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  • Robyn Isman, LICSW

We are living at the bottom of our ladders


In my practice, I often reference our nervous system zones or states. The picture above is a great visual for our autonomic ladder. Our ladder holds three zones and all the rungs in between. The bottom is referred to as a shut down mode. We think of this as depressive symptoms, possible sleeping a lot or isolating oneself. The middle zone is an anxious state. It is where our fight or flight response lives. The top of our ladder is our safe and social paradise. This is where we are communicative, engaged, calm, and all things comfortable.


Our nervous system receives information from its surroundings and environmental cues. This can be stimulation, tones of voices, friendly faces and so much more. When we aren't existing during a pandemic and staying home, we are in constant contact with stimuli. On a typical day we go up and down our ladder all day long. The hope is always to be as close to the top as possible, but random things can impact our placement. Slamming on your breaks to avoid a car accident or a fire drill at school can drop us down our ladder so fast! Once we assess, we can use strategies to move back up the ladder, slow down our heart rate and connect again with the present.


When someone experiences a trauma or traumas in their life it is common to find a home lower on your ladder and really struggle to move up. If someone has experienced abuse, or neglect, or a loss of a close family member, for example, our nervous systems can drop down the ladder and remain there. This is our body holding on to the trauma and it can become our new normal.


What we are experiencing right now is trauma. We have been suddenly cut off from our routines, friends and family (in person at least). We have been put in a place of unknowns and constant anticipation. We have experienced and are experiencing loss in so many forms. Loss of people, loss of celebrations, loss of stability. We also have a lot of fear floating around related to the crisis and lack of concrete answers.


This trauma has dropped many, if not all, of us down our ladder. Some people are in the red zone. Anxious, raised heart beats, sinking stomachs, ruminating thoughts and more. Other people are in the grey zone. Detaching, isolating oneself, losing sleep or sleeping so much, and experiencing ambivalence are some of the symptoms of the grey zone.


Since we are not experiencing our typical stimuli, we have to be even more intentional about climbing our ladder. That is the best part of the nervous system and polyvagal theory. We can recognize our zones and attempt to shift upward.


It is our challenge and responsibility to look for ways to shift. These methods are commonly pretty basic. Music that feels soothing, taking a walk, making eye contact with a comfortable person, laughing, stretching, and so many other things. There is also a time to accept our ladder zones and ride those waves. If you need a day in bed, take it. Notice it. Think of small ways to climb up even just one rung.


There is so much we do not have control over right now, but our own regulation is something we can focus on and care for. This is not simple, this is hard work, but this is our work to do and should be our main focus during this time. The more we work on regulating DURING this crisis, the less likely that we will get "stuck" on the bottom of the ladder.

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