What is The Hierarchy Ladder in Polyvagal Theory?
Let’s Remember: Polyvagal Theory Is A Model Of The Nervous System
Firstly it is important to remember that Polyvagal Theory is a “model” of the nervous system – a model is a simplified representation of a complex system or concept. A model is not meant to be an exact replica or representation of the thing it is modeling, but rather a way of understanding and explaining certain aspects of it functioning.
In the case of polyvagal theory, it is a model of the body’s nervous system and how it regulates emotion and behavior. The theory suggests that the body’s nervous system has three branches that regulate our emotional and behavioral responses to different situations, but it is important to remember that this is just one way of understanding and explaining the complex workings of the nervous system.
By recognizing that polyvagal theory is a model, we can more accurately understand and interpret the theory and its implications. It helps us to recognize that the theory is not the final word on the subject, and that there may be other ways of understanding and explaining the nervous system’s role in emotion and behavior. As therapists and educators it feels important to convey this to the people we share our knowledge with.
Overall, it is important to remember that polyvagal theory is a model because it helps us to more accurately understand and interpret the theory and its implications, and to recognize that there may be other ways of understanding the complex workings of the nervous system.
The Four Main Models Of The Nervous System
There are many different models of the nervous system that have been proposed over the years, but here are four of the most well-known ones:
The reflex arc model: This model proposes that the nervous system consists of a series of reflex arcs, which are pathways that allow sensory information to be quickly transmitted to the brain and then back to the muscles or glands. This model is often used to explain simple reflexes, such as the knee-jerk reflex.
The centralized control model: This model proposes that the nervous system consists of a central control center, such as the brain, that receives and processes sensory information and then sends out commands to the muscles or glands. This model is often used to explain more complex behaviors, such as decision-making and problem-solving.
The distributed control model: This model proposes that the nervous system consists of multiple control centers that are distributed throughout the body, rather than just being concentrated in the brain. This model is often used to explain how the body is able to coordinate complex behaviors, such as walking or speaking.
The polyvagal theory: This model, developed by Dr Stephen Porges, proposes that the body’s nervous system has three branches that regulate our emotional and behavioral responses to different situations. These branches are known as the “reptilian,” “mammalian,” and “evolved” nervous systems. This model is often used to explain how the body’s nervous system influences emotion and behavior.
The Hierarchy Ladder
Deb Dana’s hierarchy ladder is a visual representation metaphor of how the human body responds to stress and threat, based on the principles of the Polyvagal Theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges. The ladder consists of three rungs, each corresponding to a different state of the autonomic nervous system:
The top rung represents a state of “social engagement”, in which the body is relaxed and responsive to social cues. This state is associated with feelings of safety and connection. This state is also known as rest and digest.
The middle rung represents a state of “defensive mobilization”, in which the body is prepared for fight or flight. This state is associated with feelings of anxiety and arousal.
The bottom rung represents a state of “defensive immobilisation”, in which the body shuts down and becomes unresponsive. This state is associated with feelings of numbness and disconnection.
According to the Polyvagal Theory, the body moves up and down the ladder in response to perceived threats and opportunities for social connection. At this point I do feel I need to stress – there is no ladder in our nervous system. It is a metaphor used to help us understand. Dana has also introduced the concept of “glimmers” as moments of connection and engagement that can interrupt the cycle of stress and help the body move up the ladder.
Another metaphor which is used to describe our movement between states due to cues of safety and threat is the Teen track. This has been developed by the creator of Polyvagal Teen ® Yasmin Shaheen-Zaffar.
Who is Deb Dana?
Deb Dana is a well regarded licensed clinical social worker, certified yoga instructor, and author. She is known for her work interpreting and applying the Polyvagal Theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, a theory that suggests that the autonomic nervous system plays a central role in regulating social behavior, social engagement, and physical health.
Dana has written several books on the topic of the Polyvagal Theory and its applications, including:
- The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation
- The Polyvagal Workbook: Powerful Tools to Help You Heal from Trauma, Stress, and Anxiety
- Rhythm of Regulation: A Tenth Anniversary Update
- Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: Healing Trauma with the Science of the Nervous System.
In conclusion, the hierarchy is an important aspect of polyvagal theory, which is a theory of emotion and behavior that suggests that the body’s nervous system has three categories/ levels/ states that regulate our emotional and behavioral responses to different situations.
Each level corresponds to a different type of nervous system response, ranging from the most primitive and survival-oriented response to the more complex and socially-oriented responses.
According to polyvagal theory, the body will automatically move up or down the hierarchy in response to different situations, depending on how safe or threatened it feels. Understanding the ladder can help us to better understand how the body’s nervous system influences emotion and behavior, and can be useful for working with individuals who have experienced trauma or stress.
It is up to the individual which metaphor they use – the ladder or the track to help understand the movement of different states.
However, it is important to remember that polyvagal theory is a model and that there may be other ways of understanding and explaining the complex workings of the nervous system and with time new research findings may appear.
However there is no doubt that polyvagal theory is a valuable tool to help us to gain new awareness about our behaviours and emotions.