And we’re back to this long series where I’m breaking down how to use somatic psych theory to help people improve their relationship with their bodies, connect with their intuition, and prepare themselves for trauma work.
Here is a video (plus transcription)
using a visual (Daniel Siegal’s Hand Model) to explain the basics for the visual learners out there.
Here is a post
where I go deeper explaining our sympathetic’s nervous system’s fight/flight response.
This post, today, is going to start going a bit deeper in explaining our ANS’s parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve, specifically our dorsal vagus’s shut down response – a key way our nervous system protects us from immediate dangers and trauma.
[Video version of this post here
Ok, so a quick recap. As you know by now, when signs of danger pop up in your environment, your autonomic nervous system (ANS) is ready in milliseconds to notice and respond before you are even actively aware of what’s going on. Once your ANS makes the decision that you are in danger, your sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response kicks in. Your ANS starts to get your body moving and shaking (sometimes literally) so you can do what you need to do in that moment to be safe – whether that’s squaring up or getting out of there.
Like I’ve said in previous posts and videos, you can’t stay in that hyper-alert fight/flight state forever. What goes up must come down and this is the point where your parasympathetic nervous system steps in to bring you down to a less activated state. Ideally, you’d be able to move to safety and calm down at your own pace, chilling with your parasympathetic nervous system’s ventral vagus (We’ll talk about that part of your vagus nerve next time). But what happens when you are not able to get to safety and your ANS decides that you are trapped in a dangerous situation? In that situation, the other part of your parasympathetic nervous system steps in – your Dorsal Vagus.
At the point your dorsal vagus feels the need to step up, you 1) just spent A LOT of energy trying to survive and get to safety in your fight/flight mode, 2) it didn’t work, and 3) you just over-drafted energy-wise. Your ANS activates your dorsal vagus because yeah, you can’t live in fight/flight forever, but also it’s still not safe enough to be present, connect with people, and be potentially vulnerable right now.
Your ANS decides to protect your body and brain from more exposure to danger and trauma by conserving energy and shutting down. I call it “low power mode” because it reminds me of how smartphones will also partially shut down and/or send less energy to systems in order to survive for longer. This is generally a last resort kind of response: When faced with overwhelming stress, if you are not able to regulate your emotions or co-regulate with community, your dorsal vagus steps in to protect you.
But what happens if someone is always in and out of overwhelming survival-level stress due to chronic abuse/neglect/trauma in their childhood, in their interpersonal relationships, and systemically by way of systemic oppressions, like white supremacy, misogyny, capitalism, etc? Well, your nervous system becomes really comfortable relying on this response to the point that you might not even notice a fight/flight response before shutting down. It could literally feel like you go right into shutdown at the 1st sign of stress, you could be in a months-long or years-long shutdown state, or you could be constantly bouncing back and forth between fight/flight and shutdown states. And this can be a very draining and exhausting place to be in.
The Body on “Low Power Mode”
Just like we did with the last installment, I want to give you a general idea of what dorsal vagal shutdown can feel like. Again, I’m taking this time to break down nervous system basics because, in my opinion, somatic work does not hit the same without this level of understanding. Similar to therapy, it’s not the psychological exercises and tools that hold the power, it’s the relationship you are building and nurturing with yourself. It’s so important to learn what your body looks and feels like when shutdown so you know when and how to get out of that state when you need/want to.
So, when your ANS realizes you are facing a huge danger that it can’t fight or flight its way out of and it starts to feel overwhelmed, the dorsal vagal shutdown button is hit.
This can cause immediate physical sensations and signs in our bodies, including:
And remember, the physical things and sensations we feel in our bodies are not nothing. That is how our bodies communicate with us. Neurons are fired like electricity in a phone line, hormones are released, etc all to get us to a place of safety. These physical sensations are clues to where we are in our nervous system and what we need to feel safe. Like I’ve said before,
the physical sensations in your body eventually lead to the emotions you experience as your brain starts to make meaning of all the warning signs your ANS is trying to send you. Learning how your body communicates is the first step to learning how to understand and regulate your emotions.
Relatedly, here are some shorter-term feelings associated with Dorsal Vagal shutdown:
Fatigue or excessive tiredness and exhaustion
Feeling frustratingly “stuck”
Feeling overwhelmed and/or overstimulated
Feeling disconnected from yourself, the present moment, and/or other people
Less desire and/or energy to speak (than usual)
Decreased sex drive (than usual)
And here are some behaviors associated with Dorsal Vagal shutdown:
Staring into space aka “spacing out”
Doing the bare minimum due to really low energy
Difficulty focusing, like more than usual
Decreased facial expressions and decreased ability express emotions (beyond what’s usual for you)
Isolating yourself because connecting with others feels dangerous
Looking Out from Under the Turtle Shell
Just like your sympathetic nervous system’s fight/flight response, your parasympathetic nervous system also affects how you see yourself, your environment, and the world.
I often compare someone in dorsal vagal shutdown to a turtle hiding in its shell. Everything is just too much and overstimulating and you need to emotionally shut down to protect yourself. The world and your place in it can feel empty, hopeless, and pointless from the perspective of shutdown.
Your brain in “low power mode” is a brain (and body) in hiding. Like going into a bomb shelter and hunkering down until the worst of the fallout has passed. Instead of taking every bit of exposure of the danger and trauma to the face, your body is amazingly trying to do its best to deal with an overwhelming situation and it’s trying to keep you safe.
Can’t Dwell In That House Forever
Our parasympathetic nervous system is meant to bring us down from an alert psychological survival state into a state of calmness, from emotional and physical inflammation to emotional and physical homeostasis.
Chronic, regular, dorsal vagal shutdown interrupts the connection, the homeostasis our bodies want to be in and that has an effect on us over time.
Again, dorsal vagal shutdown is triggered when our bodies cannot process the levels of distress and stress we are dealing with in that situation, which is common in chronic child abuse, abusive interpersonal relationships, abusive workplaces, systemic oppressions, etc.
Particularly, systemic oppressions add a level of distress that is, from an evolutionary perspective, unlike anything our bodies have experienced. Our bodies are doing its best to survive and move to safety, but exposure to chronic systemic oppressions is a whole other animal. The vagus nerve has a harder time doing its job to bring us from survival mode back to connection with ourselves and others. I plan to write about how trauma affects our ANS specifically and how living under systemic oppressions hijacks our capacities to heal and connect with ourselves and others once the basics are out of the way.
Living in a chronic, regular dorsal vagal shutdown state can lead to or add to the following negative mental and physical health conditions:
Major Depressive Disorder
Chronic anxiety and stress/trauma disorders
Changes in brain function
Difficulty thinking clearly
Difficulty with concentration
Difficulty with critical thinking
Dissociation, depersonalization, and/or derealization
Chronic pain and inflammation disorders
Worsening health issues due to impaired immune system functioning
Digestive issues: stomach problems, GI issues, etc
Issues with the release of insulin in the body
Remember, there is no part of our brains that are our enemies. I am, personally, grateful because I know for a fact that I would not be alive today, writing this post, if my dorsal vagus didn’t shut down as needed throughout my life. There’s nothing wrong with your body wanting to shut down and protect itself. Like, do you see outside? We just want to get to a place where shutting down isn’t the only tool your body has to protect itself and survive. Learning your body and what dorsal vagal shutdown looks like for you is essential so you can know when to let your body do its thing and when to step in to regulate yourself or co-regulate with others to intentionally and safely get out of “low power mode”.
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The next post will cover a deeper look into the 2nd part of the parasympathetic nervous system – the ventral vagus and its feelings of connection, safety, and clarity.