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Safety in Therapeutic Interactions: A Polyvagal Influence

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By Iris Argeband

“Love is an art
just like life is an art”
— Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

My journey involves a deep and prolonged exploration of the Polyvagal theory (Porges, 2011). In my quest to understand when intimacy, emotional expression, and connected communication are possible, I delved deeply into Porges’ research with the vagus nerve and its role in the evolution of the nervous system. His insights provided a road map for me and my clients to a fuller emotional life as we connected with our interoceptive awareness of emotions that motivate our behavior, their influence on our relationships, and the conscious choices we have.

Defensive Patterns of Fear

In the clinic, I find that at the base of every client concern is the subject of relationships. The initial wound was in the connection, and the healing is also potentially engulfed there. The wound in our initial significant relationship influences our view of the world and our beliefs, the way our body assembled itself, the armor we put on it, and the way we conduct ourselves in the world as well as our feelings and thoughts. The model experienced in our initial relationship will form an internalized pattern that we follow when making connections throughout our lives.

Our relationships can create a sense of safety and security, or a sense of danger and threat. These sensations become imprinted in our nervous system. This imprint influences our patterns of behavior in future relationships. A defensive pattern of fear is at the root of difficulties in relationships.

How do we disengage from repetitive defensive patterns and shift towards an aware choice of behavioral patterns that will nurture us and our relationships?

 

Safety and Connection: The Space In-Between

My focus shifted to the importance of a sense of safety and connection. I wondered if an absolute sense of safety and an ideal condition in connections ever existed in relationships.

How can we make a motion towards others intending mutual emotional expression, when uncertainty and a lack of an absolute safety in connections filter through our interactions?

Porges’ work enabled me to explore how to be relaxed (in a parasympathetic state) and aware (in a sympathetic state) simultaneously as I strove towards connection in the safety that was available to my clients and to me during our session. I learned that the polarities between the sympathetic nervous system and the para-sympathetic nervous system offer an in-between space where we can identify our patterns of response, communication and behavior.

In this space, we can explore our automated responses (i.e., fight, flight, freeze) and our social interactions. When we start to look more deeply at these responses, we see that the first set manifest as our survival mode. These also tend to be fixated with a monologue of suffering and loneliness that impact clients’ mental and emotional state. The latter, facilitated by the ‘newer’ myelinated vagal branch, is an aware and relaxed state, it creates a pause often associated with parasympathetic actions that enables dialogues that embody love, connection and healing.

This pause enables awareness. Inward observations of feelings on the surface offer the potential to enrich our understanding of the need beneath the feeling and its expression in our behavior. Here we can create the relationships we want in our lives. We have an opportunity to choose which connections we want. Our choice, the communication channel we choose, will form new pathways in our brain and can potentially create a corresponding reality in our lives.

Personally, the pause and the deeper experience strengthens my inner knowledge that I am an individual with feelings, needs, thoughts, and behaviors whilst I am a part of a human and cosmic wide community. This insight, that “my well-being is connected by a thread to your well-being,” as the poet Zelda wrote, brings calmness together with an invitation to be in contact with an inward motion and an outward motion to the world. Just from writing those words, I feel expansion in my heart, breathe deeper and feel at peace.

Integration

I find integration and flow between elements of yoga, mindfulness and Biosynthesis guide my way in life and in therapy. Here I can integrate the physical body and its: sensations; emotional field; intellectual world; and spiritual realm. Here, I can integrate the inner-world and outer-world, and primarily connections between the hearts.

In this place of connection, then, my therapeutic role is to initially provide cues of safety. These may come via a quiet environment with soft warm colors, low hues versus bright lights, and comfortable sitting arrangements that can easily be adjusted to fit a clients’ expressed needs. Compassionate interactions follow as demonstrated by vocal signals (tone, pace, pausing), facial expressions and body gestures. Once a sense of safety is established and acknowledged then, as needed, I guide clients through gentle exercises involving breath, movement, and embodied somatic resources to work on material arising in the moment. I return as needed to my inner home, to my sensations of grounding, breathing and reconnection to my body as an anchor and as a bridge to my own experiences. This process has the potential to empower clients with resilience and provide resources to calm and self-regulate oneself when challenged.

The therapeutic process can be a significant path to a fuller life of awareness and to the creation of loving and authentic relationships. Therapists contain the hope, support the sense of safety and trust, and accompany clients in discovering their inner truth. The therapeutic connection is a transition from being alone to being together. The potential space invites a creative and an independent exploration in a way that is suitable to both the client and the therapist.

In the connection between us, I can embrace the love, intentionality to bond, and hope for transformation and healing.

Iris Argeband is a certified Biosynthesis Therapist based in Tel Aviv. Traveling and living in England for many years, she has been exposed to multiple cultures, wide range of life perspectives, emotional expressions and relationships. Iris profoundly believes in the invisible thread that connects our hearts. A mother of three adult sons, keen practitioner of Kundalini Yoga and loves the sea.
www.irisargeband.com

Reference

Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.

Image Credits:

Lion: Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw on Unsplash

Canyon: Photo by Farnoosh Abdollahi on Unsplash

Integration: Image by <a href=”https://pixabay.com/users/johnhain-352999/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1767694″>John Hain</a> from <a href=”https://pixabay.com/?utm_source=link-attribution&amp;utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=1767694″>Pixabay</a>