Our Research Project

Spencer Psychology is collaborating with the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute. Our current study examines the impact of trauma and stress on the brain, body and behavior. The study is headed by internationally renowned researcher Dr. Stephen Porges, and based on his development of the Polyvagal Theory.

Dr. Porges

Dr Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University Bloomington and Research Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Emeritus Professor of Human Development at the University of Maryland, College Park.

A list of his publications is available here.

What is polyvagal theory?

Polyvagal Theory explains how threat can retune the autonomic nervous system into states of defense that disrupt social interactions, mood, sexual functioning, and health. Maladaptive responses can become chronic, and create additional problems with irritability, depression, anxiety, stress and chronic pain (like migraines, digestive issues and fibromyalgia).

Understanding polyvagal theory and trauma/stress responses

If we have unresolved trauma in our past, we may live in a version of perpetual fight-or-flight. We may be able to channel this fight-or-flight anxiety into activities such as cleaning the house, raking the leaves or working out at the gym, but these activities will have a different feel than they would if they were done with social engagement biology (think “Whistle While You Work”).

For some trauma survivors, no activity successfully channels their fight-or-flight sensations. They may be chronically distressed, irritable, angry or anxious. Over time, the sympathetic nervous system becomes overwhelmed and no longer works correctly. These people may then live in a version of perpetual shutdown, numbness, depression or freeze. Sometimes this chronic stress response develops into a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the constant activation of the vagus nerve in the autonomic nervous system.

Spencer Psychology – Traumatic Stress Research Consortium Study

We are currently collecting data with any interested current clients who are at least 19 years old to help us learn more about this cutting edge theory. The survey is anonymous. Clients do not need to have a trauma diagnosis, as we are looking at the body responses across multiple age groups, counseling experiences, and diagnoses. The study consists of a survey, available by link that the client can do at home, or on a tablet in the office. It takes 20-40 minutes, and includes questions about health, pain, and optional questions about sexual functioning.

Clients will receive a feedback form from the survey with information about traumatic response levels and pain issues. This can be shared with their clinician if the client chooses. The questions bring up body issues that the client may not previously have connected with mental health care, so the survey questions as a whole can also be discussed as part of the therapeutic intervention and awareness of stress on the body.

Somatic Experiencing

Some of the clinicians at Spencer Psychology have been training in a technique of therapy called Somatic Experiencing based on Polyvagal Theory. The technique teaches clients to deactivate maladaptive nervous system activation, and process the traumatic or stressful responses as part of the brain’s memory of how the body felt during traumatic or stressful events. This is frequently woven into EMDR sessions, and is proving to be very effective in alleviating painful memories for our clients.