Justin Sunseri, LMFT is one of the hosts of the Polyvagal Podcast & a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in CA. He notes that "doing the Polyvagal Podcast is just another way to educate and assist people in their journey of becoming unstuck, in a way that is easy to understand and utilize." This article was first published on his website.
You’ve probably noticed by now that I refer to the third defensive behavior set as “shutdown” and not “freeze.” Typically, the word “freeze” is used and was my default word as well. Until I chatted with Dr Porges himself and he clarified that “freeze” and “shutdown” are distinct phenomena, though closely connected.
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.
Shutdown is collapsing or going limp. Freeze is stiffening. Freeze is the combination of sympathetic arousal plus shutdown. It’s flight/fight in combination with immobilization. There is an intense and rapid buildup of energy to run or fight, while at the same time the body is immobilizing or forced to immobilize. The sympathetic energy ends up getting locked into the nervous system. This is one of the two paths to trauma.
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).
The body will immobilize with a neuroception of life threat. This can be through external physical force or the internal perception that the body is going to die. I’d prefer not to go into specific examples of this, but sexual assault is an obvious category. Before someone is sexually assaulted, they instinctively want to run away, but are unable to do so for various reasons. They also aren’t able to fight back. They could possibly drop down into a shutdown and actually go limp. But they may also be physically forced into immobilization with the sympathetic energy in their system. As a result, they enter the freeze state.
People can also enter the freeze state in everyday scenarios, like being anesthetized while highly anxious (sympathetic flight energy) before surgery. When someone goes under in this state, they come out of their anesthesia with a sympathetic charge. They wake up in a fit, screaming or flailing. This is something my wife would witness firsthand during her time as a nurse in a surgical room.
Panic is probably the most common experience of freeze. When we panic, we are highly charged, fearful, activated and alert. Yet we’re also stiff, frozen in place and unable to move. We aren’t completely gone, we’re present enough to experience the discomfort. Panic might lead to being catatonic (full freeze) and not cognitively available.
Example: Melody enters her therapy session at a high level of sympathetic arousal, wanting to fight a group of peers she perceives as being a threat to her. She is not able to run, since they know what school she attends. Melody is convinced they might be waiting for her after school. She is also not able to fight them, since they are not present. Being outnumbered and surprised also leaves her without a clear target or possibility of winning the fight. In session, she ruminates on the thoughts, going deeper and deeper into her sympathetic arousal without the possibility of getting to safety. The therapist attempts numerous interventions, including walking outside, deep breathing and reality testing, as well as discussing safety planning. All these interventions overwhelm her further in combination with the therapist’s desperation and frustration, which sends her cues of disconnection. Her nervous system attempts to shut down, while she is sympathetically charged, resulting in panic, sending further internal danger cues and thoughts that spiral out of control. Finally, she enters a catatonic freeze, her entire body contorting and freezing in place, which lasts for a few minutes.
People also experience some version of freeze when it comes to phobias. They are highly sympathetically charged, yet neurocept that their life is in danger. I often have trouble when it comes to heights and don’t really know why. But my body neurocepts life threat when I’m up high.
There is a bridge that arches at a drastically high angle on the way to San Francisco, in the Walnut Creek area of California. This bridge is my worst nightmare. In my head, I know I am safe - my car is in good shape, I can drive just fine and the bridge won’t collapse. Yet when I am on that bridge, my body gets highly charged with an increased heart rate, rapid and very shallow breathing, muscles tensing, rapid speech and an inability to ground myself despite my best efforts. Story follows state, so I imagine that the car is going to die in the middle of the bridge and cause people behind me to crash into me and each other. While this is going on, since I am unable to escape the situation, my body begins to shut down. I go numb, the blood exits my face, blood decreases to my brain which results in a noticeable dissociation. I make it over the hump and can see the Earth, but only after talking out loud and basically narrating everything that is happening while forcing myself to keep breathing regularly. The freeze immediately resolves itself after I get to the ground again.
The trailer for "Life Overtakes Me" from Netflix is heart-wrenching, but a great example of extreme shutdown. And also a short documentary that is very much worth watching.
People fainting on a rollercoaster is another example of shutdown. Unlike the trailer above, these individuals in shutdown come out of it soon after. Some go right back into it though.
This video of goats shows the tense rigidity of the freeze response. Notice they are sympathetically charged when they freeze. They're either running and/or being actively scared by some mean humans. I do not condone the human behavior at all!
And that's the difference between shutdown and freeze. Hope that clears it up. For more on the freeze state in particular, I highly recommend the work of Peter Levine. His books are easy to understand and he spends a lot of time on the freeze state. In An Unspoken Voice is phenomenal for a deep understanding and Healing Trauma is the go to for, well, healing trauma.