The polyvagal ladder exercise
Continuing on from my previous blog, Deb Dana, clinician and Coordinator of the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium in the Kinsey Institute in the US, has taken Stephen Porges theory and found ways to explain it simply and powerfully. The polyvagal ladder exercise involves us imagining our nervous system as a ladder, with ventral vagal at the top, sympathetic in the middle, and dorsal vagal at the bottom. (See image above).
A neuroception of safety brings us into a ventral vagal state, at the top of the “ladder”. This is a state of social engagement and connection. From this state we might say the world is a safe place and describe ourselves as happy, active and interested.
If something happens to alert us to danger (e.g. we are driving and we hear police car sirens or our boss asks for a meeting in a stern tone), we go into a sympathetic nervous system state of mobilisation. This is the state of fight or flight and is evolutionarily linked to mammals. We feel adrenalin, feel anxious or angry and ready for action. The world may feel dangerous, chaotic, unfriendly. We may feel we need to protect ourselves.
Going down a step on the ladder, if we sense signs of extreme danger, neurologically we go into the dorsal vagal state of immobilisation. Think of a turtle drawing its head inside its shell. We might feel frozen, numb, not here, alone, hopeless. From here the world is not safe.
In Deb Dana’s exercise, we start by writing down our typical feelings and behaviours when we’re in a sympathetic state, often using words and phrases like out of control, angry, confrontational, fearful, and panicking. We do the same for our experiences of being in dorsal vagal, which may include silent, numb, hopeless, helpless, shut down, and feeling abandoned and unwanted. Finally, we recall times of being firmly planted at the top of the ladder—the ventral vagal zone. These typically include such descriptors as openhearted, engaged, curious, connected, calm, and happy.
We then complete this exercise by finishing two sentences for each state:
“I am…” and “The world is….”
I find that most clients are astonished by the dramatic difference in their core narratives, depending on the zone they inhabit. In a ventral state, people typically characterise their story as something like “I belong” and “the world is welcoming and filled with opportunity.” In sympathetic, they may say, “I feel crazy, panicked. I’m trapped in a world that’s unfriendly and scary.” When in dorsal, the response is something like: “I’m invisible, unlovable, lost, alone. The world is cold and empty.”
Now clients have both a mental picture and a language for their “ladder” at any given moment. The aim of this exercise is that over time, we learn to shift our default autonomic nervous system setting from a place of danger and distrust to a state of openhearted safety.
Let’s give an example
Let’s begin with a Sunday morning where you wake up and head out for a daytrip with your family. Your autonomic nervous system is in a neutral to slightly pleasant balance with your sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system. You are about to get into your car when you get a phone call from your boss that there is an urgent deadline. She says you need to come into work, immediately. Her tone of voice is firm, even harsh. She is not expecting you to say “no”. Although nothing physically has changed in your surroundings, what is happening with your body?
If you feel physically or mentally threatened, you will naturally feel anxious. This can feel like your heart racing, sweating, feeling short of breath, and even sensations of physical pain. That is an expected reaction to a stressor.
So, you make your apologies to your family, and with a huge sense of resentment you leave them to enjoy the trip without you and head into work.
It is now Monday morning, and you did the best that you could at the weekend, which was actually a pretty good job. When you arrive at work, your boss is still in a bad mood and not only does she not thank you, she is still aggressive and puts more work on your desk.
You feel trapped and another rush of stress hormones courses through your body. You are justifiably angry. You are not only feeling unappreciated, you feel like you will never be good enough and have no idea how this situation will change. Anger is anxiety with a chemical kick that is intended to increase your chances of survival.
Your boss sees the expression on your face and makes a comment about “the need to be a team player”. You think about the fact that you are still in the probationary first 12 month period of your new job and now it looks as though you are going to get fired.
What is going to happen next? You give up. You may quit your job on the spot or just not put in the effort since you are going to be asked to leave anyway. You don’t have the courage to stand up to her and see if this is all in your imagination, if she is just in a bad mood, or if there is a compromise. You are now frozen.
Looking back, looking at what you know was going on in your nervous system at all the different stages, how could you have responded differently?!
See Deb Dana’s excellent website: https://www.rhythmofregulation.com/ and the pdf which I give out to many of my clients: https://www.rhythmofregulation.com/resources/Beginner’s%20Guide.pdf
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See also: Polyvagal Theory,