The Polyvagal Ladder: A Technique for Balancing Autonomic Nervous Systems in Therapy

polyvagal ladder

The Polyvagal Ladder

We all want to sleep better, but sometimes it feels like our bodies are working against us. If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re not alone.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of balancing our autonomic nervous systems (ANS). The ANS is responsible for things like heart rate, digestion, and respiration. It’s also responsible for the fight-or-flight response that can keep us up at night.

The Polyvagal Ladder is a technique that can help us balance our ANS and get the rest we need. Here’s how it works:

What is the Polyvagal ladder and how does it work?

The Polyvagal ladder is a visual tool created by Deb Dana to help people in therapy become more aware of the different states of the autonomic nervous system. The ladder consists of three main sections: the Ventral Vagal System (or Social Engagement System) at the top, the Sympathetic system in the middle, and the Dorsal Vagal System at the bottom.

  • The top of the ladder is the most advanced and regulates the heart and breath, providing a sense of wellbeing and connectedness.
  • The middle of the ladder is associated with the “fight or flight” response, where we feel anxious and overwhelmed.
  • The bottom of the ladder is the Dorsal Vagal System, which has a positive function of helping us relax, but is associated with feelings of depletion and hopelessness.

The Polyvagal ladder is a great visual for self-regulation and is useful for helping us become mindful of what moves us up and down the ladder.

Polyvagal ladder explained

At the top of the Polyvagal Ladder is the social engagement response, which is associated with feelings of safety and relaxation. When we are in this state, our autonomic nervous system is balanced, and we feel connected to others and able to rest and sleep more easily.

Moving up the ladder, the next stage is the fight-or-flight response, which is associated with increased heart rate and respiration and prepares us for action. While the fight-or-flight response can be useful in some situations, if we are stuck in this response for prolonged periods, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and contribute to disrupted sleep.

At the bottom of the Polyvagal Ladder is the freeze response, which is associated with feelings of dissociation and shutdown. This response is triggered when we perceive a threat that we cannot escape or fight off. When we are stuck in the freeze response, we may struggle to fall asleep or experience disrupted sleep.

polyvagal ladder

Benefits of using the Polyvagal ladder in therapy

1. Ability to regulate stress responses

Using the Polyvagal ladder can be a powerful aid in stress regulation because it helps us to recognize the different states of arousal we are experiencing in any given moment. Through this knowledge, we can start to recognize what our triggers and glimmers are for each state and begin to make a profound difference in our overall nervous system state.

By understanding the physiological and mental/emotional effects of each state, we are better able to learn how to use emotion regulation strategies to bring ourselves back to a regulated state at the top of the ladder.

We are then enabled to reduce the activation of the stress pathway, known as the HPA axis, and decrease the inflammation effects on the body caused by stress hormones, sex hormones, and the thyroid. Ultimately, this can lead to a decrease in overall stress levels, enabling us to better manage stressful situations.

2. Improved ability to engage in social interactions

Using the Polyvagal ladder to improve social interactions in therapy helps to create a sense of safety, which is necessary for effective learning. By understanding the different states on the ladder and helping a person move up the ladder, they can better connect with others, regulate their heart rate and breathing rate, and find a sense of wellbeing.

When a person is able to reach the top of the ladder, the Ventral Vagal State, the person is better able to tune out irrelevant sensory information and focus on what’s important at the time. This helps them to better understand the “big picture” and become more socially engaged.

Through this process, they are able to create a mental picture to make sense of their experiences, which leads to better communication, problem solving, and social behavior.

3. Developed sense of safety and security

When a child is able to feel safe and secure, they can climb up the ladder and reach the top, the Ventral Vagal State, a state of social engagement and connection. In this state, the child can tune out irrelevant sensory information and focus on important tasks, as well as experience a general feeling of well-being. Through this state, the child is better able to identify physical sensations, accurately express emotions, and make sense of their experiences.

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4. Improved self-regulation ability

The Polyvagal Ladder provides a framework for understanding how different states of arousal can impact self-regulation ability. Through this theory, we can help children to move up the ladder and improve their self-regulation ability.

The journey starts with co-regulation, where children learn to regulate their emotions together with trusted adults. This creates an internal narrative of co-regulation and helps them to learn and practice self-regulation. Eventually, this leads to a Ventral Vagal state, which is the optimal state for self-regulation. In this state, children have a feeling of safety and connection with the world around them, and experience physiological benefits like regulated heart rate, improved digestion, and better immune responses. With these benefits, children can access their executive functions more effectively, leading to improved self-regulation ability.

