The Science of Freeze and Shutdown: Exploring Your Body’s Stress Response

As an online therapist based in Argyll and Bute, I often work with clients who have experienced trauma or chronic stress. One of the most fascinating aspects of this work is exploring the body's natural stress response systems, particularly the freeze and shutdown responses. While many people are familiar with the fight-or-flight response, fewer are aware of these equally important defensive strategies.

The freeze response, also known as tonic immobility, is an automatic reaction to a perceived threat. When the brain detects danger, it may trigger a sudden stillness or "freezing" in the body. This response is thought to have evolved as a way to avoid detection by predators, as movement can attract attention. During a freeze response, the body's heart rate slows, and breathing becomes shallow. The person may feel disconnected from their surroundings or unable to move or speak.

Shutdown, on the other hand, occurs when the nervous system becomes overwhelmed by stress or trauma. This response is characterised by a sense of collapse or "giving up." The body may feel heavy, and the person may experience a sense of numbness or dissociation. This response is thought to be a last-resort defensive mechanism when fight, flight, or freeze are not possible or have been exhausted.

Both freeze and shutdown are mediated by the autonomic nervous system, specifically the parasympathetic branch. This part of the nervous system is responsible for "rest and digest" functions, such as slowing the heart rate and conserving energy. However, in the face of extreme stress, the parasympathetic nervous system can become overactivated, leading to freeze or shutdown.

It's important to note that these responses are automatic and involuntary. They are not a sign of weakness or failure, but rather a natural part of the body's defensive repertoire. However, when these responses become chronic or are triggered in situations that are not actually threatening, they can contribute to ongoing mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The good news is that there are ways to work with and regulate these stress responses. Techniques such as grounding, mindfulness, and somatic experiencing can help individuals develop a greater sense of safety and control in their bodies. By learning to recognise and work with these responses, rather than fighting against them, we can cultivate greater resilience and emotional well-being.

If you find yourself frequently experiencing freeze or shutdown responses, know that you are not alone. These are common experiences, particularly for those who have experienced trauma or chronic stress. Seeking support from a qualified therapist who understands the neurobiology of stress can be a powerful step in your healing journey.

If you'd like to learn more about how I can help you navigate your body's stress responses and build greater resilience, please don't hesitate to reach out. I'm here to support you in creating a greater sense of safety and well-being in your life.


©Rebecca Muller

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