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Questions About Alternative Options from a Student

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

Every now and again I'll get a college student that reaches out to me to ask some questions for their class. This is one of those examples. Rather than keeping it to just the class, I thought I'd share as a blog post for all. I'm interested in your answers as well, feel free to leave a comment below.


Hi Justin,

I'm doing a presentation on alternative options in the therapy world ... polyvagal theory is perfect!  Here are the questions.  If there is anything else you want to share, please do:

1) What lead you to want to work in the field of psychology?

I realized I didn't like creating what my art teachers were telling me in my college art classes. I had assumed that art would be my major since it had been my life long passion. Luckily I learned this within the first semester and went on to the next major, which was Sociology and then Psychology.

It was simply an inkling. Something I felt a small pull toward. I could feel a pull toward doing 1:1 counseling with people in need and thought I'd be good at it.

2) What kind of education do you have and where did you get it?  

I have a BA in Sociology from San Jose State and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Argosy University. But in my opinion the real education started in my practicum placement and afterward. Trial by fire in the non-profit therapy world is an irreplaceable experience for learning and building confidence.

And then discovering the polyvagal theory and diving head first into obsessively absorbing every ounce of it really catapulted my learning in a new direction that fit directly with how I viewed my role as a therapist and the potential for change of my clients.

3) How did you discover polyvagal theory? 

I work for a school district and have a lot of time in the summer to develop new programs, curriculums and advance my learning. In 2018, I was frustrated with my outcomes when it came to working with trauma and especially the more dissociative/shutdown/severe depression type. So I a large chunk of my time that summer to start from the beginning with learning about trauma and also how to treat it.

I first stumbled upon Peter Levine and his Somatic Experiencing through a YouTube search for treating trauma, then was connected to a lecture from Stephen Porges. Everything that they were both saying was clicking in a major major way and had me hooked from the get.

I spent probably a year continuing to absorb information as much as my greedy eyes could get, including their books, lectures, interviews and articles. When I say I was "obsessed" I'm not exaggerating.

4) How do you incorporate polyvagal theory into your work as at LMFT? 

The first way I have incorporated the PVT is by better identifying what autonomic state my clients are in. I can now identify when they are in a shutdown state, a flight/fight state or a social engagement state. And I know the limitations and benefits of each of those autonomic platforms, which helps to guide my interventions.

The second thing I have enhanced is my ability to co-regulate. Before, I was placing more emphasis on catharsis and insight. I knew that being a good therapist and really nailing the fundamental skills was important, but I didn't know the full extent that my co-regulation had on the client and the session. No I know that it's absolutely central to the process and I also know the objective pieces of co-regulation that I can monitor within myself.

5) In what ways is polyvagal theory better/more helpful then more traditional forms of therapy (CBT, talk therapy, etc).

So the polyvagal theory is not a therapeutic modality in and of itself. It's the science that underlies how mammals connect, but also how we respond to danger. The PVT is the science, not the techniques. Now it lends some thoughts on what interventions or techniques might be helpful or not, but it's ultimately up to the practitioner on how they apply the teachings.

I believe that every therapist should have a firm understanding of the PVT which will enhance whatever therapuetic modalities they're using.

6) Are there any down-sides to polyvagal theory ... triggering, regression, etc.?

Learning about the Polyvagal Ladder is potentially triggering. But it can also be super healing and normalizing. It's something that I teach my clients but not until I think they're ready for it. Usually they'll give me a sign they're ready for new information by saying they don't understand something or expressing their desperation for new information.

If I were to simply go into the ladder and how we respond to traumatic events without the client being prepared, it's almost guaranteed it's going to be too triggering. When Mercedes and I present about the PVT at work or when I do solo presentations, I always always always ask the audience to "put themselves first." (She and I actually say the same thing at the outset of every episode of the podcast.)

7) As a therapist, what do you do maintain your own mental and emotional health, so that you do not get burned out?

I put my own self-regulation first, because without that everything else kinda falls apart. I also developed healthy boundaries very early on in my career. And I never ever bring my work home with me. Like I literally don't bring it home with me, but I also leave work every day knowing that I did my best and I'm good with that.

But for self-regulation in particular, I love love drawing. And I love podcasting and all the social media stuff I'm doing. So these outlets are my way of discharging some stress and getting up to my social engagement system and more connected to myself as well. I've also begun to do some almost daily meditations. At least in micro doses. I've found these to be very helpful in self-regulation.

Thanks so much, Justin!

You're welcome! :)


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