5. Greater ability to connect and empathize with others

Using the Polyvagal ladder can improve empathy and connection by teaching individuals to identify physical sensations and experiences, use emotional vocabulary to express and make sense of internal experiences, identify the triggers or issues that led to the overwhelming experience, create a mental picture that helps them make sense of the experience, and generate a cohesive cognitive experience of their story. By understanding and co-regulating with the autonomic nervous system, individuals can move up the polyvagal ladder which allows them to access the prefrontal cortex of the brain and connect with others in a healthier way.

When people are in the ventral vagal state, they can better recognize their own and others’ emotions and respond in a more appropriate manner without feeling overwhelmed. This provides more stability for the individual and promotes better connection and relationships.

6. Enhanced ability to cope with trauma and flashbacks

The Polyvagal ladder is a conceptual model based on the understanding of how the autonomic nervous system works and how it responds to stress and trauma. It provides a way to understand how our bodies respond to the external environment and, in particular, how it helps us to cope with trauma and flashbacks.

Using the Polyvagal ladder enhances coping ability with trauma and flashbacks by providing a framework to understand how the body responds to stress and trauma. It helps us to recognize the signs of the fight, flight, and freeze responses and provides us with strategies to better manage our responses and move toward healing. Additionally, it provides us with an understanding of the importance of relationships and connection to safety in order to heal.

How can the Polyvagal Ladder be used in therapy?

The Polyvagal Ladder can be used in therapy to help clients become more aware of their nervous system states and to help them self-regulate. Step-by-step, therapists can help clients map out their own Polyvagal Ladder and become more conscious of the changes in their body when they move up and down the ladder.

First, the therapist will help the client to visualize the Polyvagal Ladder. By mapping out the Polyvagal Ladder, clients can gain insights into their nervous system states and become conscious of how their body is responding to different situations. This can help them to self-regulate and eventually learn to move up the ladder, more of the time.

Polyvagal ladder exercises

The Polyvagal Ladder Exercise is developed by Deb Dana to help us better understand and navigate our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) using the framework of Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory. The exercise involves imagining our ANS as a ladder, with ventral vagal at the top, sympathetic in the middle, and dorsal vagal at the bottom.

The Polyvagal Ladder Exercise helps us become aware of the different states we are in throughout the day. We can do this by writing down our feelings and behaviours for each state, as well as completing two sentences for each state: “I am…” and “The world is…”. This can help us recognize which zone we are in and shift our default setting from a place of danger and distrust to a state of openhearted safety.

For example, let’s say you wake up and head out for work. While in the ventral vagal state, you might feel happy, connected, and curious, and characterize the world as welcoming and filled with opportunity. In the sympathetic state, you may feel panicked and trapped in a world that is unfriendly and scary. And in the dorsal vagal state, you may feel invisible, unlovable, and lost in a cold and empty world.

By recognizing these different states and understanding the Polyvagal Ladder Exercise, we can learn to shift our default autonomic nervous system setting from a place of danger and distrust to a state of openhearted safety.

Vagus nerve stimulation

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) can help to improve the quality of sleep by targeting specific areas of the brain responsible for regulating sleep. VNS works similarly to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) by helping people to control their thought processes and behaviors.

You even can stimulate your vagus nerve by sleeping on your side.

Can Napping Help Balance the Autonomic Nervous System and Support Muscle Growth?

Napping’s impact on muscle growth is a fascinating topic that has garnered attention in recent years. Some studies suggest that incorporating naps into your routine can help balance the autonomic nervous system, promoting a state of relaxation and restoration. While this can indirectly support muscle growth by reducing stress and improving recovery, it’s important to note that napping alone may not be sufficient for significant muscle gains. A holistic approach, including proper diet, exercise, and rest, remains key for optimal muscle development.

Why is Polyvagal Theory controversial?

Polyvagal Theory (PVT) is controversial due to its challenge of the existing view of the autonomic nervous system, its reliance on a “model” of the nervous system, and its implication that our emotions and behavior are heavily regulated by our nervous system.

