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Climbing The Ladder of Recovery - An Autonomic Nervous System Perspective 1

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

A well functioning Autonomic Nervous System is key to health and wellbeing. It controls automatic functions in the body, things like our heart rate, blood pressure and digestion and impact on our mental well being. It is divided into 3 parts:

The ventral vagus parasympathetic nervous system (moves us towards connection and openness), the sympathetic nervous sytem (moves us towards action), dorsal vagus parasympathetic nervous system (moves us towards stillness)

It is like a ladder which we move up and down, and our body is prioritising different things depending where we are on the ladder. We are designed to return "home" to ventral, our system of safety and connection at the top of the ladder. (1)

Ventral Vagus Parasympathetic Nervous System

The System of Safety and Connection

Sympathetic Nervous System

The System of Mobilisation

Dorsal Vagus Parasympathetic Nervous System

The System of Demobilisation

Below the level of our thinking brain we are continually assessing for safety and danger and life threat and acting upon that. (1)

When we assess for safety and danger and life threat and we feel in danger or life threat we move down the ladder, away from the ventral vagus state where we feel open and connected into survival responses of autonomic nervous system.

Sympathetic Nervous System

Energy is chaotic, mobilised to attack, driven to escape, anxious, angry

Dorsal Vagus Parasympathetic Nervous System

Demobilised - drained of energy, rigid, disconnected, lose hope, give up, disappear(2)

We are then designed to return to the ventral vagus, to open and connected.

When we are recovering from a viral infection or similar, we are inevitably getting messages about safety and danger and life threat that are different from those that we are familiar with.

We may be getting messages of unsafety from inside the body eg breathlessness, low energy, our environment (eg the distance we have to walk to drive to work, or to do day to day activities) and relationships eg pressure to return to work, (including pressure we put on ourselves).

During and following a viral infection the autonomic nervous system is functioning differently than normal, including following infection with covid 19. It has been established that people with chronic fatigue (which often follows a viral infection) have a disordered sympathetic response in the nervous system. (3)

The Lightning Process model that I work with is that following a viral infection we may get stuck in a prolonged stress response and that creates and perpetuates symptoms. The stress response is known in the Lightning Process as the physiological emergency response (4). Long term activation in this response creates changes in how the autonomic nervous system and immune system function (4). We know that with the Lightning Process it is possible to make rapid changes to how our body systems are responding in post viral states and change our health dramatically. (4)

So if you are recovering from a viral infection right now, (And care - just start to notice, just get a flavour) consider where are you spending your time on the ladder? What is the world like, and who are you when you are in your sympathetic autonomic nervous system? How about in dorsal? Consider what might you do, say or think to help you move back to ventral? What is a first step? I'll consider this more fully in article two.


(1) Stephen Porges Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies Norton, 2018

(2) Deb Dana Anchored, Sounds True 2021

(3)Newton JL Symptoms of autonomic dysfunction in chronic fatigue syndrome Quarterly Journal of Medicine, 2007 Aug; 100(8): 519–26

(4) Phil Parker, DO et al Understanding the Lightning Process Approach to CFS/ME; a Review of the Disease Process and the Approach July 2018

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