A ladder for mental health?
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) can be described using the metaphor of a ladder, according to the concept creator, Deb Dana, LCSW. This ladder contains three “states,” which describes how our ANS is organized and performs. These states are based in the Polyvagal Theory, which was developed in 1994 by Dr. Stephen Porges.
Here are the three states of the 🪜:
1. Top of the 🪜(parasympathetic-ventral vagal):
•This is the safe/social system, aka “rest and digest.” This is responsible for social engagement, connection, critical thinking, problem solving, and use of the head and neck area. We feel at peace and secure with ourselves and the world.
2. Middle of the 🪜(sympathetic):
•This is the “flight or fight” system. If something happens to alert us of danger, we go into a self-preservation mode and mobilise for action. We feel adrenaline, anxiety, and anger. This is responsible for using the limbs for evasion or aggression.
3. Bottom of the 🪜(parasympathetic-dorsal vagal):
•This is the collapse system. We are exhausted from exerting ourselves in the middle of the ladder, and so therefore we shutdown after awhile. This is responsible for dissociation, numbness, and immobilisation. Think of a turtle drawing its head inside its shell.
Throughout the day, we may vacillate between states. Many of us remain in the ventral vagal state, but some of us, due to adverse life circumstances and trauma, struggle at the bottom rungs of the ladder, where negative patterns become ingrained. Porges suggests this is where we develop related physical symptoms.
So how do we climb the ladder? 🪜
Polyvagal-informed therapy can give us tools to climb the ladder and stay there more of the time. Modalities such as EMDR, dance/movement therapy, neurotransmitter testing, mindfulness, guided imagery, and inner child work are all polyvagal-informed, which we offer here at ICG. Contact us for more information if interested. You may also read my previous blog for more practical steps to positively engage the vagus nerve.
We cannot control what has happened to us in the past and which rung of the ladder we started off on. We can, however. climb the ladder utilizing therapeutic tools, and remain in states that reflect our true identity- an identity of wholeness, sanity, safety, and health. An identity of love.
Which states do you most commonly find yourself in- rest, exert, or exhaust? And why?
“By developing an understanding of the workings of your vagus nerve, you may find it possible to work with your nervous system rather than feel trapped when it works against you.”
— Dr. Arielle Schwartz, Clinical Psychologist
What is the vagus nerve?
The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body.
It connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the gut, heart and lungs. The vagus nerve is also a key part of your parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. It influences your breathing, digestive function and heart rate, all of which can have a huge impact on your mental health.
Here are 9 evidenced-based ways to stimulate the vagus nerve and experience de-stress and relaxation:
1. Cold Exposure
Try finishing your next shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water and see how you feel. Then work your way up to longer periods of time.
You can also ease yourself into it by simply sticking your face in ice-cold water.
2. Deep and Slow Breathing
Most people take about 10 to 14 breaths each minute. Taking about 6 breaths over the course of a minute is a great way to relieve stress. You should breathe in deeply from your diaphragm. When you do this, your stomach should expand outward. Your exhale should be long and slow.
3. Singing, Humming, Chanting and Gargling
The vagus nerve is connected to your vocal cords and the muscles at the back of your throat. Singing, humming, chanting and gargling can activate these muscles and stimulate your vagus nerve.
It’s becoming increasingly clear to researchers that gut bacteria improve brain function by affecting the vagus nerve. Try adding a probiotic to your diet.
Research shows that meditation increases vagal tone and positive emotions, and promotes feelings of goodwill towards yourself. Another study found that meditation reduces sympathetic “fight or flight” activity.
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that your body cannot produce itself. They are found primarily in fish and are necessary for the normal electrical functioning of your brain and nervous system.
Many brain health experts recommend exercise as their number one piece of advice for optimal brain health. Move to something you enjoy!
Research shows that massages can stimulate the vagus nerve, and increase vagal activity. Foot massages (reflexology) have been shown to increase vagal modulation and heart rate variability, and decrease the “fight or flight” sympathetic response. Massaging the carotid sinus, an area located near the right side of your
throat, can also stimulate the vagus nerve.
9. Socializing and Laughing
Socializing and laughing can reduce your body’s main stress hormone.
Researchers have discovered that reflecting on positive social connections improves vagal tone and increases positive emotions. Laughter has been shown to increase heart-rate variability and improve mood. And vagus nerve stimulation often leads to laughter as a side effect, suggesting that they are connected and influence one another. Safely (post Covid) hang out and laugh with your friends as much as possible!
By stimulating the vagus nerve, you can send a message to your body that it’s time to relax and de-stress, which leads to long-term improvements in mood, wellbeing and resilience!