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What is Polyvagal Theory? How can learning to regulate the autonomic nervous system promote health and well-being?
MEET Gabrielle Juliano-Villani
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani is a licensed clinical social worker, consultant, coach, entrepreneur, and educator based in Sarasota, FL. She has been in the mental health field for over a decade specializing in stress, chronic health conditions, and trauma. After realizing her own burnout in 2021, she sold her thriving group practice and made it her mission to educate others on the impact stress has on our everyday lives. Gabrielle pulls from her experience as an EMDR and Polyvagal Informed therapist to utilize mind/body approaches to help others implement everyday strategies to manage stress and live their best lives. Gabrielle is an international speaker, and retreat leader, and has been featured in Authority Magazine, The Daily Om, Bustle, and the Everyday Woman TV Network. When she’s not working, Gabrielle is teaching Zumba, surfing, or reading a psychological thriller at the beach
IN THIS PODCAST:
- What is polyvagal theory? 3:25
- How to work with clients who struggle with co-regulation 6:35
- How does polyvagal help clients in therapy? 14:09
- Self-care when dealing with fight or flight response 21:14
What Is Polyvagal Theory?
- Who developed polyvagal theory?
- What are the three states of our autonomic nervous system?
- What is Neuroception?
- How do your neuroception and trauma interact with each other?
- What is Co-Regulation?
How To Work With Clients Who Struggle With Co-Regulation
- The importance of educating your clients about their nervous system
- Strategies for finding external support for your clients
- How does this approach help clients who have experienced trauma
- What is the Polyvagal Ladder?
- Safety cues vs. danger cues
How Does Polyvagal Theory Help Clients In Therapy?
- Helping clients understand their triggers
- Teaching clients to listen to the information that their bodies are sending them
- Stress vs. burnout and where you are on the Polyvagal Ladder
- What are the physical symptoms of fight or flight
Self-Care When Dealing With Fight Or Flight Response
- How to stimulate your Vagus nerve
- How to create a calming environment
- The importance of self-care as a therapist
- How to get out of a “shut down” response
- What are “Glimmers?’’
Connect With Me
Join the private Facebook group
Sign up for my free email course: www.holisticcounselingpodcast.com
Resources Mentioned And Useful Links:
Chris McDonald: Have you heard of polyvagal theory, but aren't quite sure what it is or how it can help clients in therapy? In this episode, we'll explore the intricate connection between our nervous system, emotions, and overall wellbeing with our expert guest, Gabrielle Giuliano Villani. Discover how the polyvagal theory sheds light on the mysteries of human response to stress, trauma, and connection.
Learn how understanding the three branches of the vagus nerve can pave the way for more effective therapeutic interventions, as well as helping clients find their path to healing and resilience. Stay tuned for an eye opening conversation right here on the Holistic Counseling Podcast. This is Holistic Counseling, the podcast for mental health therapists who want to deepen their knowledge of holistic modalities.
And build their practice with confidence. I'm your host, Chris McDonald, licensed therapist. I am so glad you're here for the journey.
Welcome to today's episode of the Holistic Counseling Podcast. In our quest for holistic wellbeing, we often encounter innovative approaches that challenge traditional paradigms. Polyvagal theory was developed by Dr. Steven Porges and is one such paradigm shifting revelation that has taken the world of therapy by storm.
In this episode, we will peel back the layers of polyvagal theory, revealing how it offers a fresh perspective on understanding ourselves and our reactions to life's challenges. We'll explore how therapists are harnessing its power to guide their clients towards resilience, healing, and genuine transformation.
Today's guest is Gabrielle Giuliano Volani. She is a licensed clinical social worker, consultant, coach, entrepreneur. an educator based in Sarasota, Florida. Gabrielle pulls from her experience as an EMDR and polyvagal informed therapist to utilize mind body approaches to help others implement everyday strategies to manage stress and live their best lives.
Welcome to the Holistic Counseling Podcast,
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Gabrielle. Thank you so much for having me here today. I'm excited to talk with you. Can
Chris McDonald: you share a little bit more about yourself and your work?
