Updated: Aug 10
The freeze response is a protective state, one that your nervous system will move into outside of your conscious choosing.
❄️ The freeze response is initiated by the dorsal vagal branch of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is our oldest and most primitive threat response. It's kind of like your bodies last resort in times of threat (perceived or real). You can think of your autonomic nervous systems threat responses a bit like a car 🚙...
Pressing down on the accelerator is what happens when your sympathetic nervous system is active. This is all about movement and mobilisation. This is also your stress response - the place you will feel anxiety (movement away/avoidance & escape driven) or anger (movement towards)
When you apply the brake of the car you can slow things down in a controlled way. You can slow right down to a stop or just ease things to a slower pace. This is the vagus nerve or the vagal brake in action. Initiated by the parasympathetic nervous system, this vagus nerve innervates many places/organs in the body and carries information from brain to body and body to brain about your moment to moment safety. When you are in this ventral vagal part of your nervous system you feel calm, connected, creative, can think clearly, feel safe, your body digests food well and sleeps well at night. When your vagus nerve is toned you are resilient; able to bounce back more quickly and easily from times of stress.
The hand-break/park-break/ emergency break (whatever you call it where you are in the world!) is the dorsal vagal branch of your parasympathetic nervous system. It's what your nervous system engages when it needs things to STOP quickly. It stops movement and shuts you down. This is your freeze response.
There are different levels or layers to the freeze response, let's break it down a little here.. 🥶 In full dorsal vagal shutdown you will experience collapse. Here's an example: The other day my cat Toast (yes.. her name is Toast.. my 3 year old named her 😂) brought in a wee gift for us... a baby mouse. The poor thing was SO afraid that it had totally given up trying to flee or fight. It's nervous system had engaged in dorsal vagal freeze and it had shut down completely. It was still, motionless, no doubt dissociated... but alive. 📉 In full collapse you may find yourself fainting, your heart rate slowing right down, or you may find that you dissociate - disconnecting from your body and the world around you. This is called HYPOarousal. The parasympathetic nervous system is dominant here - in the dorsal vagal branch. In this place sensory information isn't processed properly; memories are often fragmented and you may feel less present in the world. This is what happens when the system perceives a threat to be too much, too great, too sudden or too soon. In this place of complete overload you can't run, you can't fight and so in order to preserve energy and to disconnect you from pain your nervous system shuts you down completely. It's the ultimate protection mode. Just like that poor mouse that 'played' dead when Toast caught it (we named him Blueberry, and don't worry - we saved him and he is alive and well!) Your thought patterns in this place sound like "it's totally helpless/hopeless", "nothing can save me/help me". You may feel like you can't think much at all and that you can't speak or move. When the height of the threat passes you will likely begin to move out of full shutdown. 😣 You may then experience the other level of freeze that also involves some sympathetic nervous system activation. Here you would see roughly the same level of PNS and SNS activation. In this place you feel stuck, flat, unmotivated, spacey, down or depressed and you also feel anxious, fearful, stressed and on-edge. Your muscles will likely be rigid and tense, your breathing faster, your heart rate increased. Your thought patterns in this place sound like "I can't do this", "I don't know how", "what's the point". You may engage in numbing behaviours like doom scrolling, emotional eating, drinking etc 📈 In this place you will likely be in HYPERarousal - getting ready to return to full sympathetic/fight/flight mode. Blueberry the mouse went into this response after the main threat that was Toast the cat had passed - After we saved the wee mouse she remained still for a while. Eventually she perked up, ate some blueberries and oats and was busy moving about the box we put her in. (if anyone is interested in how the story of Blueberry the mouse ends; to cut a long story short my daughter accidentally let her loose in the house, and after chasing her around the spare bed for 45 minutes (her sympathetic nervous system clearly in flight mode!) I caught her and we released her in a field 😂). It's important to learn and distinguish these layers of the freeze response (and to understand fight/flight and fawn; the other 3 threat responses) in order to know which strategies to use to help you move out of these protective outputs and back into a place of calm, connection and resilience in your nervous system. Here's another important thing to remember; these responses are automatic. They are initiated by your nervous system outside of your conscious choosing and awareness. Yes - we can learn to recognise them and move ourselves out of them. Yes - we can strengthen our nervous systems capacity/window of tolerance and resilience Yes - we can increase our ability to return to ventral vagal/calm & connected But I want you to know that it wasn't your fault if you went into freeze response during a traumatic or stressful time. This was a protective response from your nervous system to help you survive that time. Often we hear comments like "why didn't she just do something about it? Why didn't she leave? why didn't she run? why didn't she speak up?" etc. These comments are harmful and completely lack understanding of the nervous system. They also cause damage and shame. In freeze response people will say "I felt stuck", "I felt like I couldn't move", "I felt helpless/hopeless", "I felt like I wasn't even in my body/in the pace". This is all very true of freeze. Here's the next thing to understand about your nervous system: It makes predictions about the future based on what you have been through in the past. This survival system is interested in just that; survival. It isn't interested in logic. So if you went through trauma or high stress and freeze response in your past then if your nervous system gets even the faintest whiff of a similar situation in your present it can reflexively/automatically response with initiating that freeze response all over again. This can become your nervous systems go-to way of responding to perceived threats;
Spouse gets angry at you = shut down, freeze, loose your words
Boss calls you into a meeting = feel stuck, can't think clearly, don't advocate for yourself
You get the idea. Through a blend of cognitive restructuring (breaking down old unhelpful thinking patterns and limiting beliefs) and somatic practices (using your body to release trapped emotions, unprocessed trauma and regulate your nervous system) you can not only move from freeze to freedom but you can heal and strengthen your nervous systems capacity for the future.
Ready for more?
Keen to dive deeper and learn ways to regulate your nervous system out of freeze mode...
Inside the Journey to Wellness membership we have a masterclass and a special Release class dedicated to helping you move from freeze to freedom.
The masterclass takes you deeper into understanding freeze, unpacking your own freeze response, getting to know your red flags, and discovering ways to move out of this place.
The Release class is a blend of cognitive and somatic practices - I guide you through body based tools to learn how to regulate your nervous system to calm.
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📧 I hope this blog post has been helpful for you! Comment below to let me know