although familiarity with the Polyvagal Theory will be helpful.

About Dr. Stephen Porges

Dr. Stephen W. Porges is a distinguished university scientist at Indiana University, where he is the founding director of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium. He is also a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina and professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. His more than 350 peer‐reviewed scientific papers, published across several disciplines, have been cited in approximately 40,000 peer-reviewed papers. He holds several patents involved in monitoring and regulating autonomic state and originated the Polyvagal Theory, which emphasizes the importance of physiological state in the expression of behavioral, mental, and health problems related to traumatic experiences. He is the author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation, The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe, and Polyvagal Safety, as well as co-editor of Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies, and Polyvagal Safety.

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