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Where Are You On the Ladder?

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

In these trying times, it's important to recognize our physiological states and exercise self-regulation.

In the wellness world, practitioners often refer to the vagus nerve, a part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that signals safety to the body. Exercises like deep breathing and yoga are known engage this parasympathetic nerve of the ANS and this moves the body into what is commonly referred to as the rest and digest mode. This work is important since most of us have a great deal of stress in our lives and we tend to be stuck in more of a fight/flight sympathetic state. Having a deeper understanding of the ANS and how to hack it is especially important in these challenging times.

In my work teaching mindfulness to children, I talk about the physiological responses we can have to stress. To explore this, I use the Polyvagal Theory proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges. He outlines four physiological states within the autonomic nervous system that are essential for survival, these include:

1) safe and social

2) flight

3) fight

4) shutdown

He also identifies 3 circuits of the autonomic nervous system that will have different physiological effects in the body:

1) ventral vagal parasympathetic circuit = safe and social

2) sympathetic mobilization = fight and flight

3) dorsal vagal parasympathetic = shutdown

Within the parasympathetic response, the ventral vagal circuit connects with the front of the body, allowing us to show safety and kindness in our face and we project openness and safety. The dorsal vagal circuit on the other hand does the opposite, it encourages the body to close up into a more defensive posture.

According to this theory, we are always in one or a combination of these four states. Combinations of these states are constantly happening and can bring feelings of intense joy or discomfort. When we play games, we are in a safe and social combined with sympathetic fight or flight, a clear example of this would be the game of tag. Some argue that freezing is a sympathetic state, but Dr. Porges argues that it's actually a combination of fight and/or flight with parasympathetic immobilization. Freezing is also distinguished from sympathetic shutdown where the body goes completely limp (further into parasympathetic), you "escape" by numbing the body, dissociating the mind, preparing for the worst with the least amount of pain.

It's important to understand that the goal of using Polyvagal Theory is not to succeed in getting to a higher state on the ladder, but to be able to move more easily from one state to another in a given situation

Why the ladder?

Porges believes that in order to get to a safe and social physiological state, we need to move through other states in a specific order. Along the way, we can get stuck so learning to move in and out of each state with ease takes practice. I'm afraid of heights so having safe and social at the top of a ladder seemed ironic at first glance, but it's important to understand that it's not a hierarchy of where we find the most comfort, but where we have the most access to our higher cortical structures.

You've heard the advice that couples should never go to bed angry, this fits perfectly into Polyvagal Theory. If you've gotten into a fight with your partner, it might work best for you to first walk it off (flight), this will allow more access to your personal thoughts and feelings. When you can move further up the ladder, you'll need to return and make eye-contact which will send a cue of safety and shows you're ready to rebuild connection with your loved one. The process of getting to safe and social is something you do together, you co-regulate, offering cues that tell each other that you are both safe. Hopefully, from there you will have access to the parts of the brain that allow you to see each others' point of view, prompting cues of empathy that encourage even more of a parasympathetic response. When you go to bed from a safe and social state, you can then fully surrender to sleep (shutdown) and allow the body and brain to recuperate. A restful state will then strengthen your ability to take on new challenges the following day.

it's not a hierarchy of where we find the most comfort, but where we have the most access to our higher cortical structures

The process of moving up the ladder becomes very difficult if we are in a deep shut down state due to unresolved trauma. Many trauma experts like Bessel von Der Kolk, have incorporated Polyvagal Theory into their work because they know that understanding both the physiological and psychological effects of trauma is crucial. Many dealing with trauma are in a dissociated state (shutdown with sympathetic response). To get to a state where connecting easily and co-regulating with others is possible involves intense practice moving through fight and then flight and then toward safe and social. This is very difficult to do alone and where a highly-trained therapist can be very helpful.

Even without unresolved trauma, incorporating Polyvagal Theory into your life can be fascinating, challenging and powerful. Polyvagal theory fits well into mindfulness practice because it's about noticing our physiological responses to stimuli and connecting it with our thoughts and feelings. It's important to understand that the goal of using Polyvagal Theory is not to get to a higher state on the ladder, but to be able to move more easily from one state to another in a given situation. In Vagal Theory language, strengthening your vagal brake is used to describe accessing the vagus nerve and getting it to engage more efficiently.

