Safety, regulation, self-regulation and eye contact: New challenges for EMDR therapy


Porges’ polivagal theory of the hierarchical interpretation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), in addition to extending the range of human beings’ possible responses to environmental demands, links the first line ventral-vagal response with the regulation of important viscera as well as that of facial and head muscles, mediating social interactions, and associates its activation with the feeling of safety, identifying this latter condition as essential for a person’s well-being.

Without safety no social relations, physiological regulation or healing are possible. Hence the importance for EMDR therapists to lead their clients to this condition: lacking the activation of the ventral-vagal circuit there can be no processing. EMDR therapists will be provided with tools to keep their clients in safe conditions within the setting.

Clients exposed to trauma and/or insecure attachment do not have a good ANS regulation and maintain inadequate defensive attitudes – as demonstrated by Porges’ results, easily comparable with Schore’s on affective development and with those of several multi-disciplinary scholars.

Exploring this dysfunction provides EMDR therapists with useful elements to guide their clients in the difficult task of confronting what they did not/could not process at that time. We propose a three-pronged cross-sectional assessment, regardless of the pathology, aimed at identifying the defensive arousal state of the ANS needed to face the dysregulating impact at that time, focusing on the prevalent activation style of the client, when meeting environmental challenges, and that emerging in the session. Starting from this assessment, EMDR therapists will be provided with tools to help clients recognize and master their defenses to increase their flexibility.

Using the regulation as a healing instrument and goal, and given the two-directional psychophysiological approach, where psychological and physiological processes meet, a new intervention model, stemming from the AIP-EMDR approach, is proposed, acting directly on the missing or impaired developmental stages of the self-regulation ability, consistently with what Porges hoped for.

The intervention focuses on Eye Contact (EC), because, as confirmed by several scholars, this is a privileged communication pathway, in particular in the mother-child dyad, to learn self-regulating skills and is easily impaired in psychiatric clients.

Learning objectives:
Raise EMDR therapists’ awareness of the importance of safety for their clients, based on Porges’ Polyvagal Theory; Provide therapists with tools to maintain clients’ safety during the session; Help EMDR therapist to recognize and modulate clients’ Autonomic Nervous System activation; and Present an EMDR Protocol to regulate Eye Contact






Gabriella Giovannozzi

Original Work Citation

Giovannozzi, G. (2013, June). Safety, regulation, self-regulation and eye contact: New challenges for EMDR therapy. Presentation at the 14th EMDR Europe Association Conference, Geneva, Switzerland



“Safety, regulation, self-regulation and eye contact: New challenges for EMDR therapy,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed January 19, 2022,

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