If you're living in trauma, you may be familiar with shutdown. This is a Polyvagal state where you feel immobilized and disconnected, often described as emptiness or numbness. It can be difficult to come out of this state, but there are ways to slowly build up your distress tolerance and begin to feel more connected again.
The first step is to understand what shutdown is as a biological state of your body. Shutdown is a survival response, something that evolved to help the organism survive life threat. Even though we typically are not in actual life or death situations, this dorsal vagal system still exists within us and is active throughout the day to some degree.
These biological pathways are responsible for immobilization. Think of it like playing dead. Doing so increases the chances of survival by conserving the body's resources through slowed heart rate, breathing and metabolism. You can get a deeper dive into shutdown in this chapter of my free ebook - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm.
When you're in shutdown, your body is trying to increase your chances of survival by conserving energy and minimizing movement. This state is different from freeze, which is a mixed state of immobilization and mobilization. This is a key differentiation and something that is often confused.
Coming out of shutdown is possible
The good news is that there are ways to slowly come out of shutdown and begin to feel more connected to the world around you. One key aspect is to build up the ventral vagal safety pathways, which are responsible for feeling safe and connected.
As you build the strength of your Polyvagal safety state, this allows for the possibility of your body's natural capacity for self-regulation. This is otherwise known as Polyvagal ladder-climbing, a concept from Deb Dana.
You can build the strength of your safety state through doing things that bring you a stronger sense of being in the present moment. Things that bring you to calm and connection. Things that allow your shutdown state to exist without getting sucked into the dysregulation of shutdown.
It's completely okay to exist in a shutdown state. Coming out of shutdown is really only possible once you first allow it. But there's a big difference between allowing shutdown to exist mindfully and wallowing in it. They look and feel much different.
Allowing the shutdown means letting it be there without getting sucked into it. A normal part of shutdown is the impulse to be alone and to reduce stimulation. I you get sucked into it, it may look like locking yourself in a room with the lights off and sleeping all day.
But it is possible to allow the impulses of shutdown and to do so mindfully. Validate that you are having that impulse to be alone and reduce stimulation. Normalize the context of that impulse. And then allow yourself to fulfill that need.
If you allow yourself to be alone in shutdown mindfully, that's called solitude. If you are in shutdown defensively, that's called isolation.
Being in solitude might mean you pick the safest spot in your home and turn the lights down. Or open the blinds. You should probably set your phone aside. Maybe have quiet or music that is anchoring for you in your safety state. And then experience what it's like to first anchor yourself in safety. And then what it's like to allow shutdown to be present and actually experience it for what it is. From curiosity.
I recommend stillness for shutdown, but movement is okay too. Your form of solitude might be going for a slow-paced walk by yourself. Or walking your dog. Mindfully noticing the environment on your walk and being curious about what you discover. Stretching and yoga are good too. Or just being still and using your sense to orient to the environment.
It's likely that as you stay anchored in your safety state, stillness will be the result as it mixes with your shutdown state. This is called a Polyvagal mixed state.
Coming out of shutdown is a slow process.
It's important to remember that coming out of shutdown is a slow process and cannot be forced. Shutdown is a state of conservation. It's evolutionary intention is to slow down and conserve the body's resources.
Emerging from shutdown and into sympathetic flight/fight is best done slowly. You may not be familiar with the sensations, emotions, cognitions and impulses of flight/fight. Allowing these back into your system is probably best. This builds the body's capacity to not only allow this energy back into the system, but to harness and use it appropriately.
Otherwise, it's common to emerge from shutdown and feel chronic irritation. You may snap at the people you care about. Be more aggressive than usual. That's because fight is actually the first shift that needs to happen. From shutdown into fight and then into flight. And then eventually into the safety state at the top of the Polyvagal ladder.
If you're struggling with shutdown, it's important to remember that you're not alone. Many people who have experienced trauma struggle with chronically existing in this state. With time and patience, you can begin to come out of shutdown and feel more connected to the world around you.
If you think you are ready to work on trauma recovery, I created a System for you. It's called the Polyvagal Trauma Relief System and includes not only clear and accessible teachings, not only bi-monthly virtual meetups with me, but also a private community to connect with.
Phases 2 and 3 of my System will be helpful with recovering from shutdown. Phase 2 is building the strength of your safety state. And phase 3 is directly experiencing the shutdown with curiosity and allowing self-regulation to occur.
Q: What is shutdown and how does it differ from freeze?
A: Shutdown is a biological response that evolved to help organisms survive life-threatening situations by conserving energy and minimizing movement. It differs from freeze, which is a mixed state of immobilization and mobilization. Read more about this here >
Q: How can one come out of shutdown?
A: One way to come out of shutdown is to build up the ventral vagal safety pathways, which are responsible for feeling safe and connected. This can be achieved through activities that bring a sense of calm and connection and allow the shutdown state to exist without causing dysregulation. It is important to allow shutdown to exist mindfully without getting sucked into it, and to validate the impulse to be alone and reduce stimulation. This process takes time and cannot be forced.
Q: What is the Polyvagal Trauma Relief System, and how can it help with recovery from shutdown?
A: The Polyvagal Trauma Relief System is a system I created that provides clear and accessible teachings, bi-monthly virtual meetups, and a private community to connect with. Phases 2 and 3 of the system are helpful for recovering from shutdown, as they involve building the strength of the safety state and directly experiencing shutdown with curiosity to allow self-regulation to occur.
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.
Quotes from this blog:
"Shutdown is a survival response, something that evolved to help the organism survive life threat."
"Coming out of shutdown is really only possible once you first allow it."
"With time and patience, you can begin to come out of shutdown and feel more connected to the world around you."
"As you build the strength of your Polyvagal safety state, this allows for the possibility of your body's natural capacity for self-regulation."
"If you allow yourself to be alone in shutdown mindfully, that's called solitude. If you are in shutdown defensively, that's called isolation."