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Is it Possible to Come Out of Polyvagal Shutdown?

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

I saw a comment on this video asking if it's possible to come out of shutdown. And the answer is YES.

What is shutdown?

Shutdown is a state of the autonomic nervous system. It's at the bottom of the Polyvagal Ladder, the last autonomic shift that happens in the face of a life-threatening situation. If the body cannot mitigate a danger through socialization, nor through running, nor through fighting, then an immobile collapse is the last resort.

Shutdowns involve a limp collapse, which is different than a stiff freeze response. Shutdowns could also include a dissociative response, along with numbing. The entire body shuts down, conserving its resources, anticipating a potential opportunity to emerge out of shutdown and into the fight state, one rung up the Polyvagal Ladder.

Is it possible to come out of shutdown?

Yes, it's generally possible and something I often see in therapy with my clients. The Polyvagal states all evolved within us as ways to optimize bodily resources in the face of varying threat levels or safety.

In the shutdown state, the evolutionary benefit is to conserve resources. When the organism neurocepts that there is an opportunity to come out of shutdown, then it climbs its autonomic ladder into its sympathetic flight/fight state. Coming out of shutdown, the first rung up the ladder will specifically be the fight state. Coming out of shutdown results in the organism surging in fight energy and using its upper body to create space from the predator, then using its flight energy to escape to safety. So functionally, biologically, yes, its possible to come out of a shutdown state.

What is needed to come out of shutdown?

Typically, people stuck in a shutdown state need to slowly allow the sympathetic flight/fight state to return. To do so, the individual will need to listen to the needs of their shutdown state. Each of the Polyvagal autonomic states has specific needs and impulses to allow further ladder climbing to happen. These can look different amongst individuals, but will generally be of the same flavor.

For shutdown, the stuck person will typically require low stimulation. Quiet spaces, predictability, soothing music or no music at all. Rest, low energy activities. They will need to listen to their body's impulse to immobilize and allow the immobilization to happen. They may need to be alone in solitude (not isolation).

Unfortunately, those stuck in shutdown will often isolate themselves, blocking others out from their life and minimize or stuff down their feelings. They may be in darkness and distract their mind from unbearable sadness or emptiness. This method of coping lacks the present moment experience of mindfulness.

Shutdown needs to be experienced mindfully - safely anchored in the ventral vagal system and experienced with curiosity. Building Safety Anchors can help you to build the safety state required to experience defensive states. And Unstucking Defensive States can help you to experience the stuck state while regulated. To learn more about shutdown and the Polyvagal ladder, Polyvagal 101 is the best place to go.

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Do you trust in your ability to self-regulate?

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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?


Author Bio:

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.

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Oct 10, 2022

I can’t wait to sign up for UDS, I’ve gone through Polyvagal 101 and loved it. I use this with myself, family, and clients, and have noticed a huge difference. Thank you for spending so much time to help!

Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Oct 10, 2022
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My absolute pleasure! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. :)


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