Polyvagal system

**This is not a mindfulness group! Only use if needed for trauma populations**

Intentions and notes

Because this isn’t a mindfulness group I was unsure about including it here, but have found it very useful in helping people with a lot of trauma to engage in subsequent mindfulness groups. The exercise in place of a mindfulness meditation is a safe place exercise used by therapists in EMDR10 before they get stuck into the trauma work proper: people need to be able to feel safe before doing any work like that – and similarly if there is a lot of trauma then this can help people to start to self-regulate and feel safer to practise mindfulness. So this is a good one to do if you have a very traumatised group, or if you think you see them dissociating or struggling to connect with other groups in the programme. But it’s a visualisation of an imaginary safe place that you can go to – so is very different to the staying in the present-time, real moment of mindfulness.

The drawback of doing this is that the ‘safe place’ exercise sticks in people’s heads (most people love it!) and they remember it as mindfulness because you as the mindfulness teacher taught it – so you need to be very clear that it isn’t. On balance, I thought it was worth keeping in here, and running the risk of slightly confusing people about mindfulness/visualisation, in order to help them regulate enough to be able to engage with mindfulness in subsequent sessions.

The safe place exercise is important, to set people up with a regulating tool for the second part of the session. Take the group through it slowly while doing it yourself. Then when you’ve finished, give out the worksheet and pens and invite them to fill them in straight away, so they have a reminder of their safe place.

If you’re not familiar with the work of Steven Porges and the polyvagal theory, do have a look before you run the group. Anita Lewis does some good training in this.

The discussion of the polyvagal system can be triggering for people, so if you’re aware of specific triggers for people, avoid talking about them (though you likely won’t be aware of all triggers, so can’t 100% avoid it), and be prepared to go into the safe place again whenever you sense the group or anyone in it may need to. And make sure you do it again at the end, so that everyone can get a chance to experience their safe place again before leaving.


  • Download the group outline, worksheet and handout here.

You will also need

  • Pens/clipboards or something to lean on


  • Title and running order of group
  • the ladder
  • Bullet points for ways to climb
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