The human nervous system is truly remarkable. It is responsible for controlling our body’s internal functions, sensory experience, and regulates our response to external stimulation. The nervous system ladder refers to the three distinct stages of the nervous system response: dorsal vagal, sympathetic, and ventral vagal.
The first stage of the nervous system response is the dorsal vagal stage. This stage is often referred to as the “freeze” stage. In this stage, the body prepares for immobilization in response to a perceived life-threatening situation. In this stage, people can experience extreme feelings of helplessness, disassociation, and numbing. Communication within the brain slows down significantly and blood flow to major muscle groups slows making movement difficult.
The second stage of the nervous system response is the sympathetic stage. This stage is also known as the “flight or fight” stage. This response is triggered in response to perceived threats and prepares the body to flee or fight back. The body is flooded with adrenaline, the heart rate and breathing increase, and muscles tense up. This response can have a significant impact on physical and mental well-being and prolonged exposure to this state has severe short- and long-term health consequences.
Ventral Vagal - Parasympathetic
The final stage of the nervous system response is ventral vagal stage. This stage is known as the “rest and digest” stage. In this state, the body is calm and composed, with the heart and breathing rate slowing down, allowing for restorative functions to take place. In this state, people experience feelings of relaxation, connection, and safety.
Activation of the ventral vagus nerve is associated with better physical and mental well-being. In this state, one may experience feelings of peace, calm, and connection to oneself and others. There is an increased balance and flexibility in the nervous system and this is the state where healing and learning occur.
Over time, exposure to stressful events can lead to one getting stuck in the dorsal vagal or sympathetic stage with negative impacts on physical and mental wellbeing. Somatic movement can be a solution to regulate the nervous system to shift back to ventral vagal and start the healing process.
Somatic practices such as somatic movement sessions can help individuals regain their sense of safety, creativity and resilience. This practice involves gentle movement exercises to help to reduce stress responses and relax muscle tension in a safe environment. As individuals become more aware of their body's sensations, they develop a deeper understanding of their nervous system response and begin to notice physical tension as well as emotional stress responses. Through this process, somatic education helps develop the ability to shift away from dorsal vagal and sympathetic states and encourage healing through restorative nervous system activation.
In conclusion, the regulation of the nervous system is vital for our overall health and wellbeing. Learning how to identify the nervous system's state and shift to the state of safety and healing and the ventral vagal stage is an essential aspect of self-care. Somatic movement sessions and practices offer a solution to restore balance and promote healing in the nervous system to help individuals achieve optimal physical and mental health.