If you had walked into the Windhorse community room one Wednesday morning in early November, you would probably wonder if you were having a very strange dream. For in the community room you would discover the Windhorse staff wandering around wearing sunglasses, expressionless, and speaking to each other in monotone voices. Suddenly, the warm, caring people you were expecting to see were behaving like cold, uncaring androids. Would you hang around long to figure out what’s going on? Probably not. Most likely, you would exit the room and try to shake off the disturbing feeling the experience left you with. You might get the urge to call a friend or family member, or perhaps hug a beloved stuffed animal.
Later, you would be relieved to find out that what was really going on in the community room was just an experiment and part of Deb Dana’s fascinating presentation on Polyvagal Theory, and your response to the situation was a perfect example of a normal nervous system doing its job, which is to protect you from harm. It does so primarily by recognizing when people or places seem unsafe, sending you signals to leave, then guiding you back to well-being by way of finding friendly faces. Deb Dana is one such friendly face. So much loving kindness does her gaze exude, it is hard not to melt in her presence. A clinician and consultant specializing in working with complex trauma, she recently co-edited, with Stephen Porges, the book Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies, and is the author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation. Dana has “a particular interest in Polyvagal Theory and the influence of the autonomic nervous system in shaping the ways we move through the world.”
We highly recommend you read Dana’s books to find out more about Polyvagal Theory and we provide a primer here on our site. But in a nutshell, the theory was developed by Dr. Stephen Porges and according to Dana, “offers a way to understand the human autonomic nervous system and directly engage with our habitual patterns of response. Through a polyvagal lens we learn to listen to embodied stories. Using a polyvagal perspective, we can let go of self-criticism and bring an open heart to exploring the ‘ways and whys’ of our daily experience…how we interact or isolate, join or judge, move toward or stay away, speak or stay silent.” Polyvagal Theory is especially relevant to the Windhorse approach of “healing through relationship” because it has been described as “the science of connection.” At long last, there is ample scientific evidence that supports what we at Windhorse have always believed and practiced. In her “Beginner’s Guide to Polyvagal Theory”, which you can download for free on her website, Dana says, “We come into the world wired to connect. With our first breath we embark on a lifelong quest to feel safe in our bodies, in our environments, and in our relationships with others.” Ideally, we feel safely engaged and socially connected most of the time, for those are the conditions needed for both physical and mental health. Unfortunately, that state of well-being is frequently interrupted by signals of danger sent by the highly sensitive nervous system which cause feelings of alarm and distress in the body and mind. Over time, if those feelings are allowed to persist- if we can’t find the “friendly face” we depend on to help us return to well-being- both our physical and mental health can be eroded.
Earlier in the article, we suggested that after the distressing experience of being in the presence of a group of people who appeared cold, uncaring, and possibly even hostile, you would probably feel the impulse to leave. Yet even after leaving, the feeling of distress lingers on. Until, by hugging a friend or family member or even a stuffed animal, the fear and stress leave and a sense of safety and relaxation return. It sounds like such a simple remedy, yet finding friendly faces is not always easy in this day and age. Part of our focus here at Windhorse, is to provide the simple remedy of friendly faces that trigger the feeling of safety. For from that safe place, members of our community can not just survive; they can thrive.
Overview written by Katherine Parker, Windhorse IMH, Team Leader