top of page

I'm shocked this Polyvagal concept is still mistaught

Updated: May 4, 2023

No, me saying I'm "shocked" in the title is not an understatement. Maybe I shouldn't be.

I'll also share the reason why I think people are confusing these two different Polyvagal states. If I'm right, it's a ridiculous reason. I hope I'm wrong.

Shutdown and Freeze are not the same thing

I used to make this same mistake. I would use the word "freeze" when referring to the state of immobilization, the bottom rung on the Polyvagal ladder.

I even used it on my podcast for the first 15 episodes until I talked with the Theory's creator, Dr. Stephen Porges. That's when he told me this -

There is this whole ambiguity because people use the word ‘freeze’ when they really mean “shutting down.” The mouse in the jaws of a cat is not frozen, it’s just limp… The limp loss of muscle tone is a dorsal vagal response (Porges, Stuck Not Broken episode 15).

Shutdown is collapsing or going limp. Freeze is stiffening.

Let me do a little Porges translation here. He's saying freeze and shutting down are distinct. They aren't the same.

He uses the example of a mouse in the jaws of a cat. And he uses the imagery of the mouse being limp. That's shutting down; what he calls a "dorsal vagal response," which is the bottom of the Polyvagal ladder.

Freeze is also a dorsal vagal response, but different. Freeze is the combination of dorsal vagal shutdown plus sympathetic flight/fight response. Freeze is flight/fight in combination with shutdown. Mobilization and immobilization at the same time.

There is an intense and rapid buildup of energy to run or fight, while at the same time the body is immobilized or immobilizing.

When functioning defensively as a fight/flight machine, humans and other mammals need to move. If we are... placed in isolation or restrained, our nervous system… wants to immobilize (Porges, Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory 67).

The body will immobilize with a neuroception of life threat. This can be through external physical forced immobilization or the internal perception that the body is going to die. Assaults are an obvious example - there is an impulse to run away, but the individual may be unable to do so for various reasons. They also aren’t able to fight back. They may also be physically forced into immobilization with the sympathetic energy in their system. As a result, they may enter a freeze mixed state.

Why I think people continue to confuse the two

I really hope I'm wrong, but I think people love to focus on "trauma responses" that start with the letter "F". The idea is absurd, I know. But that's what I see over and over and over again. People in the trauma content creation space love their "F" trauma responses. From fight and flight to fawn and flop to friend and forget and even f***.

I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think people want to say "shutdown" because it breaks the F pattern.

Truth is, I had a hard time letting go of it too after Dr. Porges clarified the difference for me. *sad face*

I want you to have clear and accurate information

That's why I made Polyvagal 101. It's my course that teaches the Polyvagal Theory clearly. You'll know the theory and be able to connect it to trauma. Doing so will also lay the foundation for you to have a new self-narrative and reduce your self-blame, shame and judgment. Click the link below to find out more about Polyvagal 101.

971 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Kommentar

Thank you! This has been bothering me for a while, every time I see people conflate the two, and would wonder if I was wrong. I’m grateful to have it clarified.

Gefällt mir
bottom of page