You’ve likely heard of your “Fight or Flight” nervous system reaction. That phrase was coined in 1927 to describe how you might respond in the face of an imminent, perceived threat: Will you run to safety or stand and fend off danger? These were described as automatic responses that kicked in unconsciously when your nervous system was triggered.
But what about the person who becomes paralyzed, who retreats inside and seems vacant or shut down when alarmed? Does that mean they are not doing anything? Allowing themselves to be a victim? Absolutely not, says Dr. Margo Jacquot, Founder and Chief Care Officer at The Juniper Center. “That’s now known as the Freeze response. Just like Fight or Flight, Freeze can kick in as an automatic form of self-preservation when the nervous system is triggered.” What’s exciting, adds Margo, is what this means within the realm of counseling and therapy.
A Freeze response can look like a lack of connection to those around you and avoiding feeling. “Which are also symptoms that may accompany depression. But if those symptoms are due to a dysregulated nervous system causing automatic physiological responses in your body, anti-depressants won’t help,” says Margo.
What does help are actions to unfreeze your nervous system when it gets stuck in that frozen position.
Let’s Go to Vagus!
With the Freeze response understood as a natural nervous system reaction to stress, it’s easy to accept that there will be corresponding physical changes as your body reacts. That’s where your vagus nerve fits in. What’s the vagus nerve? The simplified version is that it’s this long nerve that starts in the brainstem, behind the ears and runs down each side of the neck, across the chest, and into the abdomen. The vagus nerve touches just about every automatic body function below your diaphragm: breathing, heartbeat, digestion and more. When the vagus nerve is triggered, which happens anytime your nervous system jumps in, you can imagine you will see impact everywhere the vagus nerve travels: increased heart rate, stomachache, shortness of breath.
Time to Get Moving
To unfreeze your nervous system you need to start moving. “Rub your arms, tap your legs as though you are playing piano on them, the more movement the better,” says Margo. “That’s one reason why working together with a therapist using modalities that have a physical component is helpful to release trauma stored in the body.” Somatic Experiencing, EMDR, and Trauma-sensitive yoga are examples of those. (Click the links to learn more about each.) Having a therapist with you provides safety and support as you release stored feelings.
Anything icy cold is a good vagus nerve stimulant (think cold shower, icy cold beverages). Since the vagus nerve runs down both sides of your neck, things involving your throat also can bring stress release: yodeling, singing, and gargling are all good examples.
The Science behind the Theories
Studies continue to come out that connect automatic body responses and chemical changes in the brain to our mental health. A place to start is this study from Stephen Porges, considered the father of Polyvagal Theory. (Porges, 1995 and Porges, 2006). In short, Polyvagal Theory shows that there are multiple states of the nervous system in response to real or perceived stress and it makes the connection to autonomous and behavioral reactions.
Knowing that, says Margo, “is wonderful for destigmatizing seeking help for mental health. “My wish is that seeing a mental health practitioner will one day be as normative as seeing your primary care physician.” And that is changing with more open conversations about mental health challenges and the growing understanding of the many physiological connections to how we feel every day.
Want to Know More?
Read (and share) this article from The Juniper Center Website. Scroll to the bottom of the article there for a bibliography to learn more.
Cannon, Walter. The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: A critical Examination and an Alternative Theory (1927). https://www.jstor.org/stable/1415404
Frothingham, Mia Belle. Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Fawn: What this Response Means (2021). https://www.simplypsychology.org/fight-flight-freeze-fawn.html
Porges, Stephen W. The Polyvagal Perspective (2006) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1868418/
Porges, Stephen W. Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A Polyvagal Theory (1995). https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1469-8986.1995.tb01213.x
Rivera, Zuleyma LMSW. What You Need to Know about the Freeze Response (2019). https://www.teenhealthcare.org/blog/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-freeze-response/
Schmidt, Norman B, et al. Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor (2009). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2489204/