  1. By suggesting that the body’s nervous system has three branches that regulate our emotional and behavioral responses to different situations, it contradicts the existing view that the autonomic nervous system is primarily responsible for instinctive and automatic functions, such as breathing and heart rate.
  2. The theory is based on a “model” of the nervous system, which means that it is not an exact replica or representation of the thing it is modeling, but rather a simplified representation of a complex system or concept. This can make it difficult to understand or accept, as people may prefer a more concrete, scientific explanation.
  3. Finally, some people may also be uncomfortable with the idea that our emotions and behavior are so heavily regulated by our nervous system, as it suggests the potential for a lack of control and autonomy. This can be especially true in mental health contexts, where people may be struggling with issues related to control and autonomy.


What are the different states of the Autonomic Nervous System?

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is composed of two distinct components, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is responsible for providing the body with the energy and resources necessary to deal with a stressful situation, while the PNS helps the body relax, restore and recover.

  1. The SNS is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response as it prepares the body for action in response to an emergency.
  2. The PNS is also known as the “rest and digest” response and is responsible for calming the body down and restoring balance. This state is characterized by slowed heart rate and breathing, relaxation of muscles, and an overall sense of well-being. The Vagus Nerve is the main nerve of the PNS and helps to regulate the body’s internal organs.

How does the Polyvagal Ladder help with trauma?

The Polyvagal Ladder is a powerful tool to help with trauma because it helps to identify and understand the 3 states of the nervous system that are associated with it: ventral vagal, sympathetic and dorsal vagal. By recognizing and understanding the body’s reactions in each state, individuals can learn to recognize when they are in danger and take steps to move up the ladder to the ventral vagal state, where they can feel safe, social and connected. This can help individuals to regulate their bodies and minds in order to better cope with and manage the effects of trauma.

What is the Ventral Vagal State?

The Ventral Vagal State is the highest state of being on the Polyvagal Ladder, representing a nervous system state of safety and connection to the world around us. Someone in the Ventral Vagal State is in a state of social engagement, with a regulated heart rate, deep and refreshing breathing, healthy blood pressure, and a healthy immune system.

Further, they can tune out irrelevant sensory information and focus on what’s important at the time. This state of being is associated with feelings of general well-being and the ability to understand the “big picture”. Executive function skills are also typically age-appropriate in this state, allowing the child to plan, organize, and connect with others.

How does the Polyvagal Ladder help those with ADHD?

The Polyvagal Ladder can help those with ADHD in a variety of ways. By understanding the different sections of the ladder and how the Autonomic Nervous System works, those with ADHD can become more aware of their emotions and behaviors, leading to improved self-regulation. Through this awareness, they can identify triggers that cause them to move up and down the ladder and learn ways to manage those triggers in order to stay in the top part of the ladder, in the Social Engagement System, longer.

This increased self-awareness and self-regulation can help them better manage their ADHD symptoms, leading to improved focus, organization, and communication.

ADHD supplements for adults can help with managing symptoms by providing the body with essential minerals.

How does the Polyvagal Ladder help to sleep better?

By learning to regulate our autonomic nervous system’s response and move up the Polyvagal Ladder towards the social engagement response, we can promote a sense of safety and relaxation that can contribute to better sleep. Practices such as meditation, deep breathing, and mindful movement have been shown to be effective in regulating the autonomic nervous system and promoting a sense of safety and relaxation that can support better sleep.

What are some techniques for balancing the Autonomic Nervous System?

There are several techniques that can be used to balance the Autonomic Nervous System, such as:

  1. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools to help shift your nervous system state and to regulate your emotions. It can help you become aware of the current physical and emotional state of your body, allowing you to stay in the present moment, instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.
  2. Breathing Exercises: Deep, conscious breathing is one of the simplest and most effective techniques to bring balance to the Autonomic Nervous System. Slow, deep breaths like the 478 breath technique can help increase the flow of oxygen to the body and reduce tension and stress.
  3. Activities: Deep Pressure Calming Activities such as walking, stretching, massage and yoga have been proven to be effective in regulating the Autonomic Nervous System. Moving your body helps stimulate and increase circulation and slow your heart rate.
  4. Yoga Nidra: Yoga Nidra or “yogic sleep” is a popular tool for calming and grounding the Autonomic Nervous System. It can be used to help you stay in the present moment.
  5. Visualization: Visualization encourages the body to slow down and allows the mind to focus on relaxation and peace.
  6. Nutrition: Eating nutritious foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants will help to keep your body functioning optimally.
  7. Social Support: Connecting with family, friends, and mentors is a great way to stay grounded and supported during times of stress.

By lezt

Lez Taylor, Founder and CEO of Corala Blanket. She tried every sleep system and trick to conquer her insomnia for good.