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Freeze / SNB105

Updated: Mar 19, 2023


  • In this episode, I continue your audio Polyvagal Master Class with a lesson on the Freeze mixed state.

  • My name is Justin Sunseri.

  • I’m a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist obsessed with the polyvagal theory.

  • Welcome to Stuck Not Broken.


But before I get into things -put yourself first. I keep every episode as safe as I can, but just by the nature of the topics, you may experience some stuff come up. Take a break if you need to.

This episode might be challenging for you.

This podcast is not therapy, nor intended to be a replacement for therapy.

We hear about ‘freeze’ a lot, what does it really mean? This is the polyvagal-informed definition of freeze, also aligns with somatic experiencing. Might not align with general usage.


  • Primary states are like primary colors

    • What we already covered

      • safe/social, flight/fight and shutdown

      • Red, blue and yellow

      • Problem with assigning colors to states

    • Specific pathways associated with these states

    • These states exist on their own, nothing mixes to create them

  • Mixed states are like mixed colors

    • Primary colors mix to make mixed states

  • Two pathways are active at the same time


  • Shutdown + flight/fight

  • Dorsal vagal parasympathetic + sympathetic

  • Immobilized while ready to run or fight

    • Motor is on

    • Heart beat is up, muscles are tense

  • Immobilization can come from force or perception

    • Such as during a restraint, like a sexual assault or anaesthesia

    • Or a perceived/neurocepted danger, like during a panic attack when triggered by something


  • Limp immobilization vs tense immobilization

    • Shutdown can come from an overwhelming attack, like a mouse vs cat

    • Freeze can come from an overwhelming attack as well

  • Common mixup

    • Porges often talks about limp immobilization

    • Levine often talks about sympathetic immobilization

  • Examples in my blog of shutdown vs freeze -

  • Shutdown can come from many sources, but not getting needs met during childhood is one

    • Chronic disruption of connectedness

    • I associate with CPTSD (episode 52), though not an exclusive thing

    • Person is in a prolonged period of captivity

      • ‘Captivity’ is applicable to children in abusive homes as well since they cannot run or fight

    • Lack of development of reliable co-regulation, then no self-regulation and ability to climb ladder out of shutdown

    • Pattern of unstable or dysfunctional relationships

      • Inability to recognize safety

    • Lots of shame, guilt, unworthiness

  • Freeze also from many sources, but acute incidents likely

    • I associate with PTSD (episode 47), though not an exclusive thing

      • Exposure to the direct event(s)

      • flashbacks, nightmares, reliving it, triggered by cues of the event(s)...

        • Body stuck in that moment in time


  • Experienced as panic, rage or overwhelm day to day

  • Experienced as flashbacks, nightmares

  • Body is stuck in that moment and triggered by similarities to that moment

    • Outside of certain contexts, the stuck energy might not be a huge issue

    • But when triggered, it can be

  • When that freeze energy is triggered, it looks like rage, panic or overwhelm


  • Animals can shake it off

    • Peter Levine’s work

    • Humans can cry

      • Spontaneous breathing, shaking, trembling

    • We get the shivers and shake it off

      • Like if a spider is on us, we freak out to get it off but then quiver to rid the charge

        • Feel up spine

  • Longer term - a little bit at a time typically

    • Thaw

    • Easily overwhelmed and not helpful if not ready

    • Simply revisiting the traumatic events is not necessarily helpful, will be potentially reinforcing of the stuck freeze energy

  • Big discharge is possible, but not likely

    • Might attempt to discharge and come out as panic or overwhelm or rage

    • Crying that turns into rage - client story

    • Client that came into session in a crying panic story

      • Got through it but was not completely ready

  • Safety pathways need to be exercised to handle this

    • “The vagal brake” is necessary

      • Build this through exercising the safety pathways, which BSA can be helpful in.

    • If enough, the discharge will be a much different experience

      • Spontaneous breathing, surge of energy, waves and tingles

      • The stuck sympathetic energy will be experienced for the sensations that it is, not as rage or panic or overwhelm

  • Generally we are looking for a thawing of the freeze mixed state


  • I hope you’ve learned something new to help you climb your polyvagal ladder.

  • Bye!

This week’s Patreon episode -

Intro/Outro music & Transition Sounds by Benjo Beats -

National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1 (800) 273-8255

National Domestic Violence Hotline -1 (800) 799-7233

LGBT Trevor Project Lifeline - 1 (866) 488-7386

National Sexual Assault Hotline - 1 (800) 656-4673

Crisis Text Line - Text “HOME” to 741741

Call 911 for emergency

This podcast is not therapy, not intended to be therapy or be a replacement for therapy. Nothing in this creates or indicates a therapeutic relationship. Please consult with your therapist or seek for one in your area if you are experiencing mental health sx. Nothing in this podcast should be construed to be specific life advice; it is for educational and entertainment purposes only.

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