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Your Autonomic Nervous System & the Polyvagal Ladder

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

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Your Autonomic Nervous System

Your Autonomic Nervous System governs everything about you, basically. It regulates all the internal organs without any conscious direction or effort. It’s involuntary; automatic. Breathing, heart rate, sweating, pupil dilation, internal temperature regulation, digestion and more. These are not functions that you have to direct or plan out. If they were, daily living would probably be a lot more difficult.

Imagine having to be aware of and control your heartbeat. Or your breathing. Or your digestion. Now imagine doing all of these things at the same time. Now imagine doing all of these things at the same time while also knowing the optimal levels of each of these things. And even if you could do all of that, could you also adjust to what is necessary to the specific environment in that specific moment, then adjust to the next environment in the next moment? Probably not.

But that’s what your ANS does. It adjusts to varying levels of safety, danger or life threat. Literal danger, but also perceived danger. Every moment of every day. If we could pull off all of that on a conscious level, we probably wouldn’t be able to also enjoy a Netflix binge at the same time. We have a hard enough time just focusing on the person in front of us and sustaining a conversation! It’s a good thing then that the ANS is outside of our conscious control.

It’s historically been known as two antagonistic systems: sympathetic and parasympathetic. As if these two were competing against each other for dominance. But Dr Stephen Porges explains that it’s more complex than that in his Polyvagal Theory. It turns out there is actually the sympathetic system and two parasympathetic systems that work in concert to benefit the mammalian organism.

The sympathetic system is the flight/fight mobilization biological pathways. The mobilization system is ideal for pushing away a danger and then getting to safety. If you were to notice your flight/fight system being activated, you would probably notice shorter breath, increased heart rate and muscle tension.

The first and oldest parasympathetic system is the immobility system, stretching from the dorsal vagal part of the brainstem all the way to the gut. These pathways are responsible for shutdown, collapsed behaviors during a life threat situation. And the second and newer parasympathetic system is the social engagement system, located in the face and neck and connected to the heart. This system is active when safe and allows for social connection with other safe mammals.

When autonomic shifts happen, the internal organs and bodily resources are repurposed and used for defensive or connective purposes. For example, when in danger and more sympathetically charged, the mouth may go dry. This is because the body no longer needs saliva for chewing when it’s mobilized for running or fighting. The body prioritizes its processes based on what it detects as safe, dangerous or life threatening. When under life threat, all systems are reduced to support basic life maintenance, such as heart rate and breathing. The entire body slows down, imitating a corpse.

Point being, the ANS is always working and doing so outside of our conscious control. It allows you to survive, but also to maintain a basic level of functioning, so that you can then direct your conscious attention elsewhere.

Autonomic states

Our autonomic nervous system can be said to be basically in one of three different states. These are the primary states of the ANS:

  • Safe/Social

  • Flight/Fight

  • Shutdown

There are also three mixed states, which are combinations of the primary states:

  • Freeze (shutdown + flight/fight)

  • Play (safe/social + flight/fight)

  • Stillness (safe/social + shutdown)

These primary and mixed states each evolved within us to enhance the chances of survival. They each have a benefit to the organism in staying alive, which then increases the chances of that organism passing on its own genetic code.

It’s important to recognize these different states and what they look like and feel like. They each have their own experience and being able to differentiate amongst them can make things more manageable, at least cognitively. We'll be spending a lot of time on understanding these primary and mixed states in depth. These are some of the building blocks for this new Polyvagal paradigm.

The Polyvagal ladder

The Polyvagal Ladder is a concept from Deb Dana that can help us to understand how we utilize our primary autonomic states on a mammalian level. The fact that it’s a ladder is essential in understanding how this works - just like with a ladder, you must start from the bottom to get to the top. And to get back down to the bottom, you start from the top. You can also stop in the middle and go up or down from there.

Same with our Polyvagal states. There’s a top to our primary Polyvagal states. Actually, quite literally. The safety pathways (ventral vagal) connect our brainstem to our heart, neck and facial muscles. This is the top of the Polyvagal ladder and is also at the top of our bodies. In the middle of our Polyvagal ladder is the flight/fight system (sympathetic), which is in the spinal cord and the chest, controlling the arms and legs. And at the bottom of the ladder is the shutdown system (dorsal vagal), residing in the gut.

When we look back at things we’ve been through, we often blame ourselves for how we did or did not react. Like, “I should have ____” or “If only I didn’t ______.” But really, it’s not an issue of choice when it comes to our Polyvagal states and what behaviors we utilize from the Polyvagal ladder. It’s a sequence of events, not a menu of options. No one is picking their autonomic state.

Remember - these states are functions of the autonomic nervous system. These states are arrived at without our conscious awareness. therefore, we don't choose what autonomic state we exist in. And we don't choose our potential for socially engaging, running, fighting, hiding or freezing.

If you aren’t safe, you drop down your ladder into the flight/fight system. If you can’t run or fight the danger, you drop down further into your shutdown system. This is a sequence of shifts, not a choice you make. Just like a ladder, we work down and we work up in a sequence. Same with our autonomic states - we shift through them in a sequence. Not as a result of choice.


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