Updated: Jul 28
Autonomic Ladder - A Tool for Regulating the Nervous System
By Dr. Leila Doolittle
Fight or flight, rest or digest, sympathetic or parasympathetic: the original thought concept of the autonomic nervous system. But there are many more complexities to this system, and this article will bring light to another perspective of this fundamental neurological process. The human brain informs us about our body’s needs, and our mood is included in this. It is more significant than we realize, because that is what creates the fight or flight response. As a Chiropractor with specialties in Functional Medicine and Neurology, my goal is to empower you to understand contributing factors to health-related issues by getting to the root cause of the problem or illness. There are many root causes that we could focus on that disrupt health, but the true root concern is trauma leading to limbic system imbalance and a dysregulated autonomic system.
I will explain in this article the science behind our mood shifts and how to regulate them through the nervous system.
Cause of nervous system dysfunction
Every person is holding onto trauma of some sort. With this trauma comes triggers, which can be anything from a smell or sound to a negative feeling or emotion, that causes your body and mind to feel anything other than safe and comfortable. This is important to understand because daily situations or experiences could be a trigger for you, causing your nervous system to react by protecting you and bringing you down on the Autonomic Ladder, which I will explain more about in the next section. These triggers can be worked on by understanding what causes them. Triggers are emotion related.
If emotions are not acknowledged and processed, they can become trapped energy in the body. Emotions are energy in motion. This is why emotional pain and baggage forms as physical pain and other health-related symptoms.
This is referred to as psycho-somatic expression. Now that this is understood, one can see why energy work and energy medicine are so powerful and important. I work to heal others through the natural remedy of energy work and holistic functional medicine.
What is the Autonomic Ladder?
The mind is constantly observing our surroundings and looking for stress or danger cues to prompt the body to protect ourselves. The body’s nervous system is the key behind this. The body is just as capable of informing our moods as our brain is. The thought concept used to describe the shift in our nervous system throughout the day is called the Autonomic Ladder. We move up and down this ladder depending on what happens to or around us.
Dr. Stephen Porges and Deb Dana constructed the concept of the ladder through a theory called the Polyvagal Theory. It is all based on the vagus nerve, cranial nerve 10 that supplies information to and from the heart, lungs, upper digestive tract, and other organs of the chest and abdomen. After conducting research on the vagus nerve, Porges deduced that the Autonomic Nervous System, or ANS, consistently scans one’s environment for signs of safety or danger. This scanning process is known as neuroception. Neuroception happens before the mind perceives environmental factors–automatically prior to the mind’s conscious awareness.
The Autonomic Ladder has three states that the body shifts into and out of
At the top of the ladder is the Ventral Vagal, or the 'safe and social' state. When one is in this state, they feel relaxed, calm, clear headed, productive, happy and safe. You could say they feel connected to the greater world. This includes feeling happy, active, and interested in the world around them because they feel comfortable in their environment. The mind is open and fully functioning, and they are consciously present and 'in the moment.' This state connects them to others and puts them in a social engagement mindset, and they are able to feel compassionate toward others. Neuroception in this state is one of safety.
The next step down on this ladder, the middle, would be the Sympathetic state, or “fight or flight” mode. When in this state, one feels as though they are in danger and need to either fight or run. This mindset comes when their defense mode is activated by a trigger, something that makes them feel unsafe or unsettled. It is a state of mobilization and action. They cognitively feel hypervigilant, One might feel an adrenaline rush, scared, worried, angry, on-edge or ready to run away. Socially they feel out of sync with others and social engagement brings anxiety. They would feel like the world around them is a dangerous, unfriendly, or chaotic place. Neuroception in this state is often of sirens or alerts of danger.
The very last part of the ladder, the bottom, is the Dorsal Vagal, or the “freeze” state. At this point, the body starts shutting down. The mind cannot cope, and the body wants to collapse and wait for help from an outer source. This state is one of immobilization whereas one would feel frozen, numb, foggy, disassociated, alone, depressed, hopeless or shut down. The world does not seem like a safe space and one’s environment becomes too dangerous or upsetting and all comfortability is lost. Neuroception in this last state could be explained as a turtle pulling its head into its shell, one of withdrawal.
