Your body naturally moves in and out of 3 distinct neurobiological states throughout the day via the autonomic nervous system. This movement is automatic, below conscious awareness, and survival oriented. Think of a ladder (Dana, 2018) with those 3 main body states being at different points on the ladder. Top, middle and bottom. All movements up and down the ladder are in service of your body's survival.
The autonomic nervous system also regulates the digestive system and is involved in controlling the cardiovascular, respiratory, immune and endocrine systems. Therefore, as you traverse these different points on your ladder your physiology changes accordingly.
At the top of your ladder, you are most likely to feel safe and sound. You feel like you can engage with life - live, laugh, love, learn. This doesn't mean you are always calm or happy, but it does mean that you respond to a situation in a way that fits with the context. The world feels friendly enough and you can therefore take more risks and you might feel reasonably open-minded and adaptable. People might notice this in your behaviour and demeanour. This is known as your Ventral Vagal State.
When you start to drop down your ladder you enter into a Sympathetic State (or fight or flight) within your body. You might find yourself more easily agitated, anxious, panicky or fearful. It's harder to concentrate, be friendly or patient, learn, sleep, take a risk or adapt to change from within this state. The world somehow feels a bit more unfriendly or even dangerous. Again, people around you will probably notice this in your actions and in your demeanour. Because these states are neurobiological, there are changes within your body as you move down your ladder. Your breathing gets shallower, your heart rate quickens, your digestive system speeds up to lighten the load and ready you for fight or flight.
If you drop down your ladder even further, your body enters into a parasympathetic Dorsal Vagal State. Here you might start to withdraw or disconnect from yourself or the world. You might feel quiet, low, depressed, shut down or numb. Some people have dissociative responses when they are in this bodily state. The world around them feels less real, or they feel less real. You might feel more sleepy, more lethargic and you are more likely to turn down social invitations or are less likely to turn up for your favourite activities. Your digestive system slows down to conserve energy, you might feel nauseas. Your breathing and heart rate are slower.
Your body is designed to travel up and down this ladder all day every day, so that experiencing low or more withdrawn moods or some level of stress and anxiety is entirely natural. If you've experienced trauma or distress in life, and particularly if it has been chronic, your ladder might feel more like a rollercoaster. This can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Holding down a job, parenting, being in relationships, studying, managing chores - all these things can feel impossible and you might be feeling very powerless and/or hopeless.
Combining EMDR and trauma psychotherapy is one way to start putting brakes on the rollercoaster. Working with a trauma trained therapist can help you to start understanding your body's rhythms, crazy as they might seem to you, and begin to find ways to shift states when you need to. There are also things you can do yourself. See below for some ideas.
Your autonomic nervous system is shaped by your life experiences from the moment you are born. It also constantly responds to what's going on around you, as well as picking up signals from within your body. If you have experienced adversity, trauma and chronic distress, your nervous system is more likely to be highly geared towards protective states. It constantly senses danger in the world - even a look or a tone of voice can send you into an agitated or fearful state. This can result in frequently feeling way too much or far too little, or a constant swinging between the two states. Think of it as a dial turned to the max. Life can feel exhausting and out of control. Here's how to start recognising your states.
Your feelings can most easily match the situation when you are in your ventral vagal state. From this state, the world can feel friendly enough and you have the possibility of moving most flexibly between different emotional states. Accessing both reason and emotion at the same time is possible here. Your body can access it's most optimal state. This gives you the possibility of being curious, learning, playing, loving, showing affection, being intimate, adapting to new situations, soothing yourself or others if necessary, being present, sleeping, digesting well and so on.
From a state of sympathetic arousal, the world feels less friendly and you may quickly switch gears. You might sense threat - even in a tone of voice, feel unease, fear, anxiety, panic, agitation, impatience, rage or overwhelm. In this state, you can feel more frantic and chaotic. It is harder to concentrate, listen, be friendly, relax, be patient, stay calm, or respond in a way that fits with the situation. Your sleep might be disturbed, you might experience panic attacks, have an enhanced startle response or start avoiding people or places.
When your dorsal vagal state is activated, the world can feel darker and you are likely to start to withdraw. This might be in small ways, like not engaging in the things you normally engage in. You might cut yourself off from fun, friends, and life. At a more extreme end, you might be experiencing severe depression, immobility, feeling unable to function. This state might last for a few hours or for months at a time. Dissociation may occur for you here - feeling disconnected from yourself and the world, feeling unreal.
If you can learn to recognise your states, you can begin exploring what takes you there in the first place and learn how to help yourself back out. The ways out are surprisingly basic. Here are some suggestions:
Journalling - this can be a great way to track your states and become more familiar with what takes you in and out of them. Journalling about feelings and thoughts also helps us externalise feelings, connect with them in new ways, and it's possible to find distance from them through this process. Using what you've journalled about for your therapy sessions can also be a great way to integrate new ways of thinking and feeling about things.
Yoga Your autonomic nervous system can be regulated through yoga and this has been shown through research.
Breathwork The quickest way to regulate the nervous system is through the breath. In a sympathetic state your breathing is shallower and faster and in a dorsal vagal state your breathing is very slow. Learning breathwork strategies helps your body into a ventral vagal state quickly and anywhere.
People Connecting with safe people who we trust and feel supported by is a way back into a ventral vagal state. This might be a touch, a hug, a text, a photo, a memory or a chat.
Pets When we stroke a beloved pet or look at photos of them, it helps the body to start moving towards a ventral vagal state. Taking care of animals also connects us with our nurturing qualities, which can help move us out of anxiety and fear states. Being with animals we deem safe has been shown to bring down our heart rate.
Exercise & Movement can release excess energy or mobilize you from a shut down dorsal vagal state. If you are feeling very immobilized or collapsed, you might need to start small - just moving your limbs, for instance. If you can manage more than that, a walk in an area that feels safe is a brilliant way to start to move towards a ventral vagal state. Group exercise activities, if you can manage them, can be a great way to feel connected to the world and release sympathetic energy at the same time.
Play helps us release tension and fun helps us out of sympathetic states. Perhaps all you can manage is watching a comedy on TV or watching an old video on your phone that always makes you laugh. But even the smallest smile can help begin the shift into ventral vagal. Expressive arts, socialising, and sports are other ways for us to play. I'm sure you can think of the ways you like to have fun.
Water is an effective way to help the body climb the ladder into a ventral vagal state. Warm water helps numbed out bodies feel soothed and come alive. Cool or cold water activates the diving reflex, meaning your heart rate slows. This can be effective if you are feeling angry, frantic or anxious.
Humming & Singing Because a part of your autonomic nervous system passes through your vocal cords, humming and singing allows you to influence your nervous system state.
Imagination The mind doesn't know the difference between what's real, what's a memory, and what's in the imagination. We can take advantage of this by imagining pleasant places, imagining being with people we love or imagining taking part in our favourite activities to stimulate a climb up the ladder. Using guided imagery and visualisation can be very powerful.