The Freeze Response To Trauma And Polyvagal Theory

Spread the love


It is well known that our body’s self-protective response to imminent danger and threat (whether perceived or real) is to enter a state of ‘fight’ or ‘flight.’ However, what is perhaps slightly less well known is there is a third type of response :  the FREEZE RESPONSE.

So, the ‘fight, flight response’ may also sometimes be referred to as  the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response.

Whilst the ‘fight or flight’ reponse involves activation of the SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM, or SNS, the ‘freeze response’ entails acivation of the PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM, or PNS (or, more specifically, the DORSAL VAGAL PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM).

We may enter the freeze state (a state in which we psychologically and physically ‘shut down’) when the sympathetic nervous system has been intensely stimulated and yet we are STILL UNABLE TO PROTECT OURSELVES via the fight or flight response. In simplified terms, then, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over to ‘shut us down’ after an overworked sympathetic nervous system, as it were, ‘gives up’ and ‘throws in the towel.’ Technically, this is known as DORSAL VAGUS SHUTDOWN.

What Are The Main Characteristics Of The ‘Freeze State?’

The main symptoms that the ‘freeze state’ can give rise to are as follows :

  • decreased heart rate
  • decreased blood pressure
  • loss of sexual drive
  • feelings of derealiztion / depersonalization/ being ‘cut off from reality
  • feeling ‘zoned out’ (dissociated)
  • feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • psychic numbing
  • reduced rate of breathing
  • feelings of shame
  • impaired ability to access emotions
  • reduced rate of metabolism in the brain impairing ability to think clearly (the brain may feel ‘foggy’) and adversely affecting autobiographical memory
  • impaired articulacy
  • defensive / defeated body llanguage
  • feelings of numbness
  • complete collapse
  • inability to move certain parts of the body
  • reduced sensitivity to physical pain
  • feelings of constrictioin in the throat
  • feelings of being ‘trapped’
  • restricted breathing
  • reduction in facial expression


In evoloutionary terms, the freeze response has come about by allowing animals to ‘feign death’ (also known as ‘tonic immobility’ or ‘thanatosis’) as a defensive measure in life -threatening situations and to keep the body completely still so as not to attract the attention of predators ; also, the shutdown of the body helps to conserve metabolic energy until the ‘fight / flight’ state can be re-engaged.

In humans, however, when an individual, in connection with his /her childhood / developmental trauma, enters the freeze state, it can last for days, weeks, months or years. Whilst the individual may well not, objectively speaking, be in a real life-threatening situation, the brain and nervous system, on an unconscious level, ‘believes’ (and is therefore reacting as if) he / she is

According to polyvagal theory (Porges), in order to break out of the freeze state it is necessary for the traumatized individual, under the guidance of a suitably qualified, experienced, empathetic and re-assuring therapist, to start to process the traumatic childhood memories that gave rise to his ./ her condition and, in so doing, temporarily to re-enter the fight / flight state whilst being, simultaneously,  encouraged by the therapist to develop a sense of safety and social re-engagent, leading, ultimately, to reactivation of the previously shut down social engagement biological system ; activation of this system is of such vital importance as it is the opposite of the dorsal vagus system (i.e. the system that originally caused the traumatized individual to ‘shutdown’ – see above).

Therapies that have been shown to be of help with this recovery processes include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) as they can train the individual restructure his / her thoughts in a way that helps him / her judge how safe s/he is more objectively and rationally and to break free from feelings of dissociation by feeling more present in his / her body.

Why Social Engagement Is So Vital :

Essentially, re-engaging socially, is of such vital importance as it is the opposite of the dorsal vagus system (i.e. the system that causes a person to ‘shutdown’ – see above) and helps the individual feel safe whilst processing his / her traumatic memories, temporarily re-entering the fight / flight state, and, ultimately, transitioning back to a state in which the social engagement biological system is healthily reactivated.

You can read more about polyvagal theory in Porges’ book (see below) :


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

Psychologist, researcher and educationalist.

Leave a Comment

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: