The Science of Safety: The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

pink chair on dock on lake

By Gina Fucci

As our summer sun wanes and foliage begins, I reflect on my days of long light and warm nights. One of the special events of my summer was the opportunity to study with Deb Dana, LCSW and author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy; Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation at the esteemed Cape Cod Institute.

I have focused much of my post-graduate work on trauma and its impact on the brain, as well as the interventions to counteract this impact. I realized I had found the next logical progression for my study when I read the opening line of Deb Dana’s introduction:

When I teach Polyvagal Theory to colleagues and clients, I tell them they are learning about the science of safety – the science of feeling safe enough to fall in love with life and take the risks of living.

The work of trauma interventions can only begin when a person feels safe, when their autonomic (aka involuntary) nervous system allows the body and mind to let down, to trust. When someone operates from a place of fear they are unable to take in new information and will rely on old patterns of behavior which kept them safe in the past.

Those who have a history of trauma have nervous systems that feel “hijacked by fear” and struggle with the ability to regulate or develop resiliency. As Dana says,

Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection.

Think of the Vagal nerve as the main circuit breaker to the autonomic nervous system, which regulates things like heart rate, digestion, and breathing. The system passes down from this main nerve through the body, creating a system which flows up and down throughout the day in response to external stimuli.

A helpful visual for clients (and therapists) is to picture a ladder, which represents the autonomic nervous system. At the top of the ladder is Ventral Vagal, which represents safety and the ability to socially engage. The next few rungs down are the Sympathetic, where we get mobilized – think flight or fight – and where the catalyst for change takes place. The last few rungs at the bottom of the ladder are Dorsal Vagal; when we operate from this part of the autonomic system it looks like immobility, depression, or collapse.

The “flow” means just that: responses go through the ladder in a hierarchical pattern. In order for the system to move from Dorsal to Vagal there must be movement through Sympathetic and vice versa. Implementing the Polyvagal lens into therapy allows therapists to help guide clients toward mapping autonomic responses and shaping the system for safety.

It’s a challenge to come to a place of awareness to where we are in our autonomic system. Practicing the correlation of physical sensation to different autonomic states is how one begins to practice awareness.

Application of this intervention can occur in individual therapy or in group settings. In our current Wellness Group at the Ranch we have experienced the process of “savoring.” From Dana:

Savoring is the practice of bringing to life a positive moment from the past and intentionally appreciating the individual elements of the experience in order to generate and amplify its possible effects.

This exercise energizes the Ventral Vagal system and allows the individual to savor the belief in their ability to enjoy a positive experience.

This is just a beginning exercise of how to help regulate the autonomic nervous system. The practice of Polyvagal Theory is vast and the theory itself holds many complicated concepts and strategies, all research based.

I am grateful to practice in a program that supports and encourages personal and professional growth. My experience with Deb Dana and the other clinical professionals I was fortunate to work with at this program has given me a strong, empirical-based model to better serve my clients. Stay tuned here and on our social media for further exploration of the Polyvagal Theory.


Gina Fucci

CARF Accredited: Spring Lake Ranch programs are CARF accredited. The CARF accreditation signals our commitment to continually improving services, encouraging feedback, and serving the community.

Spring Lake Ranch is a member of the American Residential Treatment Association (ARTA). ARTA members are dedicated to providing extraordinary care to adults with mental illness.