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In this week’s episode of Trauma Chat, Laura Reagan, LCSW-C discussed a theory that was created by Dr. Stephen Porges called Polyvagal Theory. Passionate about this theory, Deb Dana, LCSW, has played a vital role in translating the language of this theory into terms that more people will be able to understand. Deb Dana created the concept of the Polyvagal Ladder in order to showcase the different states of the nervous system. 

In last week’s episode, Laura discussed the Window of Tolerance, which is a concept created by Dan Siegal. The Polyvagal Ladder and the Window of Tolerance are related because they both help us to understand what is going on in our brains when our trauma responses are activated. 

* To listen to the full episode of Trauma Chat episode eleven click here, or keep reading for an overview of episode eleven. 

The Polyvagal Ladder is based on the fact that our Vagus Nerve regulates both our trauma threat responses, and the system of our body and brain that calms us down and helps us return to a relaxed state where we can be “safe and social.” 

The Steps of the Polyvagal Ladder

 At the top of the ladder is “safe and social.” When people are on the third step of the ladder it is because they are in the ventral vagal state. In this state people are    able to connect with others because they can feel tied to the present and they do not feel as if they are under attack.

In the middle of the ladder is when people are in sympathetic activation. When people are on the middle step of the ladder it is because their fight or flight response is activated and their nervous system senses that there are threats in a person’s environment. 

On the last step of the ladder is dorsal vagal activation. When people are on the last step of the ladder it is because they are in a state of what is called hypoarousal. In this state people often feel frozen, shut down, and like they cannot move or think. They also have trouble connecting with others because the world feels fuzzy meaning other people can feel illusory.

Takeaways from the Polyvagal Ladder

The Polyvagal Ladder explains that when we are in a shutdown state, we can’t get back up into the safe and social zone until we go through the sympathetic activation because part of what brings us out of that shutdown state is getting more sympathetic activation. Being in a very angry or very anxious state is uncomfortable, so sometimes we can try to calm ourselves back down to the point that we go back into the dorsal vagal hypoarousal state.

The desire to no longer be anxious or angry can cause us to get stuck between the fight or flight and the numb, “stuck” state. When we are stuck going between the bottom two levels of the ladder, we are never able to reach the safe and social zone at the top of the ladder. Part of the process of coming out of the shutdown state is to move into that activated, anxious, or angry state, before you can move into the calmer state.

Oftentimes we don’t like to feel anxious or angry so we can be more comfortable in the shutdown state, but we can’t be relational from that place. Just knowing that being in the uncomfortable nervous state is on the road to getting you where you want to go can be helpful in pushing through it before turning to something like drugs or alcohol to numb those uncomfortable feelings. 

*Listen to the full episode of Trauma Chat episode eleven here

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Post Details

Publish Date

December 30, 2021

About the Author

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C is an integrative trauma therapist and owner of a group practice, the Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing. She is also the host of Therapy Chat and Trauma Chat podcasts and the founder of the Trauma Therapist Network, a website for learning information about trauma and finding resources and help for trauma.

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Childhood Trauma

Complex PTSD

Nervous System Regulation

Polyvagal Theory