A good place to start finding some control is identifying which state or combination of states you tend to use as an escape. It is said that safe and social is our home, everyone's home, but that we all have our "home away from home" in another state. I know for myself, my escape is in shutdown and motivating myself to get out and move around is sometimes a process. Since we are in a pandemic, we are all feeling threatened to some degree and there is a stronger pull to go to our home away from home. Some athletic friends of mine have been biking or running more than ever, their home away from home is likely in a ventral vagal parasympathetic flight mode. But more often what I'm hearing is that the pandemic has a lot of families stuck together but miles apart on separate screens for hours and hours. So more than ever, it's time to recognize what state we have a tendency to go to and to make sure we challenge ourselves to move into areas where we are less comfortable in order to be be come stronger and more flexible moving up and down the ladder.

Here are ways you can train your vagal brake and bring yourself up the ladder:

Listen to the Polyvagal Podcast. When I discovered Polyvagal Theory, I started listening to this podcast and found it very helpful. Be sure to start from the beginning where host Justin Sunseiri provides an excellent overview.

Make a more conscious effort to get into a restorative shutdown state. In our homes, we tend to dissociate with news and social media and while this might feel good, it's not the quality rest we so need. Instead, come down the ladder to shutdown without getting stuck in the middle along the way. Set up safe cues with music, candles, cozy spaces, and calming essential oils. This atmosphere tells the body that it is safe and your body can go into more of a restorative mode.

Connect with nature. Being in a green space and paying attention to the sights and sounds is one the best ways to cue the body to safety.

Practice the right kind of meditation. Meditation is usually shunned by the people who need it the most! If you know that you have a tendency to mobilize when you're stressed, challenge yourself to find stillness. And if stillness is something that you are very comfortable with, practicing meditation with the eyes open and doing walking meditation might be more beneficial.

Befriend yourself. We all have that dysregulating inner-critic that is serving no great purpose to us right now, but know this and understand what it's doing to your mental and physical health. Practice self-compassion, so that your dominant inner voice is one that offers safe and social cues that bring you back up the ladder.

Mentally practice moving in and out of each state. Think of a story from your day, something that happened that made you react a certain way, and then replay that whole scene, imagining how you might respond in safe and social, flight, fight and shutdown.

Notice how you feel when you're around people wearing masks. Seeing someone with their face covered feels like a threat to most of us. When we can't see someone's face, we don't have the opportunity to see safe and social cues. Your instinct might be to avert your eyes. Notice this. Maybe try to fight this urge and look for the more subtle cues of safety in the portions of the face that you can see.

Practice physical distancing, not social distancing. Smiling and making eye contact are more important than ever. If we view others as a threat, this affects our ability to read social cues and we see neutral faces as aggressive and fearful faces as angry. So smile at strangers and say hello and notice the effects of this on the body.

Make eye contact with the people you live with. When you're at home, encourage each other to get into a safe and social state, we all need to co-regulate right now. And if you feel you're the only person in your family making an effort to connect, share this post with them!

Hold your people (if it's safe). Hugging benefits both people involved and can quickly bring you to a regulated state. If you have kids, tell them that holding them makes you feel safe and secure too. If you have a reluctant hugger, go easy, hugging may trigger a sympathetic response, so affectionate nudges, an arm squeeze or pat on the back might be better.

Educate your children on the autonomic nervous system. When someone else in your family speaks the language of Polyvagal Theory you can co-regulate on a more conscious level, supporting each other in the process. During mindfulness sessions with children, I usually bring out our mascot (Marshmallow the Snake) and look at how he responds to stressful situations and then we place him at the corresponding place on the ladder. The children love this part of the sessions and I am so happy to share this self-regulation tool. You can book a virtual mindfulness session with me and I can help you get started with this!

Be with animals. If you're living on your own, you might be missing out on those hugs. A dog or a cat can offer the safe social cues and the physical connection that you're needing. If you don't have a pet and you like animals, set up visits with the pets you know. (Pets are unlikely spreaders of COVID-19, but please use your own judgement).

Stimulate your vagus nerve. Bring yourself out of a sympathetic state by singing, humming, taking long exhales, massaging the back of the neck or front of the face and behind the ears, splashing cold water on your face, and practice heart coherence breathing with an app like Respirelax or with this Youtube video.

I hope you find something here that will work for you. I would love to hear your experience with this, please leave a comment below or get in touch.

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