Dorsal Vagal Shut Down

Imagine you are a high-achieving professional successfully navigating the challenges of your career while coping with unresolved trauma from being sexually assaulted during your college years. One evening, when stressed out trying to finish work on an important project, you suddenly feel paralyzed, staring at the screen but unable to type another word. Your heart rate slows, and your surroundings appear weird as you experience deep, unexplainable sadness and detachment.

This paralysis occurs anytime you attempt to confront your trauma or manage stress. Or, you may experience bone-deep exhaustion that no amount of rest can cure. Maybe you feel numb, disconnected, or stuck because your feelings are so strong.

If this resonates with you, you might be experiencing the dorsal vagal shutdown, a physiological brake your body applies when you feel emotionally overwhelmed. This feeling of overwhelm typically stems from excessive or prolonged stress or unresolved trauma.

Most people have been so overcome by emotions that their bodies pause, unable to respond, at least once. For some, however, this becomes a chronic response to stress. Understanding the link between trauma and dorsal vagal shutdown can help you control and recover from this excessive response. In this text, you’ll find practical strategies for immediate coping and long-term healing, equipping you with the knowledge and tools to recover control of your body and mind.

What Exactly is Dorsal Vagal Shutdown?

The dorsal vagal shutdown (DVS) is an extreme bodily reaction to a perceived threat. When we perceive overwhelming stress, our body may react with a complete shutdown. This often happens against our will, immobilizing us completely and triggering feelings of confusion, guilt, and shame. Imagine witnessing a friend being physically assaulted, and instead of helping them physically or shouting for help, you freeze, unable to speak, move, or do anything else. While highly disturbing, this response to severe stress and trauma is not caused by our conscious choice, but rather by our body’s autonomic nervous system (ANS), an instinctual survival mechanism designed to keep us safe in life-threatening situations.

In other words, the dorsal vagal shutdown is our body’s involuntary, physiological response that can have profound implications for our mental and physical health.

The Protective Role of the Dorsal Vagal Complex

The dorsal vagal complex is a branch of the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve in the body, and a crucial part of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). It enables communication between the brain and various organs, ensuring physical balance and relaxation. The dorsal vagal complex regulates the body’s most vital reactions to acute stress, primarily through shutdown mechanisms. This results in a dramatic decline in biological functions—heart rate, blood pressure, and muscular tone all decrease. The body freezes or collapses as an adaptive response designed to protect the organism by acting dead or conserving energy in life-threatening situations. However, in today’s environment, when threats are more psychological than physical, dorsal vagal shutdown can leave people feeling numb, powerless, and detached from the reality around them. When you put your mind and body on the stop, they don’t seem to communicate with each other, leaving you exhausted or detached from the world around you.

The triggers that can lead to shutdown can range from acute traumas to the chronic stressors of daily life.

Understanding the Role of the ANS

To properly understand dorsal vagal shutdown, it is vital to understand the larger system in which it operates: the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

Our nervous system has two main parts:

  • The central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord, is responsible for cognitive functions and movement.
  • The peripheral nervous system (PNS) – oversees muscle movements and involuntary bodily functions like heartbeat, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal via the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

The ANS functions below conscious awareness and is critical to maintaining body homeostasis. It is divided into two main branches:

  • The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is the arousing nervous system that mobilizes the body’s resources in a fight-or-flight response to stress. When we are anxious or perceive danger (real or imagined), the SNS prepares us for action by speeding up our heartbeat and respiration.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) does the opposite. The calming nervous system conserves energy by slowing the heart rate, increasing intestinal and gland activity, and relaxing gastrointestinal sphincter muscles, allowing us to unwind and relax.

Understanding Polyvagal Theory: A Brief Overview

Dr. Stephen W. Porges’ Polyvagal theory provides a better understanding of the ANS, particularly emphasizing the importance of the vagus nerve in emotion regulation, social interaction, and fear response.

According to Polyvagal theory, the parasympathetic nervous system is divided and operates in three main modes:

  • Sympathetic
  • Ventral vagal
  • Dorsal vagal

Sympathetic mode is our body’s well-known “fight or flight” response activated each time we perceive (real or imagined) a threat.

The ventral vagal complex responds to cues of safety in our surroundings and interactions. It supports our social engagement, enabling us to communicate, bond, and form social connections. It’s a more evolutionarily advanced pathway that promotes calm states and is active during moments of safety and relaxation.

Conversely, the dorsal vagal complex responds to cues of risk and threat. It is the older, more primitive part of the vagus nerve. It is responsible for a shutdown reaction when the body detects an unavoidable or overwhelming threat. While this response can protect us in life-threatening situations, it can also make us feel disconnected from ourselves and the world around us when it is triggered by things that aren’t dangerous.

