The Polyvagal Ladder: The Crucial Link Between Safety and Pleasure
The Polyvagal Theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, dives deep into the autonomic nervous system, shining light on how our bodies react to feelings of safety and danger. One very interesting thing that the polyvagal ladder reveals is how our sense of safety and connection are crucial to experiencing pleasure.
The ladder represents a hierarchy of physiological responses governed by the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for regulating involuntary bodily functions. It’s divided into three stages:
- Dorsal Vagal State (Freeze/Collapse)
At the bottom of the ladder is the immobilisation response, often referred to as “freeze.” In this state the body conserves energy and social engagement is inhibited. This is the body’s last resort in the face of overwhelm, threat and danger.
- Sympathetic State (Fight/Flight)
The middle rungs of the ladder represent the sympathetic nervous system’s activation. In this state the body prepares for action – either to confront a threat (fight) or to run from it (flight). Stress hormone cortisol surges in this state and the body becomes vigilant.
- Ventral Vagal State (Safe and Social)
At the top of the ladder is the ventral vagal state, the optimal human experience. Here the body feels safe, connected, experiences a sense of well-being, harmony and social engagement. In this state we are most available and receptive to pleasure and enjoyment.
Safety is Needed to Experience Pleasure
When we feel safe, our bodies relax and our minds become open to experiences. This is because in ventral vagal state the body’s resources are directed towards growth, restoration, and social connection, rather than self-defense.
Amplifies Senses: Feeling safe amplifies our senses and pleasure becomes accessible. We become more attuned to the beauty in the world – the warmth of sunshine, the taste of delicious food, the sound and feel of music, the touch of a loved one etc.
Emotional Resonance: Emotional intimacy thrives in the ventral vagal state. Trust and safety in relationships allows for deeper emotional bonds, leading to more pleasure in shared moments of intimacy and connection.
Reduces Stress: When we feel safe, stress hormone cortisol lowers in our body, and our parasympathetic nervous system takes over which promotes digestion, relaxation, enjoyment and pleasure.
- Stress Reduction: Prioritising self-care and stress reduction techniques (breathwork, yoga, qi gong, tai chi, meditation, being present in nature etc.) can help shift us towards the ventral vagal state, making it easier to access calmness and pleasure.
- Embodied Living: Practicing being in our body (embodiment); paying close attention to physical sensations, our breath, mind and emotions, helps us stay regulated and grounded in the present moment, where feelings of safety, relaxation and pleasure reside.
- Healthy Relationships: Building safe and trusting relationships is essential for experiencing pleasure with others. Learning how, and practicing expressing our needs, desires, and boundaries in relationship, helps us stay in integrity with our body, which is absolutely essential when it comes to sharing sexual intimacy.
- Professional Support: If you’re struggling to regulate your nervous system and you don’t feel safe or relaxed in your body, consider seeking help from a therapist or counsellor who specialises in embodied therapy.
The polyvagal ladder offers an understanding of our responses to safety and danger. It highlights that the key to experiencing pleasure is about being at the top of the ladder, the ventral vagal state, where safety and social connection are thriving. By nurturing our sense of safety, we access our capacity for pleasure, which enhances our quality of life and relationships. Embracing the wisdom of the polyvagal ladder is a pathway to understanding the benefits of embodied therapy and somatic sexology.
The embodied work I specialise in was inspired by my own healing journey of experiencing pain and discomfort during sexual intimacy. Feeling safe, open, connected, and experiencing relaxed pleasure is easier said than done if you don’t have someone to show you how! I’m so passionate about this work and empowering you because I’ve been there too. Working with a Sexological Bodyworker would have saved me so much time, grief, and frustration.
If this article speaks to you – never believe that it’s just the way your body is and nothing can be done. If you’re interested in working with me, get in touch!
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Somatic Sexologist, Sexological Bodyworker, Intimacy & Relationships Coach