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Stress & The Nervous System: What Are The Symptoms Of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Posted by Kelsey Juntwait on

The symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can feel overwhelming, excruciating, and pretty lonely at times — which is why it’s so important to recognize exactly when your body is actually in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. Because once you recognize the specific symptoms, it becomes much easier to find the right method of treatment and healing.

So you can get back to the life you were meant to be living. 

The Dorsal Vagal State Of The Nervous System

The “Dorsal Vagal State” is the third and final state that your nervous system can find itself in. And this is the point when your entire nervous system, essentially, shuts down — hence, Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.

This third state of our nervous system is often seen as one of our most primitive physiological responses.

It typically occurs at two distinct points:

1) When we’re faced with such an overwhelming threat that our only instinct is to completely shut down.

An example of this that most people are familiar with is when animals activate a “faux death response,” also known as “playing dead” or "playing possum."

They fall into this state when approached by a predator because their nervous system queues them to believe that there’s no other way out.

Almost every bodily function shuts down, except for the ones that act as absolutely necessary life support. 

This type of nervous system shutdown can occur in humans as well — typically after experiencing a major physiological or physical traumatic event — and we see this in cases of extreme shock. 

However, it’s more common in humans to experience another way of shutting down…

2) When we’ve been living in the second state of our nervous system’s response to trauma and stress for so long that we can’t physically get back to the first state (the calm state).

As mentioned earlier, the nervous system exists in three “states,” with the first state being the Ventral Vagal State — our safety state.

This is when our body is functioning in the parasympathetic nervous system, experiencing calmness, grounding, mindfulness, and connection.

The second state is known by many as our “fight-or-flight” mode. This is when our nervous system gets triggered by an external source — like stress, anxiety, anger, worry, or frustration — and it stops existing in its calm and relaxed parasympathetic state and starts existing in its irrational and concerned sympathetic state. 

And unfortunately enough, it’s pretty common these days for A LOT of people to exist in this fight-or-flight mode. 

But where the real problems begin — and where the symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown start showing themselves — is when we’re consistently existing in fight-or-flight mode without ever allowing our nervous system to revert back to its safety mode.

What Are The Symptoms Of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 1: Stuck in certain parts of your body.

Whether it’s emotional or physical, a symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is feeling stuck in your own body. Not being able to make a change or a decision and not even being able to speak up for yourself are all examples of what being stuck feels like.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 2: Emotionally numb.

We all know the feelings of being overly anxious. But do you know the feeling of being so intensely anxious that you actually feel… nothing? A huge symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is feeling emotionally numb, and essentially, feeling absolutely nothing (even when you should be feeling EVERYTHING).

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 3: Heaviness in limbs.

This symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is taking the saying, “weight on your shoulder,” quite literally. Although in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, it’s not just weight on your shoulders — it’s weight everywhere. It’s the heaviness of excessive trauma felt throughout every inch of your body.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 4: Decreased heart-rate.

Unlike having an increased heart rate when we’re in “fight” mode, one symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is actually the opposite — decreased heart rate. This is because our body has its own coping mechanism that puts every bodily system on the lowest possible setting, conserving as much energy as possible.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 5: Sense of dread.

For some, not every single part of the body and mind is completely numb. Some can still feel an overwhelming sense of dread. Whether the dread is about their past, their present, or their future, this impossible dread is a frightening and overwhelming symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 6: Physically and emotionally dissociating.

Ever have an out of body experience? It’s when you feel like you’re watching your own life go by from someone else’s view. Physically and emotionally dissociating from your life is a symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown that makes it harder to concentrate, work, communicate, and even function.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 7: Increase in anxiety and depression over time.

This symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can actually be caught before you’re even in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. If your stress and/or trauma has been causing long-term anxiety and depression that just never seems to get better… That’s a good sign that your sympathetic nervous system is soon going to find itself in freeze mode.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 8: Constant fatigue.

Much like a lot of the other symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, the inability to get out of bed in the morning makes it difficult to live your everyday life. 

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 9: Brain fog. 

Trouble concentrating is a psychological symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown that can be related to many of the physical symptoms. Whether it’s physically dissociating, sleeping for too many hours, or feeling like you’re carrying the weight of the world throughout the day, brain fog can arise when you’re spending too much energy to simply physically survive.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown Symptom 10: Chronic pain.

Whether you wake up with neck pain every morning, think your back pain is caused by sitting at your desk all day, or have hip pain that you’ve tried to cure with yoga, chronic pain can actually be a symptom of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. And this symptom is actually what leads most people to seek help for their nervous system regulation in the first place. However, most of the time, the remedy they’re prescribed or suggested is NOT actually the thing that will get them out of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown for good.

Getting Out Of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

If you really look into the physiology of animals entering Dorsal Vagal Shutdown when faced with a predator, you’ll see one thing: how those animals get out of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.

Because — when you think about it — they can’t stay that way forever, right!? So nature provides an escape route for them. 

And that escape route can be used with us too!

To get out of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, wild animals will, quite literally, shake it off.

And while it would be NICE if that "shake" could be as easy as Taylor Swift makes it seem... It's not...

Because we’re talking: vigorous, aggressive, full-body shakes. Shakes that almost resemble a quick, seizure-like state.

(Think of it as shaking the brain and the nervous system back to reality.)

And when it comes to humans, we can actually do something that’s quite similar. 

But before you start vigorously and aggressively shaking yourselves (please don't do that!!), you need to understand that the way wild animals shake back to their calm state and the way humans "shake" back to their calm state is NOT THE EXACT SAME.

The way humans "shake" back to their calm state is through Somatic Exercises.

Somatic Exercises are repetitive movements that connect the physical body with the psychological body, matching a similar methodology of wild animals getting out of their own freeze state (but a little slower...).

And they often look like this:

Somatic exercises are the key to allowing your physical body and your emotional mind to finally communicate with one another and figure out what’s affecting the other. And these exercises are what can get your body out of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.

Somatic exercises can:

  • Help you finally lose the unwanted weight you've been trying to get rid of
  • Heal your chronic inflammation 
  • Balance your hormones
  • Relieve your sciatica 
  • Get rid of chronic back pain, hip pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain
  • Stop you from clenching your jaw at night
  • Allow your hips to stop popping all day long
  • Get you into a normal sleeping routine
  • Curing your gut and digestive issues
  • Treat your daily headaches
  • Clear your brain fog
  • Halt the symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown
  • & so much more...

So if you're experiencing symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown (or know that you're close to experiencing these symptoms!), then somatic exercises would be a simple start to your healing journey!

And our Signature Bundle is the PERFECT place to start.

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