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Addiction From The Bottom Up: A Felt Sense - Polyvagal Model of Addiction

31 Oct 2019 5:00 PM | Anonymous

Addiction From The Bottom Up: A Felt Sense/ Polyvagal Model of Addiction

Many of us working in the healing arts are exploring alternative ways of experiencing and conceptualizing the body, recognizing that the western, post Descartes view of mind/body duality is distorted and harmful. Our current way of understanding and treating addiction reflects this disembodied view. Addiction is seen as a malfunctioning of our computer-like brains.

Shifting into a bottom up approach allows us to experience the wisdom of the body, and the wisdom of addictive responses. From an embodied place of experiencing, and through the lens of Polyvagal Theory, we understand addictive behaviors as the bodies attempt to keep us  alive when being present is too overwhelming.

It’s time to look at addiction with a fresh pair of eyes. I have created a new model in the conceptualizing and treatment of addiction. The current brain disease model is failing us, rates are soaring, and people are dying in the streets. We can and must do better than this!

Over forty years of keeping my client's company I have developed a model that understands addiction as an adaptive attempt to regulate emotional states. Addictive behaviors are self-soothing/self harmful ways to survive when we aren’t able to calm ourselves. These behaviors do not come from sickness: they come from a bodily response to threat and a wired in mechanism of survival. The Felt Sense/ Polyvagal Model (FSPM) addresses addiction where it lives, in the body.


Download the Felt Sense - Polyvagal Model (FSPM) Model


This graphic model draws from the work of: Stephen Porges - Polyvagal Theory, a new understanding of the autonomic nervous system, Eugene Gendlin - Felt Sense embodied psychotherapy practice, and Marc Lewis - learning model of addiction. This work is a first in bringing addiction into the exciting world of Polyvagal Theory.

The objective is to provide a graphic model of addiction that integrates new neurobiological findings in brain research, an alternative learning model of addiction (Lewis, 2015), and subsequent clinical approaches that address embodied trauma therapies. Therapists will be able to understand addiction using a sophisticated theoretical framework and treatment strategies that challenge old, pathologizing approaches. The model is adaptable to any school of psychotherapy or healing practice.

As I began to learn about Polyvagal Theory, I realized that it enhanced my understanding of what I knew intuitively: Clients were using addictive behaviors to propel themselves from a state of sympathetic arousal to a dorsal vagal response of numbing, and vice versa. Through the lens of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), we see these behaviors as adaptive.

The Felt Sense/Polyvagal Model

Looking at the graphic depiction of the FSPM Clinician version we can see a number of important theories overlapping.

Focusing and the Felt Sense

The term Felt Sense, named by Eugene Gendlin, PhD. (Focusing, 1978) comes from a contemplative practice called Focusing.

Focusing is a six step process that helps us to find our implicit, embodied knowing about an issue in our life. A knowing that is at first vague. Turning attention inwards and listening with compassion allows a felt sense, a whole sense of the situation, to form. See example below.

Notice on the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model that each circular state has the words thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and memories. Each of these different aspects of experience are a pathway into the Felt Sense. In asking questions about these aspects we help the client to deepen their embodied knowing of the issue. As the felt sense forms we pause and stay with the fullness of experiencing. Sometimes a Felt Shift, a physical release happens as the client integrates a new knowing. This shift is the bodies’ knowing and pointing in the direction of growth and healing. The client feels a relief, a settling. Focusing is a natural process that happens all the time. Gendlin didn’t invent it. He found that clients who were doing well in therapy were connected to their bodies. They had access to a Felt Sense. However, because we live in such a disembodied culture, many clients need help to connect, so Gendlin created the steps.

The following is an example: A client comes in with anxious feelings and a tightening in her  throat. She says that she doesn’t know why she feels this way. We begin the process of quietly turning attention inwards, down into the centre of the body. Tears come as she connects the physical sensations with the feelings of sadness and anger. A beginning of the Felt Sense starts to form. I ask “Can you welcome both feelings?’ she pauses and explores where there are no words. She puts a hand on her throat.

