Webb Therapy Uncategorized Polyvagal Theory and Trauma – Dr. Stephen Porges

Polyvagal Theory and Trauma – Dr. Stephen Porges

Stephen Porges, psychiatry professor and researcher, on the polyvagal theory he developed to understand our reactions to trauma:

[Paraphrased] Polyvagal theory articulates three branches of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that evolved from primitive vertebrates to mammals. First, there is a system known as ‘freeze’, which involves death feigning or immobilisation. Second, the ANS has a ‘fight or flight’ system, which is a mobilisation system. And third, with mammals, there is what Porges calls, a social engagement system (SES), which can detect features of safety, and actually communicate them to another. The SES may also be referred to by some as ‘rest and digest’, which Porges theory suggests is a function of the Vagus Nerve – the tenth cranial nerve, a very long and wandering nerve that begins at the medulla oblongata. When an individual experiences feelings of safety (within an SES state), the autonomic nervous system can support health restoration. In terms of dealing with a life threat, an ordinary person will most likely go into a feigning death, dissociative state of ‘freeze’.

Polyvagal theory in psychotherapy offers emotional co-regulation as an interactive process between therapist and client which engages the social engagement system of both therapist and client. Social engagement provides experiences of safety, trust, mutuality and reciprocity in which we are open to receiving another person, just as they are.

The following extract has been retrived from https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/02/stephen-porges-interview-survivors-are-blamed-polyvagal-theory-fight-flight-psychiatry-ace

Polyvagal theory has made inroads into medical and psycho-therapeutic treatment, but how should it inform how people treat each other?

“When we become a polyvagal-informed society, we’re functionally capable of listening to and witnessing other people’s experiences, we don’t evaluate them. Listening is part of co-regulation: we become connected to others and this is what I call our biological imperative. So when you become polyvagal-informed you have a better understanding of your evolutionary heritage as a mammal. We become aware of how our physiological state is manifested, in people’s voices and in their facial expression, posture and basic muscle tone. If there’s exuberance coming from the upper part of a person’s face, and their voice has intonation modulation or what’s called prosody, we become attracted to the person. We like to talk to them – it’s part of our co-regulation.

So when we become polyvagal-informed, we start understanding not only the other person’s response but also our responsibility to smile and have inflection in our voice, to help the person we’re talking to help their body feel safe.”

Clink on the link below to hear Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading experts on developmental trauma, explain how our long-term health and happiness can be compromised by prior exposure to violence, emotional abuse, and other forms of traumatic stress.


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Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?Self-sabotage is self-sabotaging. Why would anyone do this?

As I always like to say, there are as many reasons why people self-sabotage as there are people. A common theme is to protect the self from failure, feeling things we don’t want to feel, and to control our experiences.

One of the hidden culprits behind self-sabotage is the need for perfection and control. Self-sabotage has a strange way of helping us maintain the illusion that if only we had put in more effort or had better circumstances, everything would have worked out as it should. Social psychologists call this counter-intuitive strategy of regulating self-esteem ‘self-handicapping.’ It’s very seductive to engage in self-sabotage because the hidden payoff is high. It’s often easier to be a perfect whole rather than a real part. It’s a short-term solution that sidesteps the more arduous but ultimately more fulfilling work of individuation and self-realization. It takes risk, patience, suffering, and ultimately wisdom to come to the place where you can let go of self-sabotage and learn how to be real.

Behaviour is said to be self-sabotaging when it creates problems in daily life and interferes with long-standing goals. The most common self-sabotaging behaviors include procrastination, self-medication with alcohol and other drugs, comfort eating, and forms of self-injury such as cutting.

Self-sabotage originates in the internal critic we all have, the side that has been internalized by the undermining and negative voices we’ve encountered in our lives. This critic and ‘internal sabotuer,’ functions to keep the person from risking being hurt, shamed, or traumatized in the ways they had been in the past. While it keeps the individual safe, it does so at a very high cost, foreclosing the possibility of new, creative, and three-dimensional experiences. Like an addiction, self-sabotage insidiously lulls and deludes us into thinking that it has the answer. In fact, it is the problem masquerading as the solution. Nothing stops self-sabotage faster in its tracks than shining this particular light on it. Consciousness is true power. We need to let go of our illusions of omnipotence and perfection and see that it is only when we are real and imperfect that we can create a true work of art. Then and only then we can enjoy the gifts of being Real.

– Michael Alcée, Ph.D., Relational therapist/ Clinical psychologistArt: Bawa Manjit, Acrobat

Self-Sabotage | Psychology Today Australia

Emotional Intelligence (EI)Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to understand and regulate your own emotions, as well as identify and influence the emotions of others’. The term was first coined in 1990 by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey and was later popularised by psychologist Daniel Goleman.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is the ability perceive, control, and evaluate your emotions. Some people can do this with ease while others require practice in this area. This ability is necessary for anyone who wants to function effectively in a society – it pertains directly to our ability to interact well with others and respond effectively when situations are outside our control.

EI is best described as a way of thinking that enables people to perceive their own emotions, understand the emotional states of others, and behave appropriately in response (Cherry, 2022). People with high EI can feel empathy for others, determine their own emotional responses (including the process of suppressing an emotion as a defence mechanism), and think through situations before responding emotionally. Emotional intelligence is strongly linked to many positive outcomes. Those with high EI are likely to become financially stable, have meaningful and healthy relationships, respond effectively to stress, and maintain desirable physical and mental health (Salovey & Mayer, 1990). They are also likely to avoid dangerous situations (such as driving under the influence), interrupt negative thinking patterns, and use healthy coping skills rather than self-destructive or maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Here are some key features of a person with high emotional intelligence (Drigas & Papoutsi 2018):
– An ability to identify how they are feeling (i.e., the can name what they’re feeling)
– An ability to identify how others are feeling
– An awareness of strengths and weaknesses
– The ability to let go of mistakes and forgive others
– The ability to accept change
– Curiosity about oneself and others
– The capacity for empathy and compassion
– The ability to regulate emotions in the moment

The ability to regulate emotions is a skill that anybody can learn with practice.

How to develop emotional intelligence

The following tips may be helpful if you’re interested in developing or improving your emotional intelligence. Pioneers in the field Salovey and Mayer (1990) have identified four levels of emotional intelligence that are person should aim to move through in order – these are:

1. Perceiving emotions: The first step is to be able to acknowledge that emotions are occurring in the first place. This might involve understanding nonverbal signals from other people or associating internal bodily states with certain emotions. Some clients, especially those who have suffered from trauma, may have a sense of detachment from their bodies, making it difficult to discern emotional states. As such, this lack of internal data will make it harder to recognize emotional states in others. Practicing mindfulness and other self-awareness exercises can help clients to perceive their emotions more effectively.

2. Reasoning with emotions: Once an emotion has been identified, the second step is to learn how to think about emotions appropriately. Many people will shut down in the presence of strong emotions, but emotions can be used to promote thinking and cognitive activity. Developing a sense of curiosity and openness toward emotions can help to facilitate this process, and result in less aversion towards certain experiences.

3. Understanding emotions: The third step is understanding the meaning of emotions in more detail and recognising complex relationships between different emotions. Once emotions are perceived and reasoned with, a person can evaluate them and find the underlying causes of them. This is where emotional intelligence really starts to develop, as it fosters the ability to become less reactive to emotional content and learn to listen deeply to emotions and discern their origins.

4. Managing emotions: Finally, in the fourth step we learn to regulate emotions effectively. This involves a person developing their ability to problem-solve and identify healthy coping strategies for dealing with an emotion. It also involves being able to use the skills learnt in previous steps – perceiving, reasoning, and understanding – to resolve emotional conflicts peacefully. This is the highest level of emotional intelligence.

Generally, building emotional awareness through mindfulness helps to propagate EI within oneself, and learning to perceive nonverbal cues helps to attend to others; outlines of these two angles are as follows:

Building Emotional Awareness

Perceiving emotions is the foundational skill of emotional intelligence, and mindfulness has been identified by research as being one of the most efficacious ways of developing this capacity. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgement or interference. Mindfulness is correlated with greater clarity of feelings and thoughts, and less reactivity and distraction, making it the perfect catalyst for emotional intelligence (Feldman et al., 2007).

