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, fawn’ response.
Whilst the ‘fight or flight’ response involves activation of the SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM or SNS, the ‘freeze response’ entails activation of the PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM, or PNS (or, more specifically, the DORSAL VAGAL PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM).
We may enter the frozen 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 derealization/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 language
- feelings of numbness
- complete collapse
- inability to move certain parts of the body
- reduced sensitivity to physical pain
- feelings of constriction in the throat
- feelings of being ‘trapped’
- restricted breathing
- reduction in facial expression
In evolutionary 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 frozen 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.
The vagus nerve incorporates a bundle of nerves running from the stomach, through the heart, and to the brain and is in communication with all the body’s internal organs and is responsible for regulating their functions including heart rate, respiratory rate, digestion, vasomotor activity and reflex actions such as sneezing, swallowing, vomiting and coughing. It also functions to control inflammation by causing the brain to release neurotransmitters when it detects inflammatory proteins (cytokines). [ To learn more about inflammation, its importance, and its link to childhood trauma see my other posts:
We should not be surprised, therefore, that dysfunction of the vagus nerve can lead to chronic inflammation. However, evidence also suggests it can lead to obesity, seizures, depression, anxiety, and an abnormally low heart rate.
Polyvagal Informed Therapy
Based on polyvagal theory, this form of therapy aims to assist the traumatized individual to break free of his/her dysregulated, frozen state and dorsal vagus shutdown (or, in some cases, hyperaroused ‘sympathetic state) and return to ‘ventral vagal’. In order to achieve this, 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-engagement, leading, ultimately, to reactivation of the previously shut down social engagement biological system (i.e. return to ‘ventral vagal’, see above); 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).
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 (ventral vagal) is healthily reactivated.
NINE WAYS TO STIMULATE THE VAGUS NERVE FOR IMPROVED MENTAL HEALTH:
1 Breathing exercises (slow and deep breathing)
4 Omega 3 Fatty Acids
6 Exposure to cold (e.g. cold shower)
7 Gargling, Chanting, Singing, and Humming
Book (AFFILIATE LINK)
You can read more about polyvagal theory in Porges’ book (see below) :