The Cook Awakening

On the Ladder

May 1, 2020
Posted in: Life on Life's Terms, Spiritual Practice

I’ve been dizzy. Feeling weird in my head, like my brain is a bit dislocated. Having a hard time connecting with my quarantine pod, my husband and two nearly adult kiddos. Tired. But, I can’t necessarily sleep, just feel tired. COVID-19 has changed our lives, and not much feels familiar.

I’ve been studying the Polyvagal Theory, research mainly associated with Stephen Porges, in my training with the META Institute. If you’ve studied the Polyvagal Theory, you can probably skim through the next 4 or 5 paragraphs, they’re a pretty basic explanation of that.

The Ventral portion of the Vagal nervous system is mainly located in the face, throat and neck. We are at ease when we’re in Ventral Vagal response, when we’re connected with people we feel safe with, when we can co-regulate our nervous systems together and find a feeling of security. This is the most complex part of our nervous system, the most recent to develop in evolution. It’s what gets activated, I’m convinced, when we’re at temple or church or on retreat with our spiritual communities. Our nervous systems need community to function properly, to be “happy”.

Many of us are used to hearing about fight, flight, and freeze as part of the Sympathetic nervous system response when we feel threatened, but in actuality how that works is a little more complicated.

Fight or flight happens in a part of the Polyvagal nervous system primarily located along the spinal cord. When this part of the nervous system is activated, we experience increased heart rate, shallow breathing. We may notice we feel scared or angry. We want to smash or run — that’s fight or flight. This part of the nervous system developed in the middle of the evolutionary path of our journey of becoming human.

Freeze response happens in a different part of the Polyvagal nervous system. It’s called Dorsal Vagal, and is locate primarily in the diaphragm, heart, and gut. This is the oldest part of the nervous system, which developed first evolutionarily. This is activated when there’s a threat, and fight or flight is not an option. We play dead. Our heart rate decreases, our energy feels low, we may feel dissociated. Shut down.

I’ve been geeking out on tracking these states in myself and folks around me. I’ve loved sharing it with clients. It feels so helpful to have more context for feeling states, I find it helps make suffering much less personal.

The piece that I’m feeling is most useful right now, is the view of the Polyvagal system as being a ladder. It’s a ladder on the evolutionary timeline, starting with the Dorsal Vagal system at the bottom of the ladder in our earliest prehistory, traveling up the ladder through the Sympathetic nervous system, and landing at the top in the Ventral Vagal system at the top of the developmental ladder.

But, it’s also a ladder experientially.

I read an article on the idea that as a culture we are experiencing a freeze response. There’s a threat, but it’s not the kind of threat that our Sympathetic nervous systems can understand. It’s hard to attack or run from a virus in a way that our nervous systems can really connect with.

Back to where we started here. I’ve been feeling weird. Spacey. Having a bit of a hard time tracking time, feels like the hours and days wash together without a lot of distinction. Those are some of the symptoms of being in a freeze response. We can be in freeze and still function on many levels. Sometimes just part of the personality is in freeze. It can be like a haze around the edges of consciousness. Feeling that it’s hard to connect, although we’re going through the motions. Some people live most of their life in a form of freeze response as a result of trauma.

I started talking about it a bit. “I think I’m in freeze” I told my family. Just naming it was helpful. I made an effort to move my body more, as I was definitely even more stuck physically than I usually am.

Then something shifted. I finished my work week, which is all on video conference these days, for obvious reasons. I had a few more meetings scheduled, though, some fun, some training oriented, some spiritually oriented… all on video conference, again.

I rebelled. I did not want to get on the computer.

I got pissed. I vented with some safe folks. “I’ve been on zoom for 19 hours this week and I have 9 more hours this weekend planned! Aaaaarrrggghhh!”

I crashed, slept for 2 hours in the middle of the day. Kept getting waked up by my family — my husband talking loudly on the phone in the next room, my older kiddo shooting a nerf gun repeatedly, playing basket ball outside the window, whack whack whack whack… I came awake with a jolt, my heart pounding.

Then I remembered part of my training. Not only is it important to know where you are on the Polyvagal ladder — but see if you can figure out which direction you’re moving. Are you going up? Or down? It’s a ladder for a reason, you have to go through the middle part before you get either to the top or the bottom. I’d established that I was at the bottom of the ladder, in Dorsal freeze. So, if I was feeling pissed and anxious now, that must mean….

I’m moving up the ladder. I’m headed toward Ventral Vagal. And, I could build on that.

I allowed myself to be pretty free with my expression all day. Threatened to smash the nerf gun. (I may still.) I growled and hummed. Bumped up against my family and was less than polite at times. Went outside with my youngest and took photos of cherry blossom trees. Refused to make dinner.

My husband spooned behind me that night, and I could feel myself want to fight. It didn’t feel safe. And, I also felt how much I needed this contact. We’ve both been feeling ambivalent about touching one another, this uncertainty about the safety of sharing an ecosphere. Logically we think it’s fine, but there’s a bit of fear around the edges there.

So, I stayed with the contact, just let my body relax slowly into it. It took awhile, but I’m really glad I did. I could feel my Ventral nervous system come back online, incrementally.

I still feel little shock tremors, I’m not sure I’m solidly in Ventral Vagal. But, I notice I’m not feeling dizzy and like my brain is loose in my skull the way it was.

Heading in the right direction.

This entry was posted on Friday, May 1st, 2020 at 6:06 pm and is filed under Life on Life's Terms, Spiritual Practice. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “On the Ladder”

  1. Katrina Gould Says:

    Durga, first, I’m feeling so powerful: I almost wrote you and asked if you were writing things, and if so, had I missed something because I love reading you? And then here this came. May I share it with my clients? It is SO GOOD. And of course it helped me, too. “Oh, right! I’m finding movement hard because I’m frozen (a state I practiced for years with the father I grew up with).” What a great way you brought the technical into the daily and embodied. Thank you. <3

  2. Durga Fuller Says:

    Ha! So, you made me write this? You are powerful! ❤️

    But seriously, thank you. High praise coming from you. This process of feeling the reality, the personal, in the context of the science of the physiological is so helpful to me, so grounding. To be reminded I am a human animal helps me relax and accept the gritty realities of life.

    Please, share at will! I feel blessed to be asked.

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