Polyvagal Theory emphasises the intervening role that the autonomic nervous system has in mediating the valence and amplitude of our mental and physical responses to events and individuals. Rather than the traditional Stimulus-Response (S-R) behavioural model that most therapists and educators are familiar with, Polyvagal Theory emphasises that autonomic state provides a neural platform for subsequent mental and physical responses. The theory details the emergent properties of three broadly defined autonomic states regulated by: 1) the ventral vagal pathway that calms physiological state and supports spontaneous social engagement behaviours and co-regulation, 2) the sympathetic nervous system that impedes social interactions and supports fight and flight behaviors, and 3) the dorsal vagal pathway that disengages the individual through life threat induced immobilisation and/or dissociation. Within this model, addiction is viewed as a valiant, although unsuccessful, attempt to downregulate defense reaction through external sources (e.g., drugs, behaviours).

Neurobiologically, downregulation of defense related states may only be effectively managed through the recruitment of the ventral vagal pathway that has been linked through human evolution with the regulation of the social engagement system.

Addiction through the lens of the Polyvagal Theory focuses on the addicted individual’s quest for safety without having the neurophysiological resources to be sufficiently physiologically calm to co-regulate with others. Using this model, treatment needs to focus on providing resources for the addicted to regulate autonomic state that will enable them to cue others, via the social engagement system, that they are safe to approach and to be part of a co-regulatory dyad with trusted friends and relatives.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Attendees will understand the principles and features of the Polyvagal Theory.
  2. Attendees will understand how the Polyvagal Theory can demystify addictive behaviour.
  3. Attendees will understand how the Polyvagal Theory can explain the remission that clients have experienced had during the pandemic.
  4. Attendees will understand that maladaptive behaviours, including addictive behaviours, may be an attempt to regulate physiological state in a quest to feel safe.
  5. Attendees will be informed about a face-heart connection that defines a social engagement system linking bodily feelings with facial expression, vocal intonation, and gesture.
  6. Attendees will understand how deficits in the regulation of the Social Engagement System are related to the core feature of many who suffer with addictions and may have been disrupted during the pandemic.
  7. Attendees will be informed about a neural process (neuroception) that evaluates risk in the environment and triggers adaptive neural circuits that promote either social interactions or the defense systems that might lead to addictive behaviours.

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