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the Shutdown System of the Polyvagal Paradigm

Updated: Mar 19, 2023

This is a section from my free e-book - Trauma & the Polyvagal Paradigm. Make sure you're signed up for my email list to get access to this and future ebooks. There's a signup at the top and bottom of this page.

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Shutdown

The final rung on the Polyvagal ladder is the shutdown state, stemming from the dorsal motor area of the brainstem. This is also a parasympathetic branch, like the safe/social state, but has a distinct function and experience. When we can’t socially engage, when we can’t run, when we can’t fight, we shutdown. "In addition to the well-known fight and flight reactions, there is a third, lesser-known reaction to threat: immobilization" (Levine 48).


The shutdown state is responsible for the ability to immobilize. In shutdown, immobilization specifically takes on the characteristics of a limp collapse. Muscles go weak and bodily processes slow down dramatically. Shutting down - like the other two primary states discussed - might allow for an increase of survivability. When the organism shuts down, there are a handful of potential benefits.


The organism in shutdown is still neurocepting levels of safety or danger. If there is a potential for the organism to fight and flee the situation, it may do so. Dr. Porges has provided this example - the mouse in the jaws of a cat goes limp, but it may not be dead. It may come out of that limp collapse when the cat puts it down.


This brings up the next benefit to the shutdown state - the return of sympathetic energy. When an organism exits from shutdown, the next rung up the Polyvagal ladder is the sympathetic state, fight then flight. With this returning fight energy, the organism can use its sympathetic power to create space between itself and the predator, then use its sympathetic flight potential to escape and return to safety.

During acute shutdown, the body might go into a dissociation and/or numbness, both of which may increase the chances of survival. If numb and not feeling the pain of what was experienced, then escape is more likely. Likewise, if dissociated, then not remembering the event and focusing on escape could also help to survive.


And finally, in this state the body is conserving resources. Everything in the autonomic nervous system is slowing down, including heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. The body is mimicking death and maybe even preparing for death, giving the organism a painless and disconnected end of life. These conserved resources can be used if the organism neurocepts that escape is possible and needs to consume large amounts of fuel for a sympathetic burst.


What shutdown feels like

Being stuck in a shutdown state can feel very disconnected. Disconnected from others or even disconnected from the self. Clients in therapy often report feeling very “alone” or “lonely.”

Along with feelings of loneliness are also feelings of hopelessness, numbness and fatigue. A chronic sense of tiredness and a lack of energy are normal. Someone in this state does not have much access to their mobilization energy, therefore are left with a feeling of emptiness.

Someone in this stuck state is easily overwhelmed by things outside of their protective or comfort zone. Being with others in large gatherings or even socializing for too long can leave them feeling drained. Sources of large amounts of stimulation can also induce this feeling of being drained and preferring isolation. This person may prefer to be at home in bed with low stimulation.

In this state, things can seem not only overwhelming, but also uninteresting or pointless. This person is lacking the energy necessary for feeling excitement and passion. A common experience of this individual will be of being in a “fog,” a “cloud” or “grey.” The vitality of life has been drained from them, leaving them with dulled experiences. The sensory experience of life for them is much different than for others.


What shutdown looks like

Shutdown is a state we enter when we can’t run away or fight. In the moment of survival, it looks like a limp collapse, immobilization, “playing dead” or even fainting. There is a significant drop in blood pressure and heart rate as the body goes into conservation mode. There is an impulse to hide or even curl up and become smaller.


I overheard a coworker next door to my office after she made a major mistake (yes, I was eavesdropping, but it was hard not to!). At first, I heard her say, “Help me, Jesus!” She was mumbling to herself in exasperation and mild panic. I could hear her rapid breathing as another co-worker came to check on her (I thought about it, I swear). She explained to him that she sent a text message to the wrong person and it was not a flattering one (something about not wanting to deal with them and have them come over).

This was a situation that she could not run from and that she could not fight off. As the other co-worker chatted with her and attempted to provide reassurance and levity, she said, “I could go under that bridge over there and curl up into a ball.” She was expressing that her body had an impulse to go into shutdown - to be smaller, be hidden, isolated and out of danger that she could not run away from or fight. She didn’t go into a full-on shutdown, but those biological pathways were active.


Luckily, she did receive that support from our co-worker (I swear, really, I was going to), she expressed gratitude to him as he reassured her it wasn’t that bad and he had seen worse. He provided smiles to her and laughter, easing her defensive state. She thanked him for being present and supporting her. And I sat in my office the entire time, eavesdropping. And I don’t even feel bad for it.


The shutdown state feels very lonely and there is often an impulse to be alone for someone stuck in this state. So someone in a stuck shutdown state can often be seen to be alone or isolating. This could be staying home and neglecting potential social avenues. It could also be staying in bed more than is necessary for basic rest.


This state looks very much like - and may be directly connected to - the clinical diagnosis of depression. Isolation, numbness, lack of motivation, easy overstimulation and a general lack of enthusiasm or interest in novelty are all similar between a chronic shutdown and depression.


Coming out of shutdown

To come out of shutdown, the organism needs to climb up their Polyvagal ladder into their sympathetic flight/fight state. Specifically, the fight sympathetic energy first, then flight. Wild animals are really good at doing this. They can emerge from shutdown, into flight/fight and then get to safety with no problem. Humans are technically able to do so, but we seem to have lost our ability to do so naturally.


Our human thoughts make it difficult to emerge from shutdown into flight/fight mobilization. We judge the experience. We question the experience. We tell ourselves things that keep us stuck in shutdown, like “I don’t deserve to be happier.” Or “There’s no point in trying” or “I’m not strong enough.”


But we can come out of shutdown eventually. Coming out requires a gentle return of energy for us humans. Animals can tolerate the large return of sympathetic energy, but us humans tend to do better with small pieces of that energy returning. We do so through small actions, like:

  • Re-orienting to the environment through the senses

  • Mindfully existing in calm and quiet

  • Being with safe people in safe environments

Even if we can’t do all of these pieces, simply being more aware of our shutdown state can be helpful. Being aware of and actually mindfully experiencing it can be helpful. Feeling the sensations of being in shutdown without judgment can be helpful. It’s not second nature, but it’s possible.


Journal:

  1. Name one instance from this past week when you felt your shutdown state active.

  2. How do you know it was shutdown?



 

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