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?