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Sure. So I am a LCSW. And right now I live in Sarasota, Florida, moved here in 2020, just like everybody else. And my experience includes working in Child Protective Services as a caseworker.
I worked as a victim's advocate in the court system. And then I also worked as an in home care manager for an insurance company. And then after that is where I started. started my private practice where we served mostly, um, Medicare and Medicaid clients. And I grew that to seven figures and got super burnt out, sold it in 2021.
And now I do all kinds of things, business coaching, consulting, training, all around how to scale and sell your business without burning out. And then of course, that's beautiful. Prevention stuff using polyvagal theory, which I know we're going to talk about.
Chris McDonald: I'm so excited. Yeah. I've been using some polyvagal myself with my clients and they love learning about it too.
Learning about their own nervous system. So yeah. So let's dive in. So can you provide a brief overview of what is polyvagal
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: theory? Yes, so this is a theory that was developed by a psychiatrist named Steven Porges, and he rediscovered these other two vagal pathways in our autonomic nervous system. So there's already been tons and tons of research about our vagus nerve and what it does, and he just went a little bit deeper with that, and this came from his research that he was doing on newborn babies.
And essentially, polyvagal theory says that we have three states in our autonomic or automatic nervous system, our ventral vagal, which is often called rest and digest or safe and connected, fight or flight. I think everybody knows what that means. And then our dorsal vagal, which is our shutdown or our freeze response.
So we have those three stages. And then we have two other principles called neuroception and co regulation. So,
Chris McDonald: Neuroception, what is that?
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Neuroception is like our body's alarm system, and it basically means that we are always scanning our environment, both externally and also internally, and taking those cues and figuring out if we have a threat of safety, which would probably be a good thing or a threat of danger or something bad that's happening to us.
And so this is really important to when, if you're a therapist and you're doing this work with clients, and even if you're not a therapist, if you've experienced trauma. This is kind of, uh, that reaction that sometimes we have when we have a trauma response and we're like, it doesn't make sense. Why am I responding to this?
Why am I so triggered? And it's your neuroception telling you that, you know, something is off here. We feel unsafe in some way. And that is where that response comes from. So,
Chris McDonald: we feel unsafe in some way. So, how does co regulation tie into this?
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Co regulation, I think, is maybe my favorite part of all of this because it says that we are wired for connection as human beings.
So, we need to connect with other people. That is what keeps us safe and healthy and happy. We know that trauma is healed in safe relationships. And as humans, again, it doesn't matter how introverted you are, but we are wired to connect with other people and we use other people for our own safety and to regulate ourselves.
Chris McDonald: Yeah, that's good to know because that's at the top of the ladder, the polyvagal
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: ladder, right? Yes. And it's like, you know, it's, I think it sounds like some really like big fancy thing, but I just think about, you know, the people in my life that I go to when I'm stressed or, you know, I just need something.
I need to vent. I need to process. I just need to talk to someone that is all co regulating or even God bless my husband. Like sometimes I'm up here and he is a little bit more level headed and that really helps, you know, me move through something that can be really difficult sometimes.
Chris McDonald: Yeah, and I'm just thinking about clients that don't use the social connections and keep it all to themselves.
So do you have any recommendations for working with those kinds of
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: clients? I do. So that's a great question because I used to be one of those clients, so I can relate to that. Um, but I really
just always like to start with the psychoeducation of. We all have a nervous system. This is what this theory talks about and going a little bit deeper and asking them, you know, who were the safe people in your life, or maybe there were unsafe people. And I, you know, I remember when I worked as a caseworker, oftentimes a lot of my clients, and of course I wasn't doing therapy.
Technically, but a lot of my clients, you know, be like, there's nobody in my life that I could talk to, like absolutely nobody. And I would just go through their phone with them and I would be like, let's, I bet there is at least one person and all of my years of doing that, there always was at least somebody, but it's really, you know, helping people dig a little bit deeper about.
that vulnerability and why that's uncomfortable for
Chris McDonald: them. Yeah, I can see that, that the struggle. And I know with trauma, a lot of people have that struggle with trusting other people too. And it almost puts up a wall, doesn't
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: it? Yeah. And it takes a long time to get there. So if you're listening to this and you're like, you know, a client needs to open up to people in their lives.
And we've been working together for three sessions. Like it just, it just takes a long time sometimes, and that's okay to just. meet clients where they're at and start to work with them too on, you know, what I love so much about polyvagal theory is that there's no blame that's placed. Like your body is simply just having a response.
So I feel like when you start educating people on that part too, it's very empowering.
Chris McDonald: Yeah. Your body's just having a response. I think that can be so powerful because I don't know if you've noticed this, but I know a lot of people, it's like, there's a judgment if you're in fight or flight. Oh, I don't, I shouldn't be
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: here.
And that is such a big part of the work that I do when I talk about this is that there is no, I shouldn't say there isn't any, but trying to destigmatize the shame and like this idea that we have to be like completely Zen all the time. That's not what this is about. This is just about working to acknowledge and understand your own system and where you're at.
Chris McDonald: Yeah, and I think that that can be so empowering for clients. It takes a lot of, I guess, the, the pressure, right? That they have to be in a certain state all the time. Doesn't that take that away?
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Yeah, exactly. So,
Chris McDonald: how does understanding this theory help clients who have experienced trauma? How does that help them, do you think, other than the psycho ed
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: piece?
Definitely the empowering piece, and also understanding that I think when I think of a lot of my past clients who had trauma and a lot of them were also older adults, which added another layer to, it helped people see that this is biological. Like there is science behind all of this. And it helped again, take away a little bit of that shame and more of the understanding that they weren't responsible.
and that the things that have happened in our lives are stored in our body and how we respond to them is exactly that. We are responding to, again, triggers or threats of feeling unsafe, but just really, again, like, I just love that it's more holistic and it doesn't feel as, you know, no hate to the CBT people out there, but it's, I think it just, Is a better bottom up approach that can show people like my body is simply responding to what's happening.
And I can't think that away. I can't reframe it. I can't change the thought. Maybe you can in the future, but I love starting at this place first.
Chris McDonald: Yeah, exactly. Can you explain the polyvagal ladder? Cause I know I've used that some with
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Yes, I use this with All of my clients and I do this with coaching clients also and this is for everyone out there because we, again, we all have a nervous system and so this is a really great tool where you basically map your nervous system and so you go through each of those three stages that I talked about in the beginning and essentially you talk about what triggers you have there, glimmers or good things come from being in that stage, what like experiences that you've had, where you feel it in your body and the beliefs that you have about yourself and the beliefs you have about the world around you when you're in that stage.
Chris McDonald: So that brings a lot of clarity, doesn't it, to clients so they can understand themselves better.
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Yeah, it really is powerful, and I do that in all of my burnout trainings also, and people love it, and it really resonates because we're all different and unique. We tend to just go through the motions sometimes and get really stuck in our day to day grinding away.
And when you really slow down, you can see the things that might be triggering you that you haven't been paying attention to, or things that bring you joy that you're not surrounding yourself with. And those make such a huge difference in, in you and your environment. Yeah.
Chris McDonald: Can you talk about the safety cues versus danger cues?
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Yes, so danger cues would be more like a trigger and that doesn't necessarily mean, you know, when we say danger, like, it doesn't necessarily mean somebody is trying to hurt me in some way. Like, physically, it could be, but it could just be. somebody's tone of voice. It could be, again, something in your environment that really triggers you, maybe like clutter, for example.
And then safety cues would be the opposite. So that, again, could be somebody's tone of voice and the way that they speak to you. Uh, could be eye contact. It could be The way your coffee smells in the morning. That's like one of my favorite things and how I like to start my day. So those are the differences there.
And that's where the neuroception comes in, where it's responding to everything that's going on in your environment and processing that. Going in
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So can you give some examples of how this has helped clients in the past when you used to work
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Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: in therapy?
Yes, so one client, or actually a couple clients that come to mind, they were able to understand their triggers, and knowing that when they were triggered in that place, that maybe it wasn't the best time to respond to somebody else, right? Because when you are in fight or flight, you're using your amygdala, which is like the fear center of your brain, and your prefrontal cortex, where the rational decision making is, is completely offline.
So that really helped clients understand that when they were triggered, maybe not a good time to text that person back. Like, let's wait a second before we do that. Or learning their own cues of when they were amping up to go into fight or flight. So I had a client who really struggled with anger and And he would say, I go from 0 to 60 and then it's this whole big blow up and then it turns into this thing because my wife is upset and my kid is upset because he was there and I just can't control it.
And even when he would talk about it, he would have a lot of physical cues that I noticed. So he would start shaking his leg. He would kind of start like fidgeting with his hands really quickly. And I pointed those things out to him and he had no idea because he was already, you getting activated. When he was able to slow down and start to pay attention to those, he could use, you know, his skills to get back to a place of grounding himself before he completely flew off the handle.
So it's been really helpful for anger, for anxiety, for grief, for trauma. Uh, and also for depression. I remember a client of mine who she was definitely in her freeze response and she knew that she'd been in therapy for a long time. So she was really familiar with all of this and she would get upset that she's like, I'm, I can't do anything that helps me.
I can't meditate. I can't go for walks. Like I'm just in this place where I can't do it right now. And I was like, that's okay. It's again, what you were talking about earlier. It's like building this awareness, not this shame that like, this is where I'm at, but more about this is where I'm at. And this is the information that my body is giving me right now, either to slow down or to take a break or whatever it is.
Yeah. I appreciate you
Chris McDonald: sharing that. That's really helpful. Cause I know you've had your own experience with burnout. Can you share a little bit about what you went through with the group practice?
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Yeah. So I owned, again, a group practice and at our biggest, we were like 15 therapists and we had really fast growth because of the population and the niche that we had.
And I, looking back, could have done a lot of things differently to put into place, of course, to prevent this from happening. But what ended up happening instead was that I was on the edge of burnout and I do remember One morning, waking up in the summer of 2021 and just being like, I can't do this anymore.
And And for me, the big red flags were the apathy, the feeling numb, like the detachment. And that's the difference between stress and burnout also is like burnout is really this, this not enough. Like everything just felt very apathetic. I just did not care what happened. And yeah. Yeah. Yeah. As a therapist and as people's employer, that felt like a really dangerous place to be.
And I knew that I didn't want my life to be like that. I didn't want to wake up with dread in my stomach and feeling angry and resentful towards the people in my life. That's not happiness. And again, that's not how I wanted to live my life. So I had to do a lot of soul searching and a lot of therapy and a lot of getting to know and understand myself and my own nervous system and how I work best and what works best for me.
So it's like stripping away a lot of shame, a lot of people pleasing, and a lot of shoulds and judgments that I put on myself. And I know now, like when I am in fight or flight or freeze, like I can't access my intuition or my inner wisdom and my inner knowing. And that's really important to me because that helps me make decisions that Again, are a yes or a no.
Chris McDonald: are you on the polyvagal ladder when you're in burnout?
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: You are in your freeze response when you are in burnout. So that's more of the shutdown. That is the shutdown and there's also a lot of things happen physically. Uh, when you are in each of these stages, by the way, that I didn't mention yet, but when you're in freeze, you're kind of like, you might have a flat affect.
Um, you can't make eye contact. Um, your heart rate slows down your. endorphins actually increase so that your tolerance for pain is increased as well, and your digestion is not as good either. And again, usually people who are in their freeze response typically looks like numbness, being dissociated, being depressed.
Being shamed, just very like low energy. I'm even, when I'm talking about it, I feel like I even have low energy.
Chris McDonald: It's bringing it to you. Exactly. Yeah, so it's almost like embodying that state.
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Yeah, I need to be careful with my, uh, energetic boundaries when I'm talking about this.
Chris McDonald: So I know you mentioned the physical components of the shutdown.
So what about the fight or flight? Can you just share what those are, the physical components
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: of that? Yes. So usually your heart rate is going way up. Your breathing, uh, is going up. There's a bunch of hormones being dumped into your bloodstream, so like your cortisol and your adrenaline is being dumped into your bloodstream, and that's going through your digestive system, which, um, a little TMI, but if you're somebody that, you know, has to go to the bathroom when you get anxious or nervous, that is why your body is responding to that.
You might. Your voice might change. My voice changes when I'm in that place. Like my throat gets kind of tight. Your hands might shake. You might sweat. Um, your mouth might get dry. Again, eye contact might be difficult. And this is also important to know too because when all of those things are happening in your body, that directly impacts your physical health.
We know that. that stuff can cause inflammation, which can cause all kinds of autoimmune issues or heart issues. So it goes much deeper, which is again, why this is so important to me because it really explains the mind body connection. And it's not just like, Oh, I'm stressed and that sucks. It's, you know, if you have this stress continued over time, it really can make you physically sick.
Chris McDonald: I could see that. So is there anything that. People can do, especially therapists listening for self care if they're in fight or flight to help get themselves more into that safe space and ready to connect space.
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Yeah, that's where the, doing the polyvagal ladder is really helpful if you haven't done that before.
And just right now, if you're listening to this, thinking about the things that make you happy. Uh, make you feel joyful, make you feel present and grounded and in the moment. What are those things and how can you have them throughout the day? And if you don't know, I'll tell you some. So, yeah, it'll be good.
So some other ways to really stimulate your vagus nerve, which again, lets your body know like you're safe and brings you back down to your baseline, uh, taking a deep breath. Just one is enough because your vagus nerve goes directly behind your diaphragm. And so when you engage your diaphragm, you touch your vagus nerve that lets your body know you're safe, helps you calm down.
If you want, of course, you know, breath work goes much deeper than that and is really important and valuable, I think. And again, one of the most powerful things. So if you like doing breath work, do it often so that when you are feeling activated, it's more accessible to you. Uh, some other things that you can do are if you like to tap, you can tap and again, like I know we're recording a podcast, but kind of like right across from your armpit in the middle of your chest again, your vagus nerve goes right here.
So you can simply just tap it. And that will stimulate it also, which to me makes me feel really energized. So that's super easy. You can take a drink of water or swallow. Again, vagus nerve goes in a lot in your neck and your head. So swallowing can activate it. And again, your environment has a really big impact on you.
So this is not necessarily something you can do in the moment, but, uh, something that. Deb Dana has in one of her books that I really like is creating an environment that is calming. And again, that sounds really simple, but it's true. Like look around your space where you work and notice if it's what stresses you out.
If there's like a pile over here that you don't like, or if you really like certain colors, integrate them. And finally, I think Again, like sometimes our clients trigger us and that's okay. It happens and I, you know, I think acknowledging that and not being like, what you said just triggered me, but maybe saying something like, you know what, I just kind of popped out for a second, my window of tolerance and I need to come back.
Um, and if that doesn't feel comfortable, you again, just. Probably taking some deep breaths, your client won't even notice that you're doing that. Yeah, I think
Chris McDonald: it's important to find those quick things in session to just ground yourself, even just pushing your feet into the floor or, you know, taking the breath after that, you know, just combining sometimes different strategies can be helpful.
For sure. And what about if you're in shutdown, is there anything to move
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: up from that? So if you are in shutdown, again, I think this is really important for people to understand what that looks like and what that means for them. And for me, I know that when I am in shutdown, I'm usually, I've been overstimulated and I just need quiet and space and to like kind of rest.
So that's for me, like, being on the couch in silence. I like to have, um, like my comfy blanket with me. I like the candles to be going. And it's just kind of like low lighting where I can just kind of come back from being overstimulated. So And I share that because I feel like that's pretty common for a lot of people when you're in freeze.
It's more just about like, I know that my body is trying to force me to rest and I need to listen to that. Yeah.
Chris McDonald: So, and I think, and you mentioned the, the blanket and comforting. So is there something comforting, right? You can do in that moment too, because everybody's going to be different. And what she mentioned may not work for you.
So it can be just, uh, experimenting with different
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: things. Yeah, exactly. And just noticing like, Nope, this is not for me. I need to do something else. That's totally fine. And that's why I love this so much. And I integrate it so much into my life and my work is because we're all unique and we are all different.
And it's really just about learning to understand yourself and what works best for you. And I know you
Chris McDonald: talked a little bit about the mind body as a mind body approach. And can you talk more about how it is a holistic
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: approach? Yes. So when we are doing this work, we are again, just connecting all of those pieces.
We're coming more into our body and being aware. of ourselves, how we are responding to our environment, what our triggers are, what our not triggers are, what are things that ground us. And again, because everything that we're seeing around us and experiencing, We're not just feeling it, but we're having that physical response, too.
So if you are triggered and moving into fight or flight, it's not just I'm feeling stressed right now or I'm feeling anxious, it's my heart is also racing and all of these hormones are being, going through my body and I'm shaking and I can't really formulate a sentence right now. So. That is why it's so important is that it's not just one piece, it's all of these little pieces happening around us.
And we all have a nervous system, so every single person has one and can understand themselves better. Yeah,
Chris McDonald: makes a lot of sense. I know you mentioned briefly about glimmers. Can you share what those are again and how they could help
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: with mental health? Yeah, so glimmers are the opposite of triggers. So glimmers are like the good little moments.
And when I do the polyvagal ladder, I ask people in each section what their glimmers are. So again, it's not all bad things. So people sometimes have a hard time with that because they're like, well, when I'm in fight or flight, it's bad. No, it's not bad. It's not good or bad. It just is what's happening when you're there.
And I know like, again, just using me as an example, when I'm in fight or flight, sometimes that pushes me to do something that I need the motivation to do. And same thing with freeze. Like I said, it forces me to rest. And there's also even, you know, blended states where you can use a little bit of that energy and not completely, um, go into fight or flight.
So things like dancing or like exercising is a good example because you're both safe. So you're using that part, that stage, but you're also activated because you, you mobilize, you need that movement. So you can use a little bit of
Chris McDonald: both. Yeah, that's interesting that you can combine that instead of just one
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: thing, huh?
Yes. And that takes a little bit of effort and understanding. Yeah,
Chris McDonald: I imagine so. So what's the takeaway you could share with listeners who might want to start using Polyvagal with clients? Is there a good place to
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: start? There is. So my favorite person is Deb Dana and she is part of the Polyvagal Institute with Stephen Porges.
Um, and she has written lots of books. She has lots of trainings. You can even do a year long training through the Polyvagal Institute with her. Her book Anchored is one of my favorites. It's very easy to read both for clinicians and clients to get a good start on that. And then her other book that I really love is called Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection.
And this is where I get, um, a lot of ideas that I use. I see it's like bookmarked for those that can't read. It's a very well loved book. And finally, I also really love, um, the trainings through Embodilab. And they have ones with Stephen Porges and with Arielle Schwartz. She has one about applying polyvagal theory to trauma informed yoga.
That's really great too. Yeah,
Chris McDonald: fantastic. Talking right up my alley with the yoga, of course,
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: it all is connected. Very important. So, yes.
Chris McDonald: Awesome. So what's the best way for listeners to find you and learn more
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: about you? I have a very unique name, so I'm pretty easy to find. Uh, my website is GabrielleGiulianoVellani.
com and that is the same on Facebook. TikTok, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And my Instagram handle is at gjvconsulting. And if you want to follow me on Instagram, I also do a lot of free sound healings on IG live. So I love doing that too.
Chris McDonald: Yes. Awesome. And I love how simplified you made all your handles.
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: That's something that I learned from my last business, but still, my name is so long, but I'm really the only one I
Chris McDonald: think so. I love it. Yes. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Gabrielle. This was great.
Gabrielle Juliano-Villani: Thank you again for having me.
Chris McDonald: Awesome. And that brings us to the end of another episode. If you're a new listener, I want to say welcome.
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