Becoming attuned to our nervous system and recognizing which state we’re in can help us be more aware of our ever-changing feelings and moods. In healing the limbic system, the emotion center of the brain and empowering your autonomic nervous system to regulate the shifts to the lower levels on the ladder, minimizing and reducing time spent there. Let's discuss how these different levels affects our bodies.
Effects of autonomic deregulation
Most commonly, daily shifts in the states of the autonomic ladder are slight. Occasionally they can be extreme depending on environmental factors. For the most part, we all have enough resilience to rebound from these shifts and adjust back to a comfortably regulated “safe and social” state of mind. This resilience is dependent on a number of factors, and can be trained and optimized.
There are cases in which returning to the top of the autonomic ladder can be very difficult and one gets “stuck” in the lower states of the ladder, which would be in fight/flight or withdrawal/collapse. This happens with people who have experienced trauma, PTSD, chronic stress on the body, mind, or spirit, or have underlying health issues that interrupt the brain's ability to produce health neurochemicals. When at the bottom of the ladder, when one is the state of withdrawal, exhaustion, or collapse, one will need the energy and fortitude to climb through some sympathetic mobilized energy, a 'purge of emotional energy' to allow release and ultimately healing of the limbic system and rewiring of the autonomic neural pathways.
Autonomically, when in the dorsal vagal collapse state, which is where disassociation resides, the physical body shuts down multiple systems and goes into an autopilot state - this is sometimes measurable via biomarkers such as the heartbeat slowing, the lungs altering to a shallow, reduced breath pattern, and the digestive system dysregulating leading to altered gut functions. If one is stuck in this state too long, systemic organ system issues develop and plethora of symptoms arise.
But just as the brain has the ability to rewire, the autonomic nervous system can also establish new patterns. These new patterns can help the brain become stronger so it doesn’t shift between states nearly as easily and so it can heal from past triggers that sent it into collapse. This is where the healing process comes in.
Journey of Healing to Reshaping
Reshaping the nervous system to avoid getting stuck in the sympathetic or withdrawal states involves bringing mindful attention to life’s “glimmers”, which is a term used to describe the experiences, interactions, or resources that help us feel safe and secure. Integrating them into our daily lives as much as possible would be extremely beneficial, as that is the key to regulating the nervous system and sustaining a happy and stress-free life.
To begin healing in order to reshape your precious nervous system, open your heart and mind. This first step takes quite a bit of awareness and practice. Soften your armor; the seemingly indestructible armor you have built around yourself to protect you from harm.
The armor you envelop yourself in to "toughen up" to life because of traumatic experiences in your past (a painful breakup or fight with a partner, job layoff, abuse, and so forth). This process will allow your walls and shields to take a moment of rest in order for you to relax and embrace a peaceful and stress-free life. This type of lifestyle is crucial for a regulated and healthy nervous system. The shifts of your autonomic ladder will be less extreme, and your environment will become much more pleasant.
It all comes from allowing yourself to feel the emotions and pain you've been avoiding or suppressing. Feel it and figure out exactly what is it you're feeling or hurting over. Then get to the root cause of it by meditating or sitting with your thoughts, as well as by talking to a therapist, loved one, or friend. Lastly, release this pain and emotion by focusing on where you want to be instead of where you have been. This is what we healthcare professionals call the "Great Reset". We refer to this as the Great Reset because of how it is a crucial component and foundation to all aspects of health. This is a process that takes time, it cannot happen overnight. Invest energy and time in training your autonomic nervous system so you will have emotional resilience and fortitude when events occur that put it to the test.
Take time to figure out what your "glimmers" are in your life and work to incorporate them more. A cozy blanket, a good cup of tea, and a book or a serene hike in nature are mine! Yours can be anything that makes you feel safe, comfortable, and happy. Embrace these, and your stress levels will decrease tremendously.
There are also therapies such as biodynamic craniosacral therapy that can help your autonomic nervous system rewire as well. Book online with me by clicking the following hyperlinked listed therapies for Craniosacral Therapy or Chiropractic + Therapy and mention the code "BLOG" for a 20% coupon off of each of the above listed therapies - limit: two coupon codes per person.
I hope learning about your nervous system and Autonomic Ladder has inspired you to take steps to improve your life so they can be regulated. It takes time to consciously be aware of when your body "suits up" its armor to protect itself. Self-awareness will be learned as your healing journey progresses, and it's going to be very important for trusting yourself and your own internal wisdom (intuition). You can do this.
Dr. Leila Doolittle
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