How can we help clients better understand when their nervous system is going into “defense mode”?
According to polyvagal theory, the nervous system has three pathways it can follow in the face of a threat. By helping clients map these pathways, they can begin to identify their triggers and develop strategies for staying grounded.
That’s why we made this free infographic based on the work of Stephen Porges, PhD, and Deb Dana, LCSW. We hope you’ll share it with your clients.
Click the image to enlarge
Based on ideas from Stephen Porges, PhD and Deb Dana, LICSW. According to polyvagal theory, the nervous system has three pathways, each designed to protect you.Think of ventral vagal as the nervous system’s optimal state. This is the state from which we can engage socially, and connect and co-regulate with others. In this state, we often feel more calm, curious, grounded, and safe.
But when you carry a history of trauma, relationships can be particularly triggering, making it difficult to feel safe connections with others. So, the nervous system starts seeking out alternative pathways of protection:
The sympathetic pathway is a defensive pathway that gets the body to mobilize into a fight or flight response, or an attach/cry-for-help response. In this state, we might feel fear, panic, irritation, anger, or even rage.
The dorsal vagal pathway is a defensive pathway that gets the body to immobilize into a collapse/shutdown response. In this state, we may feel numb, depressed, ashamed, hopeless, or lethargic. We may dissociate.
Understanding these responses can help you recognize when your nervous system is going into “defense mode.” Your therapist may be able to help you identify what triggers these responses so that you can develop strategies to manage them and get grounded.
(If you’re sharing this infographic, please attribute it to NICABM. We put a lot of work into creating these resources for you. And if you’re sharing this digitally, please link back to this page in your attribution. Thanks!)
If you’d like to print a copy, you can use one of these links:
For more insights from Polyvagal Theory, have a look at this short course featuring Stephen Porges, PhD.
Now we’d like to hear from you in the comments below. How has Polyvagal Theory informed your work with clients? Please let us know.
If you found this helpful, here are a few more resources you might be interested in: