Technology's Potential to Disembody: How Polyvagal Theory Helps Me Picture It

By Dee Wagner, LPC, BC-DMT

At its best, technology can enliven. At its worst, it can overwhelm. Technology offers an endless buffet of sensual information. To avoid becoming overwhelmed, we must be able to sense when our bodies are full of stimulation so that we can feel when to push away from the table so to speak.

When I first learned about Stephen Porges’ polyvagal theory, I saw that it created a framework within which I could fit every aspect of my life including technology. It helped me understand my personal journey and the journeys of all the counseling and dance therapy clients that I have worked with over the twenty-three years that I have been a therapist.

Polyvagal theory helps us picture our nervous system functioning. If we are in life-threatening danger, our bodies are designed to flee the danger or fight a foe if we must. If we sense that we are trapped with nowhere to flee and no clear foe to fight, we go into shut-down. Shut-down allows us to leave our bodies—play possum—as we wait and hope that the danger will pass. Shut-down disembodies.

Technology can feel like a lifeline. It can feel like an umbilical cord and let’s think about what happens when those are cut: we are launched into the real world and have to learn to breathe and eat on our own. When technological connection feels like an umbilical cord connection, technology can create nervous system responses that are designed for life-threatening situations. 

As a counselor and dance therapist, I was curious when I noticed myself feeling anxious as I interfaced with the internet. At first, I wrote it off as typical for those of us who have had to learn these skills in our 50’s but I began to notice anxiety even when I was engaged in activities in which I had become tech-savvy. 

As I studied my own bodily responses, I also began to study other peoples’ use of their devices. I noticed anxiety in other people and a fair amount of shut-down. I began witnessing and hearing stories of folks so out of touch with their bodies that they could not receive that message from their bodies that signals stimulation satiation or even stimulation overload. Mindless internet surfing exemplifies shut-down as opposed to going for a walk or engaging in a hobby.

Polyvagal theory helped me picture technological connections as umbilical-cord connections, which explains why disconnection can feel so life-threatening. Polyvagal theory also offers an exciting alternative possibility. Stephen Porges identifies another type of nervous system functioning which operates out of what he calls our Social Engagement System. This other nervous system response allows a way of interacting with technology other than the one that is like an umbilical cord.

Polyvagal theory explains that our bodies have different biological responses when we feel safe enough for social engagement. When our Social Engagement System is functioning, activity is playful and fun rather than anxious, and passivity feels restful rather than dissociative or depressed. 

It would make sense that we would want to approach social media from our Social Engagement System. When we are using the biology that is designed for social engagement, we are present in our bodies and can feel sensory satiation. We can even pay attention to the messages our bodies send to us that signal a need for sensory adjustment and then we can utilize the opportunities technology offers to regulate stimulation.

Healthy use of technology takes advantage of options we have for managing sensation overload. We can choose only words and maybe images by texting, emailing or tweeting. We can take in auditory stimulation without visuals when we choose communication by phone call. We can choose to only have visual and auditory stimulation with videoconferencing, which prevents any possibility of touch or smell or taste. 

We can control not only the type of stimulation but the timing. With texting and emailing, we extend the time between responses longer than is generally accepted in phone conversations or in-person encounters. When we are conscious about having choices, we tune into our bodies to see what we need and in those moments of tuning into our bodies we create wonderful islands of mindfulness in our high-speed world. 

Our devices can be windows through which we safely check out what seems to be on the other side of the glass. We can feel like we do at an aquarium. Better than the aquarium, the viewing windows of our devices offer us sight, sound and control of those sensations. With varied options, we can make mindful connections and disconnections. Experiencing our power to control sensory input, we have a sense of protection and comfort—the safety that allows social engagement system functioning. 

Polyvagal theory helps me picture technology use either as an umbilical cord or a viewing window. When we use technology consciously as a viewing window, we separate ourselves from the stimulation captured in the window. Sufficiently separate from the viewing window, we can note our physical needs and wants. We can make decisions based on our needs and wants utilizing technological options. We can operate using our social engagement systems.

When our connection to technology feels too much like an umbilical cord connection, we are likely to feel anxious or become disembodied—shut down. We operate using the nervous system functioning that should be reserved for life-threatening situations.

