When we want to change how we feel, it's a good idea to get a flavour of what's really going on in the brain!
The "Limbic centre" - also known as the "paleomammalian complex" - is responsible for emotional reactions, along with other autonomic actions..... It forms a very fast subconscious evaluation and response system designed to keep us safe and survive.
Diagram courtesy of The Psychotherapist's Essential Guide to the Brain by Matthew Dahlitz
Click on the audio file below to listen to "Hey there - it's me, your brain..."
Script from Brainworld - narrated by Debbie Featherstone
In both scenarios in the audio, the Autonomic Ladder demontrates how our reactions have us moving 'down the ladder'
The Autonomic Ladder
What might a real-life example of moving up and down the autonomic ladder look like? Consider the following two scenarios using the blue, red and grey zones of the ladder:
I am driving to work in the morning listening to the radio and enjoying the beginning of the day (top of the ladder) when a siren sounds behind me (quick move down the ladder). I feel my heart race and immediately worry that I’ve done something wrong (staying in my spot down the ladder). I pull over and the police car rushes by me. I pull back out and resume my drive to work and feel my heart begin to return to its normal speed (moving up the ladder). By the time I get to work, I have forgotten about the incident and am ready for my day (back at the top of the ladder).
I am having dinner with friends enjoying the conversation and the fun of being out with people I like (top of the ladder). The conversation turns to vacations, and I start comparing my situation to my friends’ situations. I begin to feel angry that I can’t afford a vacation, that my job doesn’t pay enough, that I have so many unpaid bills I’ll never be able to take a vacation (moving down the ladder). I sit back and watch as my friends continue to talk about trips and travel planning. I disconnect from the conversation and begin to feel invisible as the talk goes on around me (shutting down and moving to the bottom of the ladder). The evening ends with my friends not noticing my silence and with me feeling like a misfit in the group (stuck at the bottom of the ladder).
I go home and crawl into bed (the only place I know now is the bottom of the ladder).
The next morning, I wake up and don’t want to get up or go to work (still at the bottom of the ladder). I worry I’ll get fired if I don’t show up and drag myself out of bed (a bit of energy and beginning of movement up the ladder). I am late to work. My boss comments on my lateness, and I have a hard time holding in an angry response (continuing to move up the ladder with more mobilized energy). I decide I’ve had enough of this job and will seriously look for a new one (still moving up the ladder). I begin to consider the skills I can bring to a new job and that with the right job I will be able to pay my bills and maybe even take a vacation. I have lunch with a co-worker, and we talk about our jobs and dreams for the future (back at the top of the ladder).
We move up and down the ladder numerous times each and every day. When we are in a persistently stressed state (heightened arousal of the Sympathetic Nervous System and a suppressed Parasympathetic Nervous System) we spend too much time in the middle (RED) and lower half of the ladder (GREY), rarely glimpsing the top of the ladder (BLUE)
Ref. Dana, Deb A.. The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) (p. 9). W. W. Norton & Company