Why Polyvagal Theory is Essential for All Therapists

Polyvagal Theory may sound academic but in reality it becomes a practical tool to help all of our clients, and a way to understand why the way that we work helps. As counsellors, we can use Polyvagal Theory in almost all encounters in the therapy, and understanding the wider ranging application this tool enables us to build deeper and more effective relationships with our clients, as well as leverage another tool in supporting them.

face in the dark looking through a hole

Polyvagal Theory can help clients who guard themselves from connection, due to past relational trauma.

Ahead of our online CPD day on Saturday 28th November, here are five reasons why understanding Polyvagal Theory is so essential.

Five Reasons Why Polyvagal Theory Benefits All Therapists

1. Psychoeducation as self-compassion

Polyvagal Theory simply but scientifically explains why we respond to the world, and to trauma, in the way that we do. It’s essentially about instinctive survival responses that occur without thought. Helping clients understand this can give them a real sense of relief as Deb Dana explains:

“Helping clients appreciate the protective intent of their autonomic responses begins to reduce the shame and self-blame trauma survivors so often feel.”

Whether the client was left frozen, unable to protect themselves or others, or if anger became their survival mode – we can validate how much sense this made, and how it was not a failure nor a reflection on their character.

2. Trauma recovery

Understanding the body’s response to trauma, and the role of the autonomic nervous system, also gives us routes to healing as we:

  • Tune into somatic sensations to understand the client.
  • Have an understanding of the window of tolerance, and work towards gradually expanding this.
  • Help the client physiologically ground themselves in and out of sessions, ensuring they can safely process.

Image of a reflection of a face in a shard of glass. Quote reads "Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past." Bessel van der Kolk relating to polyvagal theory

3. Affect regulation leads to resilience

Being able to tolerate tough emotions, and find ways to ground and self-soothe, are crucial for all clients – not just those who have experienced trauma.

Polyvagal Theory gives us multiple ways for clients to be able to do this, as they become increasingly self-aware of the state they are in, and how they can alter this.

Imagine how much more becomes possible in life when you can practice self-care in this way.

Image of a surfer against sunset background. Quote reads: "The goal of regulating emotions is not to make feelings go away... the aim is to help clients build their capacity to ride the waves of big emotions and sensations.” - Dr. Arielle Schwartz

4. Understanding and helping hard to reach clients

Through relational trauma many clients may experience kindness and compassion with a feeling of suspicion and anxiety, instinctively wanting to back away from this closeness.

Being aware of this process, and how we can help form a safe bond, can be vital for these otherwise hard to reach clients.

Image of a kitten with paws over face. Quote reads "Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection" - Deb Dana on Polyvagal Theory

5. Co-regulation and attunement

It’s long been said that the relationship is one of the most important factors in therapy, and Polyvagal Theory helps explain why this is through the social nervous system.

Understanding this theory also means ensuring we really are that safe space for our clients – able to tolerate and accept whatever state the client is in, whatever they bring, and what this may bring up in us.

Image of a boat on rocky waters alone, then smooth alongside another boat with text "When their storm meets our calm, co-regulation occurs". By kwiens62. Polyvagal Theory visualisation.

While we may feel emotionally tuned into our client’s feelings, or perhaps we may even feel anger on their behalf, we can still embody a calm presence as we regulate ourselves – helping them feel regulated, contained and connected. This may be the first time clients have experienced this, and it can be deeply healing.

Upcoming event

Join us for our online CPD day Polyvagal Theory: Therapeutic Presence and The Relational Space Between Us on Saturday 28th November (with catch-up available for 6 days after).

Learn the basics of the theory in our blogpost An Introduction to Polyvagal Theory.

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