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  • Writer's picturepippa

Find your glimmers! How therapy can help you feel safe and connected.

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

Fair haired female in a field with a beaming smile and crinkled eyes, looking joyful, wearing a straw hat and a floral dress.
Pippa at a music festival, summer 2023

A question I'm often asked by my clients is: "How can I stop feeling sad / lost / lonely / upset / scared?” (insert relevant feeling of disconnection).

It can be really helpful to talk what it’s like for them to feel connected. As humans, we're neurologically wired to connect with others. When you're talking to someone, pathways in your brain light up to mirror the emotions and behaviours of the other person.

A branch of neuroscience that I love is Polyvagal theory (PVT), created by #drstephenporges about 25 years ago and now - largely thanks to the work of Deb Dana - an increasingly accessible and valuable tool for therapists to use with their clients.

I’ll go into the theory in full geeky detail in another post, but one element I wrote about for my final year research project was how PVT is bring used by therapists to empower their clients to learn about their nervous system and reframe their responses to things which your nervous system perceives as unsafe.

Porges coined the term neuroception to refer to the way that our autonomous nervous system (ANS) is constantly scanning for signals or cues of danger or feeling unsafe. When it encounters something that looks, sounds or feels a bit like danger, it will respond by going into freeze, flight or flight mode.

So you might be put on the spot by your manager in a meeting: your face goes red, your heart starts pounding and your mouth goes dry - you're physically unable to speak. This may bring on feelings of shame or disgust at your body’s response to fear or embarrassment. In Polyvagal therapy, this would be reframed to you as a universal freeze response to a sense of feeling unsafe (the original source of which has probably been long forgotten).

I love working with PVT with clients as they tell me it helps give them awareness and understanding of what they're experiencing, rather than feeling that something is wrong with them.

In our therapy sessions, we can work out what - and when - it is that makes you feel connected (in your ventral vagal state). These are called glimmers. Triggers, in contrast, are the cues that activate a response of sympathetic (flight or fight) or dorsal (where you feel hopeless and immobile, that feeling of wanting to hide under the duvet.

For me, glimmers happen when I'm spending time with my close friends; my children when they're happy to spend time with their mum; playing tennis; swimming in a secluded cove (ideally Greece but Devon and Cornwall have some very special places too); books and films; and dancing with abandon. Music has a way of relating to my emotions in a way I've learned to use to help me feel connected.

Research has shown that music is one of the easiest ways for most people to get into their ventral vagal state. I managed to capture a look of pure joy in this pic. I'm at a music festival, which was a visual and aural theatre for the senses. Sister Sledge were headlining and I could feel a heady mix of nostalgia, joy and human connection, enhanced by the experience of singing and dancing along with total strangers, who shared my expression.

Interestingly, researchers have also found that we scan people's faces for safety cues and the space next to the our eyes is key to feeling safe (note my laughter lines in this photo and see if this has an effect on what you feel).

If you're interested in finding out how polyvagal theory could help with something you're experiencing, please get in touch.

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