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Polyvagal Theory: How Your Nervous System Works

Why connection is the foundation of well-being.

Key points

  • Polyvagal Theory explains the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and social behavior.
  • The clearest deepest way to help someone understand Polyvagal Theory is through the analogy of water.
  • Figure out what state your nervous system moves into when you feel threatened. 

By Natureza Gabriel Kram

Imagine that you’ve never been to Earth. You visit first in winter, where someone introduces you to water. From a glass, they pour it out over your hand. You drink. Remarkable.

Imagine that you walk outside onto a frozen lake. You’ve never seen this substance before. You kick at it with the toe of your boot: solid. You drop to your hands and knees, it grips your palm when you press your hand against it: bone-chillingly cold. What is this, you ask? Your guide replies, water.

Imagine that you walk into a steam room. Hot vapor swirls in an obscuring fog. What is this cloud? you ask. Again, water, comes the answer.

If you encountered water for the first time, wearing her three faces, you would not believe she was a single element. Yet of course, each of these– liquid water, ice, and steam is, indeed, water, in different states. A liquid, a solid, a gas: their physical properties entirely different; contradictory, in fact.

I have now explained Polyvagal Theory to you, through the lens of water. The groundbreaking work of Dr. Stephen Porges, Ph.D., Polyvagal Theory explains the relationship between the autonomic nervous system and social behavior, and how, depending on whether we feel safe or in danger, it surfaces varying neural platforms that shape our bodily experience, emotions and thoughts, perceptions, and behaviors.

Safety and State

Water, in its liquid state, can be still or fast-flowing yet behaves liquidly. In our analogy, liquid water represents our connection system. This is the neural platform active when we feel safe enough in our bodies to open to connection; it unites the heart and breath with the face and the voice. There is an old adage that some people wear their hearts on their sleeves, but that’s not quite true; we actually wear our heart on our face and in our voice. The capacity of the vagus nerve is reflected in our heart-rate variability and through the expression on our face and the prosody of our voice.

When we feel safe enough to be in the state of connection, we experience the liquid water version of ourselves, and have the deepest and highest access to our qualities. The doorway into this system is our bodily felt sense of safety. Absent safety, our bodies will slip out of connection and across a threshold into a state of defense. Like water becoming steam, or ice, this shift happens at predictable thresholds, and once the water molecules have crossed it, their identity transforms.

Danger and Steam

You, like liquid water changing to steam, are different when safety is absent. Steam represents the fight or flight system: high-energy defensive response evoked to respond to threat. Steam shows up as fight energy or as flight energy. The emotional correlate of fight is the continuum of anger, from mild irritation to homicidal rage. The emotional correlate of flight is the continuum of fear, from mild worry to terror.

When we find ourselves, predictably, day after day based in one of these states, we tend to conceptualize them as irritability, or anxiety. You need not travel far to find someone, these days, spending time in these states. From the flashes of rage that erupt in the checkout line at the supermarket —"You don’t have Gorgonzola cheese!?!" —to the way people jump back if you start to cough, we see great swaths of humanity in a steam state.

Life-threat and Ice

Our bodies typically respond to feeling unsafe by shifting from liquid water, to steam, to ice. If steam doesn’t get us safe—if we can’t fight or flee our way out of threat—ice immobilizes us. Its physiological action is a metabolic drop and shutdown, and if it comes on strongly it evokes the release of endogenous opiates (painkillers) to numb us out to impending death. Ice is the threat response of last resort. Whereas the emotional continuum of steam is anger and fear, that of ice is akin to depression. It is a withdrawal, a collapse, a social death. It correlates with dissociation.

As with the transformations of water, what triggers state changes are experiences of an intensity so great or so continual that they push our systems across a threshold. By shifting from liquid to gas, from gas to ice, we contain energies and manage insults that otherwise would threaten to dis-assemble us. What this means is that these states carry, locked in, levels of energy, arousal, stress, seeking an exit. Yet we yearn to be liquid, to flow.

Reading the Map of Water

Knowing where we are polyvagally—steam, ice, or water—points us toward what we need to come back home. Steam must cool and condense to return to liquid water, but ice can be cooled indefinitely and it will not melt. Supporting wellness requires meeting the needs of present-moment nervous system state.

Polyvagal Theory is a map, critical because the parts of our brains that are the most resourced—the most capable of helping us come home–are available only when we are liquid water. When you are steam, you see as steam sees. And you, and the world, look a certain way. Change the state and the story follows. Condense the vapor back into liquid water and the way the person perceives shifts on its own.

Deprived of the reciprocal social cues that, before the pandemic, operated in the background to provide many of us a consistent supply of connection nutrition, is it any wonder that people have shifted into steam or ice? An understanding of Polyvagal Theory can help bring them back home to liquid.

Author Bio: Natureza Gabriel Kram is a connection phenomenologist. He is Convener of the Restorative Practices Alliance and Co-Founder of the Academy of Applied Social Medicine. His new book, Restorative Practices of Wellbeing, unites cutting-edge neurophysiology and ancestral awareness practices for personal, community, and ecological thriving. Learn more at restorativepractices.com/books.

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