Let’s contemplate our devices, and try to see them as viewing windows. Let’s try to tune into our bodies and sense the power we have to control these viewing windows that exists at our fingertips. As we consider how we might best use technology to control stimulation at any given moment, we are less likely to become disembodied and more likely to function using our social engagement systems which foster vitality without overwhelm.

Digital Dating and the Wisdom to Know the Difference

Those in 12-step programs ask for the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can and the wisdom to know the difference. Digital communication opens possibilities for dating that can be difficult to manage.

We have a kind of control when we communicate digitally that can be comforting. Simultaneously, that sense of control can stir wishes for more power than is possible to have in our romantic relationships. How can we find the wisdom to know the difference?

Digital communication offers ways to limit various aspects of communication. With texting, we can space out our comments over longer periods of time than is generally accepted in phone conversations or in person. We can takin in words alone, with no vocal patterning or inflection. The ability to control stimulation in this way can be calming.

When we choose phone conversations rather than texting, we have to navigate auditory stimulation but not sight as we do in face-to-face communication. When we do face-to-face over a device, we have auditory and visual stimulation but with a screen between us and probably miles or even cities or possibly countries, there is no possibility of touch or smell or taste.

While digital technology brings these new kinds of control in relationships, we cannot control other important aspects of romance that many of us hunger to control. We cannot dial up a partner that fits desired specifications. We cannot change other people's responses like changing the channel or volume on a television by simply aiming the remote control and utilizing our thumbs.

We can better navigate this new romantic territory if we understand how powerful our desire to control others can be. We all had a life-or-death need to control an important other that began in infancy. When we are born, we are dependent on our connection with a caregiver.

Developmental psychologist Edward Tronick is known for what are called his "still face" experiments. In Tronick's experiments, babies and mothers engaged with each other, eyes gazing into eyes, cooing in their unique way with one another. Then, the mothers were instructed to assume a blank face. When the babies were faced with this loss of connection with their mothers, first the babies tried to engage the mother, but if there was still no wake up of mom's face - no reconnection - the babies shut down. The babies' faces got still and quiet just like the face the mom was presenting.

With digital communication, the desire to be connected has a literal component. If we make a digital connection and then lose the connection, we can feel distressed like a baby in a "still face" experiment. When we cannot force reconnection with someone we have lost into the ethers of the internet, we might shut down by giving up on digital dating. We might sink into web surfing in an addictive sort of way.

The wisdom to know the difference, helps us calm anxiousness that can arise when we feel the need to take action but there is really no useful action to take - when vowing to drop the digital aspects of dating solves nothing - when web surfing might bring short-term relief but long-term overload.

Digital dating can feel life-threatening because infant connections were a matter of life and death. A shift in perspective can help us hold onto our adult selves and see our romantic situations outside of past infant truths.

When we are able to release our desire to control things we cannot control, we can stay present in our bodies. We can ease the distress that comes with our child-like desperate feeling that control is essential to our existence. As we accept our lack of control over other people, we can begin more and more to enjoy the arousing surprises that show up when we meet our romantic partners in person.

Article by: Dee Wagner, LPC, BC-DMT


Dating in a Dangerous World

How does terrorism effect our search for romance? Stephen Porges' polyvagal theory helps us understand that our bodies act out of different nervous system response when we sense danger than when we sense safety.

When we are afraid for our lives, we operate out of fight/flight or if there is no clear way to fight or flee, we shut down. If we are dating, we may desperately cling to any potential partner. If clinging is not our thing, we may drift into Romance Trance where we are not present with the real person we are dating but a fantasy version that we are projecting onto whoever is across the table or in our bed.

It is new for scientists like Porges and his wife, Sue Carter, to be able to measure the biological response that occurs when we feel safe. Porges studies ventral vagal nerve activation and Carter studies the presence of the neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin.

In his polyvagal theory, Porges calls this I am safe biology our social engagement system. When we are using our body's social engagement system, life is more nuanced, more creative, more playful.

Is there a way to date from our social engagement system, even when our world can feel so dangerous? Yes. We can use Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating, the book/workbook that helps us use online dating to develop healthier nervous system functioning.

Using Naked Online, we can become mindful of our urges to control situations where control is limited. What can we control in our dangerous world? Our mindfulness. We can stay awake to our surroundings, our voting choices, our expression of our opinions. What can we control in our dating?

  • We can stay awake and notice our body responses by using the Sensation Chart in chapter nine.
  • We can express our feelings in words and drawings throughout the book/workbook.
  • We can experiment with intentional breathing patterns using the information in chapter eleven.
  • We can use chapter ten to soothe our inner kid selves because our inner kid responses come directly out of our animal biology.

Dating in a dangerous world requires some action toward staying awake. When we are awake to the realities of our changing world, we can soothe our kid selves by sorting out what we have control over and what we do not. We can partner with this workbook, something we can hold onto and from which we can read comforting words and helpful science. As we calm our beating hearts, we can find the spaces where it is possible to enjoy the sensations of our sexual selves with the real people with whom we are sharing those moments.

Buyer's Remorse: in Dating and in the UK

Ever bought into something and awoken the next morning with regrets. "Oh my god, oh my god, I like didn’t really know like how messed up everything would feel this morning! Please God can there be a do-over."     

As we read about voting regrets in the UK, we can wonder what makes us rethink our choices. Perhaps we become frighteningly aware that our action was actually more of a knee-jerk reaction. Knee-jerk reactions signal that our socialized selves have been hijacked by our more childish selves.

Politics and dating both stir up little kid hopes. Disappointment when our hopes do not pan out fuel knee-jerk reactions. Our kid parts don’t have impulse control for goodness sakes. When we let our kid parts run the show, we are bound to wake up to bad reviews.

Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating offers opportunities to write and draw in the journaling sections after each chapter. Drawing is a great way for our kid selves to express intense disappointment.  We can draw a stick figure with a grumpy-faced, oversized head and a talk bubble that reads, I hate him!  He acts like he doesn't even like me! 

When the little kid part of us roars itself out on the pages of Naked Online, there is more room for "on the other hand..." With more consideration of actions, we are more likely to make good decisions and less likely to wake up with buyer's remorse.

Adult Coloring and Naked Online: Why Adult Coloring Books?

A major difference between the new adult coloring books and traditional children's coloring books is small spaces.  If you Google adult coloring books, you see a good bit of talk about the small spaces. Adult coloring book enthusiasts testify to their calming effect Jenny Knappenberger at says adult coloring books are relaxing and meditative.

She says the small spaces challenge us and are good exercise for our hands. Adrienne from Cleverpedia at talks about the creative opportunities for shading. But no one yet is theorizing about why drawing in these small spaces creates calm.

As a dance therapist, my theory about why these new adult coloring books are calming relates to the sense of comfort we feel when we initially sense we are trapped but then realize we can move. If we kinesthetically experience movement despite the boundaries of tight places — move our pencils back and forth in small coloring spaces — we feel safe.

We seem to have a need to explore small movement in our shrinking world. We need to remind ourselves that even though our options may feel limited, we are not trapped. As we move a marker or pencil in the small spaces provided in the coloring books, our breath can deepen and we can experience that even in situations where we may feel trapped, there is space for aliveness.

In Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating, we encourage drawing as a way of letting out our kid feelings. John Cargile who did the illustrations throughout the book created a coloring book page that combines both kinds of therapeutic expression — adult and kid. You can download and print out this Naked Online coloring page. You will find on our coloring page an adult-coloring-book border that surrounds open space for freer, kid-like expression. As we care for ourselves in healthier ways, we become more apt to participate in satisfying romantic partnerships.

Click here to download

Red Flags of the Online Dating Dance

When I woke up this morning, I looked over at the pillow beside me... Instead of the sixty something year old partner I imagine, (I’m 57) there was my laptop.  I’m sleeping with my computer!

That’s how it feels with online dating sometimes. Like your relationship is with your computer. It’s one of the reasons I co-authored, “Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating,” a book that shows us how to make online dating playful and takes some of the sting out of dating your computer.  

I also have a strong interest in making online dating safe.  I served as a Special Agent of the FBI back in the day, ending in 1997, so I have some relevant background to frame my experience and identify the red flags I’ve encountered.

In the 4 years I’ve been dating online, I have grown personally. At first I wondered if daters want to grow while dating online?  Well, whether you start out that way or not, I certainly have learned a lot about myself, especially my “little kid” self and how to improve my relationship patterns. This goes hand in hand with paying attention to the red flags I discovered which are shared below.  

In keeping with the mindful, body-awareness exercises in our book, I’ll call these patterns dances.”  Paying attention to the dance we’re doing on a dating website as we relate with potential partners helps us stay safe, physically and emotionally.  

While online dating at Chemistry, Match, eHarmony and Plenty of Fish, I danced with hundreds of people.. some Rap Tapping... a little Tango... a dozen fabulous Promenades.

Yackety Smack Rap Tap

Those dancing the yackety smack rap tap love to tap, tap, tap on the keys of their keyboard. They email a lot, text often, and yackety smack on the phone; BUT they don’t want to meet in person.  

My friend and co-author, psychotherapist Dee Wagner suggests, Digital dating offers relationship controls that are not possible in person. Direct interaction can sometimes feel too threatening.”  

Rap is storytelling. And when we’re yackety smack rap tapping, we may email long stories about ourselves, text, “Good morning, good night,” but we prefer to stick to emails, and perhaps a phone call. We stall when asked to put on our ballroom shoes (or cowboy boots) and try out a promenade.

I have learned it’s worth it to risk some emotional vulnerability to meet early in safe public places. It helps me avoid tapping myself into deep disappointment when I realize I am just yackety smacking with someone I really wanted to meet. For more about how to deal with this disappointment, see Chapter 10, “Dealing with the Really Low, Discouraging, Disappointing, Awful, Terrible Times.”    

When we get hypnotized by rapping and tapping online, we can end up with only virtual relationships. If virtual relationships are a conscious choice, that’s fine. If you, like me, want to Promenade, you have to risk walking onto the dance floor, and possibly getting your toes stepped on and stepping on some toes yourself.  

Mystery Tango

The mystery tango is a con dance, the kind of dancing done by a catfish. It often involves “soft” lies.  Sometimes we fudge our age, our finances, or photos.  Sometimes this swirling tango is the big lie of a scammer.

If we find ourselves wanting to initiate a mystery tango, even just for a few steps, we might need to read the chapter in our book called Liar, Liar Pants on Fire to learn why honesty is the best policy.

Folks who mystery tango want to keep things cloaked in mystery. Sometimes the secrecy is a wish to control the romance or the sex. Sometimes the smokescreen is for financial gain. If the mystery tango intrigues us, we are more apt to be seduced into cooperating in elaborate cons.

A con artist may give little to no verifiable details about themselves; they are SO into their potential partners that they can only talk about the other. In that way, those who mystery tango are good at hooking potential partners emotionally. They usually want to get off the website right away, and ask for a personal email or phone number. Often they tell a dramatic story to hook their potential partner.

Dee says from a psychological standpoint: “Often we’re attracted to these fantastical relationships because the direct interaction with available people is too intense for us. We feel more comfortable in the fabric of the fantasy a mystery tango can weave.” 

  • Someone dancing the mystery tango might claim he or she can’t meet due to being overseas on assignment for the military or traveling for an important job but wants to meet when he or she gets back; may write long, detailed emails designed to hook potential partners emotionally so watch for inconsistent information.  
  • Someone dancing the mystery tango might claim to be well educated but write poorly; start the email with “Hello pretty” and again, NO specifics.
  • Someone dancing the mystery tango may also be a professional trickster so ask for a meeting early on.  

Check out this email from my files:  

“Hello pretty. Nice to hear from you, I am new to this online thing, I just join the site 5 days ago, and your profile is the first matches I receive for the site and when I view your profile I get interested in getting to know more about you after reading your profile and viewing your pictures and I think you have a great smile. I guarantee that I am a nice man and know how to treat a woman. well my favorite dish to cook are so many dishing, some of my dish is consists of Chinese, Mexican, and Italian with Jamaican sauce and rice being my favorite dish. Cheers, .”  

When I first started online dating, I would have written back because he answered my question about what he liked to cook. Now I know this is just someone cutting and pasting and not a real possibility so I don’t email this person at all. I hit the X button and move on.

Deadly Pirouette

This is a predatorial dance; given the right opportunity, a person dancing this dance will hurt or kill a potential partner. Someone dancing this dance may seem:

  • Charming and quick to leap into a first meeting but also ready to drive right now to your home.
  • Romantic and accessible – “Can I come over right now? Or meet you at the park on the outskirts of town?”   

NEVER!  Women have been raped and murdered as a result of saying yes to the deadly pirouette. Anyone who won’t meet you in a public place for your first face-to-face meeting is a risk.  

Possibility Promenade

The true Possibility Promenade is my kind of dance! This is a mindful, moment-to-moment dance with a real person who wants a healthy relationship, gives details about themselves freely, and will meet you in an appropriate public place for coffee or a meal. This person does not flinch when you ask for their last name and say you are going to check them out to see their public profiles.   

I am happy to have met at least a dozen potential partners through online dating who danced with me a dozen true Possibility Promenades.    

First we exchanged a few emails, and then we had at least one phone call where we felt comfortable talking with each other and asked questions so we knew this was a true possibility.  

And take heart!  There ARE good dancers out there!

Summary of my dance card: 

o   I skip any dance that feels like the Yackety Smack Rap Tap (in 3 emails) or the Mystery Tango.  

o   To find a person who promenades, I email 3 times, then ask for a phone call.  (I don't accept excuses about travel, too busy to go on the site, etc.  If they can’t set a time to talk, they are not a True Possibility and don’t get to dance with me. ) After 1 or 2 phone calls, we must meet.  

o  I do not text until I meet someone, and I say so right up front.  Most folks interested in a true Possibility Promenade will not object. 

o   I write 3 emails a day (or try to!) responding to matches. At first, I wrote long emails; now I write one or two sentences showing I read their profile and I ask a question. 

o   If the person doesn't respond to your email, that is a “no” for now.

Main Image.jpg

 Kathy Jernigan - Co-Author  

Naked Online:  A Dozen Ways to Grow from Internet Dating at or
Photo and illustrations by John Cargile

Copyright © 2016 LUSTIERLIFE, LLC

That One

Dozens of writers are trying to help daters find great relationships if we find The ONE!  I mean no disrespect to those who claim this, but I’m now looking for THAT ONE instead of “The One.” I changed my mind when I learned from my friend Dee Wagner, a psychotherapist, that if you are searching for “The One,” you are actually looking for your mother, or whoever raised you.

Evidently relationship theorists have known for years that we attract mates with whom we can work out issues we developed in childhood. And now scientists explain to us about our need to attach to our biological mothers. Whatever happened to us as babies sets up what’s called our attachment style! 

So instead of looking for ‘The One” I’m going to start looking for THAT ONE.

From dating online these past 4 years, I have figured out THAT ONE may not be the best looking man I meet. Or the man whose profile I SO connect to online. He’s probably going to be someone I’m attracted to, but not over the moon about at first.

This is a shocker. I’m accustomed to fireworks. I want BOOM!!!

I’m used to the “ants in your pants” and “popping a blood vessel” feelings described in the sensation chart in “Naked Online:A DoZen Ways to Grow From Internet Dating.” I’m new to the sensations the book calls “the fertile valley” of “Om,” “cautiously content,” and “in the flow.”   

I’m a co-author of this book, so it may seem strange when I say I’m learning from it. But “Naked Online” was written for me in a lot of ways. I co-created it with Dee and her partner, who she met online. We all used our online dating experiences. Dee threw in her therapeutic skills and work with couples and clients who online date. Naked Online is a book/workbook to help us deal with the stresses of dating online and to make the whole process playful, instead of so serious.

The sensation chart in Chapter 9 has worked well for me. When I go out with a guy and I stay conscious of my body and how I feel, I stay in the “fertile valley.”  Instead of popping a blood vessel and building a great fantasy about how this connection will go, I stay more present.  I am able to practice mindful romance. And more and more science shows that it is from staying calm and “in the fertile valley” that we are able to truly connect and grow towards a long term, healthy relationship with THAT ONE.  

