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Understanding your nervous system using the Polyvagal Ladder

Our autonomic nervous system has three primary states that enable our survival.

As we indicated in the Polyvagal Theory blog post using the "three brains," each of these states has its own bodily sensations, emotions, and behaviors. Deb Dana created what she calls the Polyvagal Ladder to illustrate the physical states. We can use it as a guide to what happens in which state in our body.

Polyvagal ladder according to Deb Dana. Neuroception of safety, neuroception of danger, neuroception of life threat.

Neuroception of life threat - the dorsal-vagal state of the nervous system.

The so-called dorsal-vagal state is shown at the bottom of the ladder. If our nervous system is in this reaction pattern, our parasympathetic nervous system is active, our body feels exposed to a life threat and reacts with a pure maintenance pattern.

Emotionally, we then feel numb, alone, hopeless, immobile. We literally freeze. Security and hope feel out of reach in such situations. Despair spreads. We feel like there is no way out; grief and shame are also common feelings.

Physically, the dorsal-vagal state can express itself in a slow heart rate, cold and pale skin, low blood pressure, a higher pain tolerance, little movement, a hunched posture and lowered gaze, as well as nausea or even vomiting.

Our behavior in the dorsal-vagal state is very isolated. Catatonia, frequent silent crying, low motivation, self-harm, catastrophic thinking up to absolute fainting can be signs.

Activity of the sympathetic nervous system - neuroception of danger

On the second rung of the ladder, our sympathetic nervous system is active. Our nervous system perceives danger and reacts with a fight or flight pattern. Racing thoughts and discomfort, feeling disconnected from others and the world are associated with these patterns.

Emotionally, excitement spreads. Feelings that can be associated with this in the sympathetic state are anger, frustration, annoyance, disgust, hatred. Anxiety emerges, we feel stressed and tense and at the same time we have the desire to move.

Physically, this state of our nervous system manifests itself in a rapid heart rate, fast, shallow breathing, muscle tension and even pain. The bowels shut down, we speak at a faster pace and in a rather monotone voice. Moderate hearing loss may occur and our posture is more hunched.

In behavior, the urge to move and do physical work, social avoidance, intense crying, trembling, but also aggression are observable.

Neuroception of safety - the ventral-vagal state of the nervous system

The top rung of the ladder, the ventral-vagal state of our nervous system is very resourced and relaxed. Here our parasympathetic nervous system is also activated, but in a different way. Through co-regulation and self-regulation we are in tune with ourselves, others and the world. We seek support and offer it to others. It is a hopeful state, we are resilient and flexible to options.

Emotionally, this state manifests as joy, love, buoyancy, contentment, compassion, and curiosity. We feel centered and safe, grounded and connected to ourselves and our surroundings.

Physically, we can recognize the ventral-vagal state by a calm heartbeat, a soft expressive gaze, deep and regular breathing, and relaxed posture and open body language.

Our behavior is characterized by creative thinking, problem-solving orientation, we are mindful, can allow tears of joy or letting go, and feel safe in touch and intimacy.

Do you know your nervous system?

If we know these states of our nervous system and our reaction patterns, we can also learn to deal with them or to change undesirable patterns through targeted training of our nervous system.

Be it through meditation, breathing exercises, body psychotherapeutic methods, such as Core Energetics, Somatic Experience or neurosensory trainings, such as the SSP or through co-regulation with people or animals; working with our nervous system makes us more resilient, balanced and allows us to react more calmly to the challenges of everyday life.

In my coaching sessions I work with Core Energetics exercises as well as the SSP and Focus System training programs to specifically relax the vagus nerve. If you would like to know more or have any questions, feel free to browse through my website or arrange a free initial consultation.


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