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Yes, Unstucking can be scary

Annabelle was ready to know more

I was explaining to Annabelle - of my teen clients - about why she was feeling sudden bursts of intense anger and having impulsive thoughts. I doodled a Polyvagal Ladder for her and narrowed in on the mixed state of freeze (which is different than shutdown).

I described for her what was happening - that the immobilization paralysis of her freeze state was alleviating, leaving her with the now less frozen but intense fight state.

But before I explained this concept to her, I could see in her face... something. I paused and asked if she was present enough to take the information in.

Annabelle existed in a very shutdown, often dissociative state. She had been through - to put it mildly, severe traumatic incidents. Things she only vaguely alluded to with me and never named or described.

She reflected for a moment, and then said, "I have a feeling I'm going to learn something about myself."

I smiled with my Polyvagal eye crinkles, and confirmed, that yes, she would. And I asked again if she was present enough and ready to do so.

She paused for another moment. And then said, "Yes. I want to know."

Fear is a normal part of the process

Annabelle had gotten to a point in our work together where she was able to stay anchored enough to be curious about herself. To be curious about the why of her stuck state and how her body was was coming out of it. Things with her didn't start that way. Not by a long shot.

At first, she was filled with fear. Any sort of introspection was too much. Even learning the basic idea about how our bodies can be prepared for safety or defense was too much.

Fear is the experience of immobilization when prepared to run or fight.

If you're in danger and successfully able to run away from it, it won't be experienced as fear. It will be an adrenaline-fueled sprint to safety. If you're immobilized while adrenaline-fueled, then the fear sets in.

So when working on your stuck traumatized state, the immobility of fear is going to be a part of that work. Especially if you're in a stuck freeze state. It's going to come up.

And it did with Annabelle. At first. Over time, the fear subsided. The immobilization subsided, making space for the fight energy within her to emerge.

She got to a point where she could notice a bit of hesitancy in her system as I began to explain to her what was happening within her. That hesitancy used to be fear. But she noticed it, allowed it to be there and stayed anchored in her safety state.

It might be too soon

If you're filled with fear and triggered at the idea of looking inward and working on your trauma, there's a good chance that it's just not time yet. I work with my therapy clients on their stuck trauma when they are ready to. And that's not until they have the vagal brake strength developed enough to handle the surge of flight/fight energy that comes with relieving trauma. Basically, once their distress tolerance is high enough.

Instead, it might be a good idea to work on the strength of your safety state. This is how I work with my therapy clients and what I recommend to others. Once the safety state is strengthened, then you will be able to work on the trauma more directly.

If this is you, I created a course for you. It's called Building Safety Anchors and teaches you everything you need to know to build on your Polyvagal Theory knowledge and build the strength of your vagal brake. It's the middle phase of my larger Polyvagal Trauma Relief System and a necessary component of trauma recovery that is misunderstood or ignored.

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Feb 15, 2023

“I smiled with my polyvagal eye crinkles” I’m stealing this and beginning to say it.

For anyone reading this, I very much recommend the BSA course! Building the vagal break is so important. Unstucking can be scary, acknowledge the scary, attune to body, and convey safety. When there is a flavor of safety, you’ll be able to sit with what you’re going through with a different lens.

Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Justin Sunseri, LMFT
Feb 17, 2023
Replying to

You’re amazing! Thanks for the kind words and the testimonial! I hope to see you at another meetup soon!


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