Have you ever felt so overwhelmed that you just shut down emotionally and physically? Perhaps you've experienced a sudden loss of energy, a chronic feeling of numbness, or a disconnection from the world around you. These are all common symptoms of what's known as dorsal vagal shutdown, a physiological response to stress that can leave us feeling helpless and unable to cope. I'm guessing that's what brings you here.
You probably think something is wrong with you or things won't improve. You may be feeling hopeless and helpless.
But what exactly is dorsal vagal shutdown, and how can we recognize and manage it? In this blog, I'll dive deeply into the topic of dorsal vagal shutdowns and provide you with some concrete next steps. Whether you're a therapist, a coach, or simply someone interested in learning more about the human body and mind, this blog will provide valuable insights into an intriguing aspect of our physiology. I will also connect it to trauma and give you concrete next steps.
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Understanding Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
Dorsal vagal shutdown is a potential physiological response to stress that occurs when the body's autonomic nervous system (ANS) is activated. The ANS regulates many of the body's automatic functions, such as heart rate, breathing, and digestion. Basically, it regulates all the stuff we don't have to think about. According to Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory, the ANS has three main branches with three primary states the body can exist in. The three primary states of the body are:
safety & social engagement, regulated by the ventral vagal branch
flight & fight mobility, regulated by the sympathetic branch
shutdown immobility, regulated by the dorsal vagal branch
When the body is exposed to danger, the ANS shifts out of the safety state, the sympathetic flight/fight state is activated, and the body prepares to fight or flee. However, when the stress is too intense or prolonged, the body may shift into a dorsal vagal shutdown, a protective response that helps the body conserve energy and resources.
In the shutdown state, the body's functions slow down significantly in an evolutionary attempt to appear dead. Heart rate and breathing slow down, digestion is inhibited, and the body may feel numb or disconnected.
Causes of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
Various stressors, including physical trauma, emotional trauma, chronic stress, and illness can trigger dorsal vagal shutdown. Any situation that overwhelms the body's ability to cope can lead to dorsal vagal shutdown. For example, a car accident, a natural disaster, or a physical assault can all trigger this response. Similarly, ongoing stressors such as financial problems, relationship issues, or work-related stress can lead to a dorsal vagal shutdown.
Of course, there are different presentations and symptoms of shutdown, which I will discuss in the next section. Chronically existing in a shutdown state won't be the same experience as entering shutdown in a life-threatening instance.
In addition to external stressors, internal factors can contribute to dorsal vagal shutdown. For example, chronic pain, illness, or inflammation can activate the body's stress response and eventually trigger or contribute to a dorsal vagal shutdown. Similarly, unresolved emotional issues such as past trauma or grief can also contribute to this response.
Symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
Dorsal vagal shutdown can manifest in various ways, depending on the individual and the situation. Shutdown can outwardly look obvious, but it can also be more hidden and difficult to detect. Outwardly in a moment of life threat, someone in a dorsal vagal shutdown will physically collapse and go limp. The evolutionary benefit is to mimic death so a predator ignores the organism and instead focuses on another prey. But the shutdown triggered by ongoing stress is more difficult to detect.
Some common symptoms of dorsal vagal shutdown include:
numbness or dissociation
feeling disconnected from reality or other people
low energy or fatigue
slow heart rate or breathing
digestive problems or nausea
These symptoms can be distressing and interfere with daily functioning, making it difficult to work, socialize, or engage in self-care activities.
The experience of chronic dorsal vagal shutdown
My therapy clients consistently describe their dorsal vagal shutdown in similar ways. Their lived experience is like being all alone in a dark room. They say they are lying down on the floor of the dark room, limp and without energy. They often describe the dark room as a black, endless void without walls—the feeling of aloneness and the lack of energy permeate.
The dark room description is one possible experience in a chronic dorsal vagal shutdown. Yes, it probably sounds like depression. The Polyvagal Theory hypothesizes that being stuck in a shutdown autonomic state may underlie depression.
The Link Between Trauma and Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
Trauma and dorsal vagal shutdown go hand-in-hand. To understand this, let's first understand what "trauma" is.
What trauma is
Imagine two people sitting in the back seat of a car. A third person is driving and crashes the car head-first into a tree. Both of the backseat passengers have gone through the same basic event. But they may have very different immediate and future reactions to it. Passenger A may leave that accident, check to ensure safety, and breathe a sigh of relief. Passenger B, on the other hand, may not. Passenger B may be stuck in a traumatized state and unable to immediately get back to a baseline where they can breathe that sigh of relief. Passenger B may be terrified whenever they get into a car for months, while Passenger A does not feel those effects.
