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How To Get Out Of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Posted by Kelsey Juntwait on

Overwhelming amounts of trauma and stress could be responsible for putting your body in a dorsal vagal shutdown. Here's an explanation of what exactly that means and also how to get out of it.

You've probably heard of the vagus nerve so let's start there.

The 'vagus nerve' has become a hot topic across social media over the past few years — so I'm willing to bet you've heard of it. 

The vagus nerve has been coined a superpower in the mental health world due to it's ability to "treat" anxiety or stress by counteracting your 'fight-or-flight' mode with physical stimulation. 

And that is absolutely true. 

You can relieve built up stress and daily anxiety by doing things as simple as singing loudly, submerging your face in ice water, or even just having a good laugh.

But what happens when your body gets stuck in that fight-or-flight mode? And no amount of singing, submerging, or laughing is going to pull it out?

That's when it's good to understand the nervous system as a whole and where the vagus nerve — and especially the dorsal vagal complex — fits into it all. 

The nervous system is technically broken up into two parts — the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system dominates when it comes to exertion and arousal, as well as in stressful situations.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system is dominant while relaxed, being nurtured, or experiencing a deep connection with a human being.

The two systems work together simultaneously so the body’s nervous system is constantly balanced out.

In an ideal situation, someone can shift in and out of the two different nervous systems quite easily. But in a not-so-ideal situation, the ability to regulate between the two nervous systems gets interrupted. And this is where the vagus nerve and the dorsal vagal complex come into play.

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and is made up of thousands of fibers organized into two separate bundles.

The two bundles are further classified as the dorsal vagal complex and the ventral vagal complex.

While both bundles have a significant part in our bodily functions, the dorsal vagal complex is responsible for your body retreating into Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.

The Dorsal Vagal Complex

When you're living in a stressful state or if you grew up with childhood trauma, you're probably functioning through your dorsal vagal complex. It's the part of the nervous system that keeps you in survival mode and eventually rewires your body back to a state of relaxation and calm.

The dorsal vagal complex is a temporary solution to stress. BUT our bodies are not supposed to spend extreme amounts of time there.

However, in some situations — especially when dealing with trauma — our body does get stuck there.

This is when dorsal vagal shutdown happens.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

In the wild, you can see the extreme of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown in animals when they activate a "faux death response" while being attacked or chased. All of their bodily functions shut down except ones that act as a life support to keep it alive. 

For humans, we can experience Dorsal Vagal Shutdown similarly, where our body can become numb and frozen to what we're used to.

When this happens, our body can feel:

  • Physically and emotionally dissociated.
  • Like you're stuck in an "on" position.
  • Like an 'out of the body' experience. 
  • Your full body is in 'shutdown' or 'freeze' mode.
  • Unable to calm itself.

Our body is simply conserving all of its energy to keep itself alive and keep its essential functions running smoothly.

You might be wondering when exactly this happens though — because not everyone experiences a full blown shutdown when stressed.

And that's where trauma comes in.

Trauma's Effect On Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

If you're dealing with significant trauma or unresolved trauma, then your body is constantly functioning through your dorsal vagal complex. It's in a constant state of hyper vigilance and fight-or-flight mode.

This means that your body is on alert at all times — never giving it the rest that it needs to re-wire back into its relaxed state.

And when that happens, Dorsal Vagal Shutdown happens.

How To Get Out Of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

In Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, writer and psychotherapist Peter Levine talks about how coming out of dorsal vagal shutdown requires something physical — like a shake or shiver.

The physicality of this can expel what's left of the fight-or-flight energy in the body.

Something easy to do at home when trying to get out of dorsal vagal shutdown are somatic experiences, which not-so-coincidentally were developed by Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma author Peter Levine.  

Using Somatic Experiences To Get Out Of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Somatic experiencing — a type of somatic therapy — heals your body from trauma by using physical interventions and movements. 

So if you're body is in a state of dorsal vagal shutdown, or if you're just constantly living through the dorsal vagal complex, then somatic exercises would be a simple start to your healing journey.

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About Liz Tenuto

With a Degree in Psychology from UCSB, a Somatic Certification in Feldenkrais and Pilates, and 14 years of clinical experience, Liz Tenuto is a somatic healing specialist known as The Workout Witch because she heals the physical ailments and psychological stress you know you have by treating the cause of it you never knew existed. After healing from her own chronic pain and life-altering anxiety that almost cost her her career as a backup dancer, Liz is now committed to changing the conversation around past trauma, frequent stress, somatic memory, and how critical it is to understand the connection between the physical body and the psychological one.