The ventral vs. dorsal vagal pathways: understanding the difference

The ventral pathway is associated with calmness and social engagement. It represents a state in which the body feels safe and is open to others mentally and socially. On the other hand, the dorsal pathway indicates that the body is in a defensive state, preparing to shut down to protect itself from what it perceives as a threat.

Understanding what ventral and dorsal pathways do and how they work helps us understand why people react to stress and trauma in different ways.

The role of co-regulation

Human interactions can influence and regulate each other’s physiological state, especially in contexts of safety and stress. According to Polyvagal Theory, co-regulation can help a person move from a state of dorsal vagal shutdown, which is marked by feeling disconnected and immobilized, to a state of engagement and emotional balance. This can happen when we have caring and helpful social interactions. This relational dynamic is important to healing after trauma and stress because it turns on the social interaction system again and reduces the effects of dorsal vagal shutdown, which makes you feel numb, detached, and alone.

Causes of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Any situation that significantly threatens physical safety can push your body into shutdown mode. A wide range of stressors can trigger dorsal vagal shutdown – anything from an acute traumatic event such as an accident, physical assault, or natural disaster to prolonged trauma like abuse or neglect. The suddenness and intensity of these experiences may be too much for the body’s coping mechanisms, stopping normal mental and physical functions briefly to protect itself.

Chronic stress, brought on by ongoing issues such as financial difficulties, chronic illness, job-related stress, and interpersonal conflicts, is a more prolonged trigger. However, it can also activate the body’s innate defense mechanism, leading to a persistent disconnection and numbness to protect itself from continuous perceived threats.

In addition to these external stresses, emotional and physical factors can trigger dorsal vagal shutdown. Unresolved emotional traumas, such as childhood abuse and unresolved grief, can cause severe emotional distress, resulting in a shutdown response. If you don’t address these emotional wounds on time, your body may stay in a heightened state of alert and react to stress by shutting itself down, whether this stress is real or perceived.

Finally, physical conditions such as physical traumas, chronic pain, or severe illness can activate the body’s stress response, sending your body into a shutdown mode to minimize discomfort and preserve energy.

Signs and Symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

The dorsal vagal shutdown is your body’s protective mechanism. It activates whenever your brain detects danger, whether you like it or not. Still, this protective response often manifests through various psychological and physical symptoms that can significantly affect your daily life and quality of life.

Recognizing these signs is the first step toward better understanding your situation and getting support

Psychological Dorsal Vagal Shutdown signs

Emotional Numbness

You may experience a profound sense of numbness or detachment from your emotions. This is one of the typical DVS manifestations. When emotional distress exceeds our coping mechanisms, we feel overwhelmed and react by switching off or disconnecting emotionally from the experience.

Dissociation

Sometimes, we cope with profoundly upsetting experiences or memories by feeling detached from our bodies and surroundings. When you have a dissociative episode, you may feel like you are viewing yourself from outside your body, feeling disconnected from reality and everything around you.

Difficulty Concentrating

Your cognitive processes may also shut down, making it difficult to focus, think clearly, or make decisions.

Overwhelming sensation of doom

You may see danger cues much often than other people. Even in the absence of an immediate threat, you may have an unexplainable sensation of impending catastrophe or danger.

Physical symptoms of dorsal vagal shutdown

Shallow Breathing

Your breathing may become evidently shallow or constricted. This can cause feelings of dizziness or panic.

Reduced Heart Rate

One of the first things that happen during dorsal vagal shutdown is a notable decline in heart rate caused by the body’s attempt to preserve energy and protect itself.

Digestive Issues

Because the dorsal vagal nerve influences the digestive tract, you may feel nausea, loss of appetite, or other gastrointestinal problems.

Low Energy or Fatigue

You may feel lethargic or profoundly exhausted without any physical effort.

Muscle Weakness or Collapse

In extreme circumstances, the body’s shutdown might cause an incapacity to move or physical collapse.

These symptoms can severely disrupt your daily life, affecting everything from work to your relationships and overall well-being.

The Link Between Trauma and Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Trauma is an emotional response to profoundly unsettling experiences that overwhelm a person’s usual coping mechanisms, inducing feelings of fear and powerlessness. Events that can lead to such trauma often include abuse, sexual violence, and severe mistreatment. The violent loss of someone close can also lead to trauma, as can experiencing or witnessing acts of terrorism, combat, natural catastrophes, or car accidents.