 “ I don’t know how to be with anger”, she says. More sensing into the body.

 More tears flow as she feels the physical sensations of the Felt Sense flooding into her throat  and now down into her chest. A whole Felt Sense of her situation forms; thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and memories.

“This goes way back for me. Little girl afraid to be angry, so I cry instead. This needs to stop. I need my anger.”

Her whole body moves and relaxes with a Felt Shift. She feels her throat loosening, a new piece has come for her. An explicit knowing that has great meaning for her. A need to connect with her anger. Her Felt Sense carries this meaning forward into her life as she welcomes what came in her Focusing practice session.

Now we can map the felt sense onto the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model to integrate the autonomic nervous system states. This gives us more information about the client’s journey. In the Clinician version she has moved from chaos/sympathetic meme, down to Integrated/Ventral meme in her Focusing Oriented Psychotherapy session. Together we look at the Client Version of the model as she maps her journey from Flight/Fight to Flock.

Polyvagal Theory

Looking at the graphic depiction of the FSPM Clinician version, we can see:

Three circuits of the ANS—Depicted in the solid line triangle at the bottom right legend

A)    Ventral in yellow at the bottom of the page,

B)    Sympathetic in red on the right, and

C)    Dorsal in grey on the left.

Intertwining States---Depicted in the dotted line triangle at the bottom right legend.

Intertwining states are states in the system that utilize two pathways. The Autonomic Nervous System has the capacity to blend states creating a greater range of experiences.

Intertwining states are represented in the model in mixed colors.

Play is on the bottom right in yellow/red.

Stillness is bottom left yellow/ grey.

The FSPM proposes a third intertwining state of Addiction

Addiction is at the top of the model, red/grey

This state is a blending of sympathetic and dorsal. Without the presence of the ventral vagus, the Social Engagement System is offline. When trauma and other states of emotional dis-regulation occur, the capacity to regulate through the ventral vagus are compromised. The ANS shifts into survival mode. We can then employ addictive behaviors in an effort to seek relief from suffering.

Applying The Model

In addition to providing a new map for teaching the model, I have created a simple version for clients that uses 6 F’s to define the states of the Autonomic Nervous System. Flight/Fight, Freeze, Fixate, Flow, Fun, Flock. With time our clients learn how to identify and track the state that they are in, and to use the tools that we teach them to move more and more into the ventral vagal state.

A Call to Action

“Addiction is our teacher” says Bruce Alexander. In his new documentary, Rat Park, he shows us how we have lost connection with each other and with the natural world. He sees addiction not just as a psychological problem, but a global, political problem.

Addiction is a political problem!

I invite you to join me in standing up, and speaking up about a new way of understanding and treating addiction. I am currently writing a book about the model. For more information and questions please go to my website.


Download Felt Sense Polyvagal Model to Share with Clients 


A Call to Action

“Addiction is our teacher” says Bruce Alexander. In his new documentary, Rat Park, he shows us how we have lost connection with each other and with the natural world. He sees addiction not just as a psychological problem, but a global, political problem.

Addiction is a political problem!

I invite you to join me in standing up, and speaking up about a new way of understanding and treating addiction. 

I am currently writing a book about the model. For more detailed information and questions please go to my websitehttp://www.focusingonborden.com/


Jan Winhall, M.S.W. R.S.W. F.O.T.T.  Toronto, Canada. Jan is a psychotherapist in private practice and Director of Focusing On Borden, a centre for teaching Focusing and Focusing-Oriented Therapy. Jan is the author of “Understanding and Treating Addiction with the Felt Sense Experience Model” In Emerging Practice in FOT. Jan teaches internationally and is a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. She is currently writing a book about her new Felt Sense/Polyvagal Model for treating addiction.

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