Traumatic events have immediate and long-lasting effects on the state of the Autonomic Nervous System. In our car crash example, Passengers A & B both probably initially panicked, freezing their entire body and bracing for impact. Passenger A may have been able to physically leave the crash and self-regulate back into their safety state once the initial danger had passed. Passenger B may have gotten trapped in the car, and their door was unable to open. Their frozen state did not subside; they remained in that defensive state and could not exit it. On top of that, let's assume that Passenger B was ridiculed for the way their body responded to the event. Or that loved one's in B's life said they did not believe B had been through the accident.
Different people can react differently to similar experiences. Two individuals may have distinct immediate and long-term responses to the same event, just like our passengers.
I actually collected all of my trauma content for you in the free Members' Center. Sign up as a site member to access my collected content about trauma and more.
The point - Trauma is not the event. Trauma is the impact of the event. Trauma is also the lack of events, like when a parent does not provide the basics to form a healthy attachment with their child.
More specifically - Trauma is being stuck in a defensive state. Trauma is the inability to access the ventral vagal autonomic pathways responsible for safety and social engagement.
How Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Contributes to Trauma
The dorsal vagal shutdown state is one of the ANS' potential defensive states. One can be traumatized and stuck in any of the Polyvagal defensive states. These are all of the Polyvagal defensive states:
Chronic disruption of connectedness - Shutdown
My therapy clients often get stuck in a dorsal vagal shutdown state by repeatedly being cut off from safe others. This path of trauma usually results from some form of abuse when younger.
But being cut off from safe others can also occur in domestic violence situations or hostage situations. These are situations that the individual cannot run away from or fight against. The individual may enter a dorsal vagal shutdown dominant state if these defensive strategies are unsuccessful.
Acute life threat reaction - Freeze
But another path of trauma could also lead to dorsal vagal activation - acute life-threat reaction. In this path of trauma, an individual's ANS shifts into flight/fight, but cannot utilize the impulse to escape or be aggressive. While this individual is in flight/fight, they are also immobilized through force or perception. The immobilization of flight/fight creates a mixed state - freeze.
Freeze is the combination of flight/fight and shutdown activation. Sympathetic plus dorsal vagal shutdown. Mobilization plus immobilization. A panic attack is an excellent example of freeze.
If someone is immobilized while in flight/fight, they risk being left in a traumatized state. The immobility of dorsal vagal shutdown freezes their flight/fight activation into their system. This activation may lay dormant until triggered by reminders of the context of the trauma. Frozen activation could also present itself through flashbacks, panic attacks, or explosive rage.
Freeze and shutdown are different, though they both involve immobilization.
Coming out of a chronic dorsal vagal shutdown
Evolutionarily, it's possible to come out of a dorsal vagal shutdown. This Polyvagal state evolved within us as a survival function. Shutdown is intended to increase the chances of survival in the face of life threat by going into an immobile state and conserving the body's resources and slowing down its processes.
Wild animals can come out of a shutdown death feign. They are able to shift up their Polyvagal ladder into their sympathetic fight state. If they can successfully utilize their fight energy, they can further climb their ladder into flight and then into their safety state.
Shutdown evolved to be a state we enter into and come out of in brief periods of time. However, humans enter shutdown and remain in shutdown. There are many reasons we stay stuck, like things we do to ourselves and things we do to each other.
Coming out of a chronic dorsal vagal shutdown is not quick for us. Instead, we need to slowly emerge from shutdown. Our sympathetic flight/fight energy will enter our system as we do so. The return of sympathetic energy can be overwhelming for people, which stops the process and sends them back into shutdown.
We often turn to behavioral adaptations as a means to cope with the discomfort of coming out of shutdown. However, we need to move beyond these behavioral adaptations. And even beyond coping or managing the experiences. Instead, someone in shutdown needs to embrace mindfulness and access their state of safety.
Strategies to Recover from Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
A dorsal vagal shutdown does not need to be permanent. It is generally possible to live a more connected and fulfilling life.
Co-regulation & connection
I had the pleasure of interviewing Deb Dana, and she provided a beautiful analogy of coming out of shutdown, comparing it to a turtle coming out of its shell.
To get a turtle to come out of the shell, you don't knock on its shell and you don't shake them... You just kinda sit there patiently... But you really have to be beaming that ventral vagal energy to that system.
She's saying someone in shutdown cannot be forced out of shutdown. Instead, they need to know it's safe to emerge from the shutdown.
