Using EMDR to "tune up the vagal brake”: EMDR & polyvagal theory


Polyvagal Theory (PVT) gives us a perfect foundation for EMDR Therapy and working with Ogden’s “Window of Affect Tolerance”. This workshop will explain & clarify Polyvagal Theory and its application to EMDR in helping us assess the client’s dual awareness or status in the window. Fight, flight and immobilize are adaptive defensive mechanisms in the presence of danger or life-threat. For our clients ‘living in trauma time’, however, there is a misattunement between the neuroception of danger/life-threat and the objective reality of the outside environment (when they are over). Clients tend to live in the SNS circuitry of anxiety or the dorsal vagal circuitry of hopelessness/depression/shutdown. Among other stabilization techniques, Geller’s Therapeutic Presence Practices are similarly helpful in promoting the neuroception of safety and ‘applying the vagal brake’. When the danger is over, we all want to be able to “plant our flag in the mylenated ventral vagal zone” (Dana) more readily & consistently. Using EMDR Therapy’s Standard Protocol to resolve stuck trauma is the further splendid means of ‘applying the brake’. We can also help our clients return to a neuroception of safety when they go ‘out of the window’ during reprocessing. Following a phylogenetic order, PVT states that when the social engagement system doesn’t work to dampen defensive responses (put on the vagal brake) our autonomic nervous system moves into the SNS state of fight/flight (danger) and if this doesn’t work, into the hopelessness circuitry of the more primitive dorsal vagus. The workshop will also examine the effect of sub diaphragmatic trauma (assault/injury/ illness/surgery) on our clients’ tendency to get pulled into the dorsal zone, with implications for EMDR Therapy.






Barbara Horne

Original Work Citation

Horne, B. (2018, April). Using EMDR to "tune up the vagal brake”: EMDR & polyvagal theory. Presentation at the EMDR Canada Annual Conference, Québec City, QC



“Using EMDR to "tune up the vagal brake”: EMDR & polyvagal theory,” Francine Shapiro Library, accessed November 26, 2020,

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