 Author Kathy Jernigan is co-author of “Naked Online: A DoZen Ways to Grow From Internet Dating,”  ( and

Technology Portals and NYTimes

I read this Sunday NYTimes article. Check it out with attention to the internet addiction part of the story.

In a webinar that Ray Barrett and I are developing for therapists, we differentiate between an internet portal that is like an umbilical chord/IV line and one that is like a viewing window. The window helps us keep our distance and our boundaries.

In the NYT article, a scammer preys on a regular guy's vulnerability. Fortunately, the guy talks about it with the authorities. Unfortunately, the authorities think he is delusional and/or a spy. As an author of a workbook for online daters, I can recognize his behavior as what we call Romance Trance.

Naked Online teaches us how to use a Sensation Scale and a Giving and Taking Scale to care well for our vulnerable selves which are like our inner kid selves. When we care for our kid selves, we are less likely to drift into Romance Trance and become prey for scammers!

Read the NYTimes article here

Be Online Dating Now

Mindful online dating improves nervous system regulation.

Dee Wagner, MS, LPC, BC-DMT

Is it possible that online dating can be a path toward mindfulness? Of course, anything can be a path toward mindfulness. Is online dating more of a path than, say, noticing the taste of food as we chew?

Online dating stirs up intense physical sensations more than food flavors or holding a difficult yoga pose because our relationships trigger feelings from infancy when life existed as a hurricane of unregulated nerve firings. If we imagine we are searching for the one, our expectancy can be laced with life/death nervous system responses left over from birth.

Once we are born, there is only one person that can satisfy our biological imperative to reconnect to the body from which we disconnected. In romance, we may be looking for the one, but there are many possible partners who could pair with any person.

Online dating is hyped-up dating, with its purposeful searching, quick surges of hopefulness and frequent disappointments. And, of course, online dating can lead to sex and we don’t even need to name the sensations possible with the stimulation of our anatomical parts containing the highest concentration of nerve endings.

Each online dating encounter is like time in the relationship gym. We have an opportunity to flex, work-out, and train our interactive muscles, so to speak. As we improve our relationship skills, the part of our bodies that we are actually working with is our nervous system.

Stephen Porges, author of The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation, explains that we have a part of our parasympathetic nervous system that can help us navigate our relationships. He calls this part our social engagement system.

If we are not using our social engagement system, we are using one of the two other parts of our nervous system. We are either using our sympathetic response that moves us into fight/flight or the part of our parasympathetic response that move us into a kind of shut-down that is often called freeze, or faint.

Since our social engagement system helps us navigate relationships, how can we better access that system? Mindfulness. In the relationship gym of online dating, we can feel sensations akin to fight/flight or freeze/faint and watch those sensations come and go, noticing when we are not in the life-threatening danger that the sensations suggest.  

What is the key? As every person who pursues mindfulness would guess, the key is balance.  Harmony means balance but to people who pursue mindfulness practices, the word can imply more peacefulness than is useful in the balance required for healthy romantic relating. Healthy relationships balance peacefulness and playfulness.

On a continuum between tranquility and chaos, we all have our growing edge. Some of us must constantly cultivate peacefulness to come to any sort of middle ground between peace and pull-your-hair-out fight/flight anxiety. Others of us find it too tempting as we move toward peacefulness to drop into the shut-down kind of oblivion that characterizes freeze/faint and so we need to challenge ourselves to play safe but stimulating games.

Often we hear people saying they are tired of playing games in their dating experiences. But what we are learning these days about our nervous system explains that games are good as long as they are not gladiator games. How can we help ourselves find this kind of safe play?

We can witness our attempts at manipulating our partners. If it feels playful such as when we are trying to lure our partner to the front of the net while we land our beach badminton shuttle in the back corner of the sand court, we’re probably in safe territory. If it feels like we are trying to shove a lifeguard under water in order to get our head to air because we are drowning, we’re probably using the biology we ideally reserve for life-threatening situations.

Because online dating can trigger unhealthy nervous system responses, it is a great arena in which to practice mindfulness. As we learn to tolerate the intense sensations that intimate relating can arouse, we can sense when the intensity is only rough and tumble play and that we are safe. We can stay sane and stay in the game of relating in romance and every encounter with those who people our lives.