Mindfulness generally involves meditative exercises; you sit or lay down, and use the breath and other sensations (i.e., the feeling of feet on the floor, or sounds in the room) to anchor into the experience. As you enter an observational state, encourage yourself to simply notice how your experiences arise, change, and pass away. When using mindfulness to develop emotional awareness, specifically connect to your emotional state. The key focus here is not necessarily on the breath or on acceptance, as per common mindfulness strategies; rather, simply become familiar with the process of having and noticing feelings. If you have difficulty identifying your emotions, try to explore the characteristics of your emotions such as where it is located in the body, how it feels (e.g., warm, cold), how big or small it feels, or perhaps what colour they associate with it.

Regularly performing this exercise will habituate the brain to approach emotions with curiosity rather than avoiding or repressing them. As such, the processes of emotional functioning will become more familiar, resulting in greater emotional intelligence.

Decoding Emotions by Analysing Speech, Body, and Face

Created by Hugo Alberts, this exercise helps people to accurately identify and understand the emotions of other people through ‘reading’ their body language and other nonverbal cues. This is a very valuable skill, as research has shown that cultures all around the world express emotions through similar facial expressions (Friesen, 1972). Similarly, it has been found that deciphering body language can accurately provide insight into emotional states such as anger, fear, pride, joy, and more (Gelder & van der Stock, 2011). Speech patterns are a more nuanced area than body language and facial expressions, but valuable nonetheless; people use thousands of micro semantic terms to express their emotions beyond the words themselves (Sabini & Silver, 2005). By learning to attune to these three aspects of communication (i.e., face, body, speech), a person will be able to exercise enhanced emotional intelligence with the people in their life.

One activity to develop this skill is to use videos that you are familiar with (e.g., films or tv shows) and to spend time evaluating how the actors use speech, body, and face to communicate their emotions. Depending on your current level of EI, you might be able to identify the emotions being expressed but not understand the role of nonverbal cues to communicate this. Another strategy would be to become more self-aware of your own nonverbal conduct during different emotional experiences. Notice your posture, get a sense of your facial expression, notice your stance, hands, chest etc. You could keep a journal of what your speech, face, and body language is like during various experiences throughout the day. Over time, you will come to understand how to decipher these elements and associate them with emotional states. Please be patient with yourself. It is challenging to mindfully pause and think about your nonverbal language when you’re caught in an emotional experience. You may like to ask others whom you trust to give you feedback.

Additional skills

Having covered the internal (emotional awareness through mindfulness) and the external (nonverbal cues), you can then use these new understandings to develop further practical skills. A person can embody emotional intelligence by practicing empathy, active listening, and assertiveness.


Empathy is the capacity to understand another person’s experience through their frame of reference (Cuff et al., 2014). Whilst an aspect of empathy is being able to relate other people’s experiences to your own, it is further positioning yourself within the other person’s perspective and relating to them from that place. This is what is meant by “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Empathy is a useful skill to practice because it both requires and fosters emotional intelligence; EI is required to relate fully to another person and is developed further through this process. It is recommended to cultivate compassion for others when developing empathy. It can be an uncomfortable experience, one which people may resist or tense up against.

Active listening

Activate listening can help conversational partners interact in more meaningful ways. It offers people space to explore their feelings, disclose important information, and feel like they are heard, validated, and cared for. Joseph Topornycky has identified some fundamental attributes of active listening (2016). These include:

  • Being non-judgmental: Reserving judgment allows speakers to exercise freedom in exploring and expressing their ideas and feelings.
  • Patience: Being patient when somebody is speaking, and not rushing them or interrupting them, is crucial for them to feel heard and understood.
  • Minimal encouragers: These are small indications of engagement, such as nods and smiles, as well as words like yep, mm-hmm, uh-huh, and more.
  • Questions: Asking the person questions will show that you are interested in what has been said and are engaged enough to want to know more.
  • Summaries: It can be a useful bonding behaviour to repeat what the person has just said back to them, but in different words.


