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Introducing The Autonomic Ladder...

If you've not already heard of it, the Autonomic Ladder is a concept designed by Deb Dana and grounded in Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory. I refer to it frequently in my work with schools, with other organisations working with children and young people, and with adults in my small 1:1 therapy practice. It can be a really helpful simple metaphor for identifying an individual's autonomic nervous system state at any given time so we have a better understanding of what's going on for them and how we might provide support. I invite you to take a look at the ladder and wonder where you think you would place yourself right now. Feel into it. Can you recognise times you've been on different rungs? We all move up and down this ladder as no-one is in Ventral Vagal state all of the time, but often children and adults who have experienced trauma may spend longer in dysregulation, located around the Sympathetic or Dorsal Vagal rungs of this ladder, or indeed present in ways that show they are moving up and down that ladder more frequently than others.

The ladder is helpful to identify where someone is 'at', and in its simplest form, the idea is that the further down the ladder someone is, the more overwhelmed and disconnected they tend to be. Danger cues (sensory triggers, or anything which is felt as a perceived threat to an individual) can lead to us moving down the ladder, while safety cues support us to move back upwards again - all this happens via a subconscious neurological process called 'neuroception'. For our children and young people to be accessing support or well engaged in learning, they need to be in Ventral Vagal state at the time, or at least near the top of that ladder. When they are presenting with signs of moving down the ladder, it's our job to get in alongside them and support them with safety cues to help them move towards that safe and connected state again.

Safety cues are often unique to individuals which is why it's imperative we get to know our young people so well, so we can support them armed with the right information. It is important to note that one person's safety cue might be another person's danger cue so we cannot always assume what works for one will help another.

Working with the body in some way is a necessary and often underestimated part of supporting co-regulation; and demonstrating genuine empathy, patience, kindness and offering someone a sense of feeling heard are all safety cues that tend to be effective for most people along the way back up the ladder as they are conducive to safe connection, and are things we can all get on board with to support our children and young people (of course, these are MUCH easier to tap into when we are well regulated ourselves - this is why this ladder can be a useful tool for everyone :) ).


This concept is covered within my Increasing Awareness & Understanding of Attachment & Trauma training (available in a pre-recorded format now online, or can be delivered in person). For further information about our training or to contact me for a no obligation chat, see What I do.


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