You may want to read the segment below entitled ‘Towards a Polyvagal-Informed Mindfulness Praxis’ prior to watching the video, and then notice how the practice is guided.
The video above is one form of teaching a polyvagally-informed mindfulness practice.
A selection of complimentary practices on the platform include:
(For down-regulating shutdown):
(For down-regulating fight):
(For down-regulating flight):
(For turning on Connection):
As we hope you can see, there are a broad variety of restorative resources on the platform, for healthcare professionals, as well as for a general audience, that tailor practice to the particular needs of nervous system state, and the connection strengths and deficits of an individual. To see the assessment tools on the platform, visit the Hi, Your Name menu (once you have a subscription, a My Assessment menu will be visible.)
In 15 years of teaching mindfulness to children and adults with multiples ACES in medical, mental health, and incarceration settings, we’ve reflected deeply on what it takes to make mindfulness practices methodically polyvagally-informed. Working with attention is very powerful, and for clients who have experienced significant trauma, it makes sense to be very careful with how we encourage them to direct attention, as their own adaptive processes may be focused on keeping certain aspects of their experience outside of their awareness. Therefore, as we invite people into greater mindful awareness, it is useful for us to keep some things in mind…
1) FOCUS FIRST ON CREATING SAFETY
While this sounds obvious, certain common features of the way mindfulness is ordinarily practiced don’t prioritize a neuroception* of safety. For example, closing the eyes. If a person doesn’t, at the bodily/ sensate level, feel totally safe, closing the eyes can heighten a sense of danger. Pay attention to the little things. Develop the ability to track yourself, as the facilitator, and your client(s). Notice shifts in voice, face, posture, gesture, body language, and emotional tone that convey state shift. Slow down. Build relationship.
2) ALLOW THE BODY TO MOVE AND RESPOND
Often people practicing mindfulness are directed to sit still. To do so, they must over-ride impulses of the body to move. Since much of our self-regulation comes through unconscious motor movement (even more so with children!), this often deprives people of a primary source of self-regulation.
3) START BY BRINGING ATTENTION OUT
For clients with an internal sense of dys-regulation, or simply a lot going on in the mind, bringing attention inward right away is not necessarily regulating. Instead, try bringing attention outward, in the present moment, through the senses (Dr. Peter Levine calls this orienting). Bring attention to what people are noticing around them- through the eyes, ears, sense of touch, etc. in the present moment. Our mentor Ilarion Merculieff, an Unangan elder, points out that most modern people are already dissociated, so sitting still (we know this through Polyvagal Theory) will likely increase the dissociation. Therefore, when quieting the mind, bring attention out. For more on this topic, see our practice Quiet Your Mind.
4) CONTEXT IS CRITICAL
Since attention potentiates experience, context is extremely important! If we bring attention out into the external environment, in an environment that is chaotic, or cues threat, we’ll become more aware of feeling threatened, therefore:
5) ATTEND TO CREATING ENVIRONMENTS THAT CUE SAFETY
By practicing, if possible, in places that have a) things to look at that support safety/ regulation- e.g., plants, pleasing non-triggering imagery, natural light, etc., (See Create a Restorative Ambiance) b) sounds that do not cue threat, like continuous sirens, deep bass sounds of ventilation, machinery, etc. More importantly,
6) ATTEND TO THE RELATIONAL ENVIRONMENT BEFORE GOING INWARD
For many people, what is felt yet unnamed are the relationships in the room- does everyone sitting together (in a classroom for example) know each other, feel safe with each other, etc. (probably not) Are there differentials of power/ privilege/ positionality that shape felt dynamics in a room? (probably so) If so, start by building connection and community (have people meet someone/ introduce themselves/ check in/ go around the circle, etc) or at least acknowledge these dynamics so that they are named, as what is felt yet unnamed colludes with secrecy and trauma and shame, while naming what is in the room invites the wisdom of the felt sense into relationship with the wisdom of the cognitively known, uniting the mind and the body, which is a movement towards healing in its own right. See Relational Mindfulness.
7) UNDERSTAND AND BE ABLE TO READ NEURAL PLATFORMS OF BEHAVIOR, AND ATTUNE MINDFULNESS INTERVENTIONS TO THESE STATES
In the Polyvagal Theory, pioneering psycho-physiologist Dr. Stephen Porges, PhD identifies 4 fundamental nervous system states (as well as 3 hybrid states).
Each of these states is a neural platform for behavior, and will condition our experience, what we perceive, and our behavioral repertoire. Traditional mindfulness presumes that people are base-lined in a social engagement state, or at least are not dominated by a fight/flight/ or shutdown state. Yet for many of the folks we work with (and increasingly for folks in modern capitalist technological culture), these defensive states are the baseline. If someone is in fight or flight, for example, because that is a mobilization state, sitting still will be extremely uncomfortable. Therefore, that’s not generally the most useful place to start! Attune the intervention to the present-moment nervous system state of the client. In fight or flight, then, begin practicing mindfulness while moving, or dancing, or shaking, or do a mindful movement practice, or play basketball mindfully, etc.
8) USE INVITATIONAL RATHER THAN DIRECTIVE LANGUAGE
Invite people to try things. Don’t tell them to do things. Invite them to notice things. Don’t tell them what they should be noticing, or should be feeling. Support people in bringing attention to what is regulating for them. Use open-ended questions. What do you notice? How does that feel? (Stay away from Why questions, which are often perceived as evaluative. Evaluation triggers defense. This is often why children (and not only children) don't do well on tests, despite knowing the material.)
9) IN YOUR GUIDING OF PRACTICES, MODEL USING VOCAL PROSODY, WHICH CUES NEUROCEPTION OF SAFETY, AND BE EMBODIED AND ATTUNED TO YOUR OWN FELT SENSE, SO THAT YOU CAN NOTICE SHIFTS IN THE ROOM AND ADAPT ACCORDINGLY. THIS TAKES PRACTICE.
10) GET MORE TRAINING AROUND FACILITATING NEURO-PHYSIOLOGICALLY INFORMED RELATIONALLY-ORIENTED MINDFULNESS!
Have a genuine mindfulness practice of your own before you begin facilitating others. We also provide specific in-person facilitation training in this area, through our Academy of Applied Social Medicine, if you are interested.
11) PSYCHO- AND PHYSIO-EDUCATE
Educate people about their stress response/ stress physiology, and the triune brain as a way of normalizing experiences where a person’s reptilian brain may have taken over to keep them safe in a way that may not have seemed that adaptive to them, or of which they may have been ashamed. Educate about fight/flight/freeze. Help them appreciate the wisdom of their body, which has kept them alive, (Thank Goodness!) through all they have experienced. NOTE: Do not do this while they are in a high arousal state. Psycho-educate, if possible, when people are more regulated. (See the Supplementary Materials provided with this course for some useful diagrams.)
Some further recommended resources/ readings:
Dr. Stephen Porges
Dr. Sam Himelstein
*neuroception- term coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, creator of the Polyvagal Theory, to denote the deep brain moment-to-moment neural detection of safety or threat. Neuroception is a continuous moment-to-moment process, informed by our life experience, that assesses present moment safety vs. threat at the level of implicit memory and attunes neural platforms of behavior accordingly. When we have a neuroception of safety it supports turning on the Connection Ssytem, which is the foundation of well-being and resilience. Conversely, neuroception of threat cues fight/ flight/ freeze states, which are the substrates of stress and trauma.