"Knowing" does not refer a cognitive knowing. It refers to a biological knowing; of receiving cues of safety from the external environment through neuroception. Cues of safety from a safe other come through co-regulation. When Deb says we need to "beam" safety state cues to someone in shutdown, she is referring to this. So if someone in shutdown can connect with safe others that provide them with a sense of safety, this can be helpful. However, this can be difficult, especially for someone in shutdown. So the next option might be a better starting point.
Passive safety cues from the environment
I recommend starting with the environment you live in. It's possible to increase the cues of safety that your system detects. Passive safety cues are signals from the environment that are neurocepted as safe. They are cues that provide calm to your body.
Everything around you right now is affecting your Polyvagal state. Pieces of your environment such as:
proximity and more
These and many more passive environmental cues are detected as either more or less safe. For the most part, they're probably benign and don't have a major impact on your feelings of calm. But they might have a significant impact.
For example, you might be in an environment that provides you with lots of safety cues. But imagine hearing a train blaring its horn outside of your window. This would probably have a significant impact on your level of relaxation and calm.
Extreme example, I know. Let's try another one.
Imagine you have a great environment you feel safe in, like a beach. But then, someone invades your space. Your feelings of safety will lessen depending on your relationship with that person and their proximity to you.
The point - Environmental cues like proximity and lighting can impact your access to your safety state.
Take this idea and apply it to your home environment. Do an assessment of your home and identify what cues provide you with more feelings of safety and which diminish your safety experiences. It's possible to manipulate your environment to provide more passive safety cues. In my Building Safety Anchors course, this is covered in much more detail and I give you specific steps to address to create your own personal safety cue environment.
Mindfully experience the passive safety cues.
After setting up more safety cues, the next step is to experience them mindfully. Allow yourself to feel a sense of calm and safety. Experience your connection with your external environment.
Mindfully allow the dorsal vagal shutdown experience from safety.
If you can mindfully connect with your environment, the next step is to allow slight dorsal vagal activation. This is easier than it sounds.
In shutdown, the body immobilizes. So allow yourself to immobilize. Allow yourself to be immobile while taking in your passive safety cues mindfully.
In shutdown, the environment is typically overwhelming and overstimulating. So listen to this and reduce stimulation. Then experience what it's like to be immobile while safe, with lower stimulation.
If you allow a mindful experience of your shutdown, then your body's natural capacity to self-regulate can emerge. As you exit shutdown, your flight/fight energy will return to your system.
Seeking Professional Help for Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
If you're experiencing symptoms of dorsal vagal shutdown, seeking professional help and guidance is important. A mental health professional or other healthcare provider can help you understand the underlying causes of your symptoms and develop a personalized treatment plan to address them. If you need therapy, find a therapist. I recommend a Polyvagal-informed one if you can find one.
There is hope in coming out of shutdown!
Existing in a chronic dorsal vagal shutdown is tough, I know. Shutdown has been my "home away from home" my entire life. It's possible to come out of it, though it is a long process.
Thanks for reading this blog. I hope you found it informative and have some next steps on what you can do.
I created a course and community to help you get relief from your stuck dorsal vagal shutdown state. The courses teach you how to get unstuck, and the community supports you. And better yet, you can get the courses and the community for one subscription through Stuck Not Broken: Total Access.
If you want to learn more, click the button below.
Do you trust in your ability to self-regulate?
As a biological organism, you are compelled to self-regulate. You must. However, trauma gets in the way. Do you still have trust that you can self-regulate?
Q: What is dorsal vagal shutdown?
A: Dorsal vagal shutdown is a physiological response to stress where the body conserves energy and resources by slowing down its functions, leading to symptoms such as numbness, disconnection, and low energy.
Q: What causes dorsal vagal shutdown?
A: Various stressors, including physical and emotional trauma, chronic stress, and illness, can trigger dorsal vagal shutdown. Internal factors like chronic pain and unresolved emotional issues can also contribute to this response.
Q: How can I recover from dorsal vagal shutdown?
A: Recovery involves co-regulation and connection with safe others, enhancing passive safety cues in your environment, mindfully experiencing these cues, and gradually allowing slight dorsal vagal activation while feeling safe and supported.
Quotes from this blog:
Shutdown evolved to be a state we enter into and come out of in brief periods of time. However, humans enter shutdown and remain in shutdown.
Trauma is not the event. Trauma is the impact of the event. Trauma is also the lack of events, like when a parent does not provide the basics to form a healthy attachment with their child.
In shutdown, the environment is typically overwhelming and overstimulating. So listen to this and reduce stimulation. Then experience what it's like to be immobile, while safe, with lower stimulation.
Justin Sunseri is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Coach specializing in trauma relief. He is the host of the Stuck Not Broken podcast and author of the book Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. He specializes in treating trauma and helps individuals get "unstuck" from their defensive states.