Assertiveness is often be perceived as rudeness, however, if the person communicating in an assertive way maintains a compassionate undertone, it is very effective for improving EI and self-esteem. Many people lack EI because they were never taught or encouraged to explore their emotions and express their feelings. By learning to express ourselves truthfully and appropriately, a person can validate themselves, protect themselves and set boundaries with others (Makino, 2010).

One way to practice this is through role playing with a counsellor or someone you trust. You can also practice by yourself, playing the role of both parties in an interaction. Practice expressing what is most important for you in a conversation and express the emotion e.g., “I feel worthless, like nobody cares about my opinion” and then offer yourself assurance as if you are the other person e.g., “I really value your opinion, and I am interested in hearing it.”).

If you’re someone who hasn’t been able to assert your needs, wants or feelings in the past, you may feel rude initially. Like I always tell my clients,

  1. self-awareness is always the first step so you may need to spend time meditating, educating yourself, or reflecting on what it is you’re feeling, what you want or need. The second step is to:
  2. identify what you think or feel you need to do
  3. allow that to be there (try not to resist your reality – what we resist persists)
  4. make an intention to ask for your needs or wants – or express your emotions with language
  5. act on your intention


Cherry, K. (2022, August 3). How emotionally intelligent are you? Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-emotional-intelligence-2795423#citation-5

Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2014). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion Review8(2), 144–153. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073914558466

De Gelder, B., van den Stock, J., Meeren, H. K. M., Sinke, C. B. A., Kret, M. E., & Tamietto, M. (2010). Standing up for the body: Recent progress in uncovering the networks involved in the perception of bodies and bodily expressions. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 34, 513–527.

Drigas AS, Papoutsi C. A new layered model on emotional intelligence. Behav Sci (Basel). 2018;8(5):45. doi:10.3390/bs8050045

Feldman, G., Hayes, A., Kumar, S., Greeson, J., & Laurenceau, J.-P. (2007). Mindfulness and emotion regulation: The development and initial validation of the Cognitive and Affective Mindfulness Scale-Revised (CAMSR). Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 29, 177–190.

Friesen, W. V. (1972). Cultural differences in facial expression in a social situation: An experimental test of the concept of display rules. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. University of California San Francisco

Gosling, M. (n.d.). MSCEIT 1 Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.mikegosling.com/pdf/MSCEITDescription.pdf

Makino, H. (2010). Humility-empathy-assertiveness-respect test. PsycTESTS Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/t06420-000

Mayer, J. D., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. R. (2012). Mayer-Salovey-Caruso emotional intelligence test. PsycTESTS Dataset. https://doi.org/10.1037/t05047-000

Sabini, J., & Silver, M. (2005). Why emotion names and experiences don’t neatly pair. Psychological Inquiry, 16, 1-10.

Salovey P, Mayer J. Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality. 1990;9(3):185-211.

Topornycky, J. (2016, June). Balancing openness and interpretation in active listening – researchgate. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315974687_Balancing_Openness_and_Interpretation_in_Active_Listening

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

I was recently browsing some of the units I completed for my counselling diploma – for revision. The human memory has not evolved to store, organise, categorise and recall all the large amounts of information we collect every day, nor is our memory always accurate. It’s important for counsellors and therapists to keep up to date with new approaches to counselling, and it doesn’t hurt to read over learned materials from college days. I thought I’d provide some learning about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for readers.

Just to acknowledge the work of others, most of what is written below, I have retrieved and paraphrased from ACCEPTANCE AND COMMITMENT THERAPY Published by: Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors Pty Ltd.

Acceptance and commitment therapy, known as ACT (pronounced as the word ‘act’), is an approach to counselling that was originally developed in the early 1980s by Steven C. Hayes, and became popular in the early 2000’s through Hayes’ collaboration with Kelly G. Wilson, and Kirk Strosahl as well as through the work of Russ Harris. You can look them up on Youtube or Google if you’re interested in what they might have to say about ACT.

“Unlike more traditional cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) approaches, ACT does not
seek to change the form or frequency of people’s unwanted thoughts and emotions. Rather,
the principal goal of ACT is to cultivate psychological flexibility, which refers to the ability to
contact the present moment, and based on what the situation affords, to change or persist
with behaviour in accordance with one’s personal values. To put it another way, ACT
focuses on helping people to live more rewarding lives even in the presence of undesirable
thoughts, emotions, and sensations.”

(Flaxman, Blackledge & Bond, 2011, p. vii)

ACT interventions tend to focus around two main processes:

  • Developing acceptance of unwanted private experiences that are outside of personal
  • Commitment and action toward living a valued life (Harris, 2009)

In a nutshell, ACT gets its name from its core ideas of accepting what is outside of your personal control and committing to action that improves and enriches your life.

Cognitive Defusion is the process of learning to detach ourselves from our thought processes and simply observe them for what they are – “transient private events – an ever-changing stream of words, sounds and pictures” (Harris, 2006, p. 6). I think this component of ACT is incredibly beneficial if we practice it daily. I like to say, just like the function of the heart is to pump oxygenated blood around the body, one of the brain’s functions is to have thoughts. We can observe thoughts without taking them to mean more than what they are. Some thoughts are automatic, some are subconscious, and some are unconscious or preconscious beliefs that we consider to be true and factual and “rules” about how the world operates and how we have to operate in it. If someone is defused from their thought processes, these processes do not have control on the person; instead the person is able to simply observe them without getting caught up in them or feel the need to change/control them.

Acceptance is the process of opening oneself up and “making room for unpleasant feelings, sensations, urges, and other private experiences; allowing them to come and go without struggling with them, running from them, or giving them undue attention” (Harris, 2006, p. 7). Practicing acceptance is important because it encourages the individual to develop an ability and willingness to feel uncomfortable without being overwhelmed by it (Flaxman, Blackledge & Bond, 2011). It’s important to acknowledge that to accept something doesn’t mean we like it or have a passive attitude. It is to accept something exactly as it is and then we choose what to do with it. Think of the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

Contact with the present moment is the concept of being “psychologically present” and bringing full attention to the “here-and-now” experience (Harris, 2009). I’d also argue that to psychologically present, we must also be aware of our physical body and the sensations within it and outside of it. Because we have the ability to think about the past and about the future, sometimes it can be difficult to stay in the present (Batten, 2011; Harris, 2009). Having contact with the present moment is essential because that it where we find out anchor and power. We have the ability to pay attention in a flexible manner to the present moment and connect with that experience rather than ruminate on past events or future possibilities (Lloyd & Bond, 2015). Some of you might say “What if I can’t stand the present moment?”. True. If you have extreme emotional experiences or have a history of trauma, it may be functional for you to use distraction or talking to someone when the present moment is “too much to take”. What we want to work towards is using healthy coping strategies in the present moment mindfully, instead of behaviours that no longer serve us.

Values, and identifying them, (i.e., what is important to the individual) is a central element of ACT because it assists clients to move in the direction of living and creating a meaningful life. One of the central goals of ACT is to help clients to connect with the things they value most and to travel in “valued directions” (Stoddard & Afari, 2014).

Committed action is the process of taking steps towards one’s values even in the presence of unpleasant thoughts and feelings (Harris, 2009). Behavioural interventions, such as goal setting, exposure, behavioural activation, and skills training, are generally used to create committed action. The ACT model acknowledges that learning is not enough, one must also take action to create change.

Self-as-context, or what I prefer to call “the observing self” or simply just our self-awareness, creates a distinction between the ‘thinking self’ and the ‘observing self’ (Harris, 2009). The thinking self refers to the self that generates thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies, and plans, whereas the observing self is the self that is aware of what we think, feel, sense, or do (Harris, 2009). “From this perspective, you are not your thoughts and feelings; rather, you are the context or arena in which they unfold” (Stoddard & Afari, 2014). Being aware of the observing self allows an individual to have a greater ability to be mindful and in the present moment, as they can separate themselves from the thoughts, beliefs, and memories they have.

Be Good To Yourself: The ACT Matrix | Therapy worksheets, Therapy quotes,  Psychology quotes