Yet, trauma is a profoundly personal experience, and individuals respond to it in different ways. While some may find a path to recovery and gradually move beyond their experiences, others may remain trapped by the trauma, feeling overwhelmed or paralyzed whenever reminders of the experience surface.

When confronted with traumatic situations, the body’s first response is to activate the sympathetic nervous system, preparing for ‘fight or flight.’ However, suppose escape is not possible, or the trauma is believed to be excessive or life-threatening. The body may turn to dorsal vagal shutdown as a last resort in that case. By dramatically lowering body functions, our body seeks to preserve energy, minimize suffering, and avoid attracting additional threats. This survival mode is intended to be temporary. While protective in the short term, it can become harmful if you are trapped in it, especially if the trauma is relived over and over again with no resolution.

For example, if you’re a first responder, you may return home from work daily, carrying the weight of what you experienced and witnessed during your workday. After years of responding to high-stress emergencies, you found yourself unable to move or speak at the scene of a particularly devastating domestic violence, despite being a seasoned professional. You remained frozen, separated from your surroundings, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds.

Or, if you grew up in a family where emotional expression was met with neglect, criticism, or judgment, you learned that showing feelings led to shame, rejection, and pain. Over time, your body adapted by going into shutdown mode every time you faced potential rejection, judgment, or stress, keeping you numb and emotionally detached in relationships.

Dorsal vagal shutdown, while initially meant to protect you, can become an obstacle to good mental health, meaningful relationships, and healing.

How to Break Free from a Chronic Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Strategies for recovery from a chronic DVS can include both immediate coping mechanisms and long-term healing.

Immediate Coping Strategies

When you sense that your body is shutting down, you may prevent dorsal vagal shutdown with immediate strategies that promote regulation of the autonomic nervous system, recreating the sense of safety and connection, such as:

Mindfulness and meditation

Practices like guided meditation, which encourage present-moment awareness, can foster a state of relaxation, reducing stress and anxiety and the likelihood of a shutdown response.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Tensing and relaxing muscle groups successively can alleviate physical stress and anxiety, minimizing the DVS freeze response.

Focused breathing exercises

Deep breathing involves focusing on deep, slow breaths that expand the diaphragm. This can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, counteracting the body’s stress response.

Grounding exercises

Touching or holding objects with comfortable textures might help you return to the present moment. This technique is known as physical grounding. Similarly, naming five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste (5-4-3-2-1 technique) can help you stay present and connected to your surroundings.

Physical movement and light exercise

Light exercises, such as tai chi or yoga, that combine physical postures, breathing exercises, and meditation reduce stress and promote relaxation.

These activities will inform your nervous system that the immediate environment is safe, causing a shift away from the shutdown response.

Laughter and play

Playful activities such as dance or positive social interaction provoke laughter and joy, stimulating the ventral vagal pathway, reducing stress, and increasing feelings of safety and connection.

Long-Term Healing

Long-term recovery from dorsal vagal shutdown often requires a combination of lifestyle changes and therapeutic treatment. Regular self-care strategies, such as appropriate rest, physical activity, a balanced diet, and a supportive social network, can significantly improve resilience to stress.

Therapeutic strategies such as trauma therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be necessary in treating the underlying causes of trauma and stress that lead to dorsal vagal shutdown.

Importance of Seeking Professional Help

Seeking psychotherapy can greatly help. A therapist who specializes in trauma and stress-related disorders can provide support and a treatment plan tailored to your specific requirements.

The therapeutic approach to managing dorsal vagal response focuses on identifying the root causes of stress triggers and altering the body’s reaction to stress by reprogramming the brain’s response patterns. This leads to a more flexible and less reactive response to stress over time.

Your therapist will help you rebuild the connection with yourself and the world around you by allowing you to reprocess past traumatic experiences, develop healthy coping strategies, and gradually expand your comfort zone while feeling safe and supported.

Finally, they will help you establish co-regulation and connection with safe individuals and the environment.

Conclusion

The body’s decision to “shut down” is not conscious but an inherent response to extreme stress. The purpose of dorsal vagal shutdown is to conserve energy and protect us from harm. If you feel immobilized in times of stress, it may be helpful to work on calming your dorsal vagal shutdown response. However, navigating DVS requires understanding how this innate protective response is connected to the autonomic nervous system and trauma.

Dealing with and getting over this shutdown requires both short-term ways to cope and long-term ways to heal. In some cases, it may be necessary to get professional help. In embarking on your road to healing, it is critical to be patient and kind to yourself as you try to resolve past trauma, raise resilience, rebuild relationships, and get back on track with your life.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

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