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Deb Dana's Essential Polyvagal Theory Contributions: Bridging Science and Trauma Recovery

The Polyvagal Theory can be challenging to understand as it is dense and highly academic.

Fortunately, Deb Dana has translated the PVT language, making it accessible to everyone. Deb works closely with Dr. Steven Porges, who created the Polyvagal Theory, and is one of the co-founders of the Polyvagal Institute (where I serve on the Editorial Board). In this blog, I'll highlight and explain some of Deb Dana's significant contributions to the Polyvagal Theory.


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Deb Dana's Polyvagal Ladder Metaphor

The Polyvagal Ladder Metaphor, conceptualized by Deb Dana, is foundational in understanding the Polyvagal Theory. This metaphor illustrates how our autonomic states are structured and the order in which they evolved.

  • The top of this metaphorical ladder is the safe and social state, linked to the brainstem and extending to our face, neck, and heart. This evolved last.

  • The middle rung represents the sympathetic flight/fight system, located in our spinal cord. This state evolved second.

  • The bottom rung symbolizes the shutdown state, associated with our gut. This state evolved first and is the oldest.

This ladder demonstrates how these states are physically stacked within our bodies and their sequential nature in response to stimuli.

Sequential Movement Through States

The Polyvagal Ladder is a metaphor that explains how our autonomic nervous system moves through different states in a specific order.

For instance, a sudden loud noise might cause someone to drop from a calm and connected state (ventral vagal safety) to a fight or flight response (sympathetic mobilization). This is not a conscious decision or a random reaction but a sequential drop triggered by external cues. This individual would reversely climb back up the ladder from sympathetic to safety.

If you exist in a traumatized state, understanding the sequential nature of the ladder metaphor may help validate and normalize your past and present experiences. Therapy clients often find this concept normalizing, helping them to relieve their judgment and blame.

Free resource: the Polyvagal Ladder

I use the ladder metaphor consistently in my content. I actually created a Polyvagal ladder sheet for you. Download it from the free site Members Center.


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Triggers and Glimmers from Deb Dana

Deb Dana introduces the concepts of triggers and glimmers in her book "The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy."

(the links to Deb's books will take you to Amazon. Purchases through these links will give me a portion of the sale at no extra cost to you.)

Triggers

"Triggers" are events that overwhelm the vagal brake and activate our defensive states, either mobilizing us into fight/flight mode or pushing us into dorsal vagal shutdown. This concept is particularly relevant for individuals with trauma, as triggers can be unpredictable and sometimes benign, yet they evoke strong autonomic responses.

Triggers occur when the vagal brake is not able to relax, reengage, and maintain ventral vagal regulation. Triggers are a result of a neural challenge that is too big for the flexibility of the system. They bring a neuroception of danger or life-threat, and the autonomic nervous system activates a survival response. These cues of danger prompt either a sympathetic mobilization or a dorsal vagal shutdown. -Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Glimmers

"Glimmers," on the other hand, are moments or cues that activate our safety state. They are micro-moments of ventral vagal activation that can shift a nervous system from survival mode to a state of autonomic regulation. Focusing on these moments can gradually strengthen the safety state and the vagal brake.

The ventral vagal system guides our experience of glimmers. The neuroception of safety creates the possibility of relaxing into a moment of connection to self, to others, or to the environment. Cues of safety bring glimmers that are often sensed in micro-moments of ventral vagal activation. Glimmers can help calm a nervous system in survival mode and bring a return of autonomic regulation… Bringing attention to these small moments moves the system toward a tipping point, and multiple micro-moments may become significant enough to create an autonomic shift. -Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

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Home Away from Home concept from Deb Dana

Deb Dana's "home away from home" concept suggests that our natural 'home' should be the ventral vagal safety state.

However, many individuals often find themselves stuck in other states like flight, fight, freeze, appease, or fawn. These states can become familiar and somewhat comforting due to their predictability.

The goal is gradually spending more time in the safety state, making it dominant. Your vagal brake will strengthen as you spend more time in your safety state. As your vagal brake strengthens, stuck traumatized states will soften and relieve.


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Deb Dana's "Story Follows State" Polyvagal Theory Concept

Another significant contribution from Dana is the idea that "story follows state." This concept teaches that our autonomic nervous system's state influences our thoughts. (It also influences our sensations, impulses, emotions, and behaviors.)

Trauma-trained therapists are taught that a foundation of effective work is understanding “perception is more important than reality.” Personal perception, not the actual facts of an experience, creates posttraumatic consequences. Polyvagal Theory demonstrates that even before the brain makes meaning of an incident, the autonomic nervous system has assessed the environment and initiated an adaptive survival response. Neuroception precedes perception. Story follows state. -Deb Dana, The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy

Mental health interventions often focus on changing thoughts, but the primary mover is our autonomic state. Addressing the state of our autonomic nervous system can be more effective than solely focusing on cognitive processes. However, top-down interventions can be helpful, too.


 

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Download my free ebook: Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm

My ebook will teach you the Polyvagal Theory simply and clearly. Then, it connects the theory to trauma. Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm will give you the knowledge you need to create a new understanding of yourself that is free of shame, blame, or judgment.

Sign up for my email list below to download the book!




 

Q&A

Q: What is the Polyvagal Ladder Metaphor, and why is it important?

A: The Polyvagal Ladder Metaphor, introduced by Deb Dana, represents how our autonomic states evolve and are structured in our bodies, illustrating the sequential movement through these states.

Q: How do triggers and glimmers influence our autonomic nervous system?

A: Triggers activate our defensive states, leading to sympathetic fight or flight and dorsal vagal shutdown, while glimmers activate the safety state.

Q: What does the concept "Story Follows State" signify in Polyvagal Theory?

A: "Story Follows State," a concept highlighted by Deb Dana, signifies that our thoughts and narratives are secondary to the state of our autonomic nervous system.


 

Quotes from this article:

If you exist in a traumatized state, understanding the sequential nature of the ladder metaphor may help validate and normalize your past and present experiences.
...many individuals often find themselves stuck in other states like flight, fight, freeze, appease, or fawn. These states can become familiar and somewhat comforting due to their predictability.
Mental health interventions often focus on changing thoughts, but the primary mover is our autonomic state.

 

​Do you trust in your power to self-regulate?


woman-cloud-meditation

Your body is compelled to self-regulate, but trauma stops this process. Do you trust that you have the innate power to self-regulate, release your trauma, and live more calmly, confidently, and connected?

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