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Exploring Dorsal Vagal Shutdown: What is it and what does it feel like?

Posted by Kelsey Juntwait on

Are you familiar with the term “dorsal vagal shutdown”? It's a term that's been gaining a lot of attention in the mental health community lately, but what does it actually mean??? And what does it feel like??? So if you're wondering what dorsal vagal shutdown is, what the symptoms are, and how to recognize it in yourself, then let's get started!

Introduction to Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is a protective response the body uses to conserve energy when we feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with a stressful experience. It's a physiological response that helps us survive in times of danger by diverting energy away from our higher level thinking, helping us stay in fight, flight, or freeze mode. It's like our body's own 'off switch', giving us the chance to take a break from the stress and take a moment to relax. 

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown occurs when the dorsal branch of our vagus nerve is activated, causing a cascade of physiological changes to occur.

It can lead to:

🥴 Decreased heart rate

🥴 Decreased blood pressure

🥴 Fainting (in severe cases)

However, it can be detrimental in everyday life if it becomes too frequent.

Learning the difference between when this response is helpful and when it can be harmful can be a challenge, but it's an important skill that we all need to master if we want to make the most of life (as well as keep our mental wellbeing in check!).

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown & The Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system is divided into two branches: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. During Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, leading to slowing of our heart rate, shallow breathing, and other physical responses that help us conserve energy. In other words, it's our body's way of going into 'hibernation' mode.

This can be super helpful when we're feeling stressed and overwhelmed, as it allows us to take a step back and regain control of our emotions and physical state. Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is a fascinating, yet super complicated, feature of our autonomic nervous system that helps us maintain balance in times of distress.

Understanding the relationship between Dorsal Vagal Shutdown and our Nervous System allows us to recognize when our body is trying to tell us it needs a break from stress or intense emotions, which then allows us to reduce what's causing said stress and intense emotions.

Knowing when our body is trying to tell us it needs a break from this is how we can begin to live a more balanced and healthy life. 

Importance Of Knowing When You're In Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

It's so important to understand and recognize Dorsal Vagal Shutdown since it can have serious implications for mental health. This includes things like an increased risk of developing PTSD, an increased risk of experiencing clinical depression, and an increased risk of long-term anxiety.

With the knowledge of what being in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown feels like — or when it's approaching — we can better understand how our bodies react to traumatic events and stressful moments, so we can make necessary changes in our day-to-day life that prevents falling into Dorsal Vagal Shutdown in the first place.

Causes of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

The deep emotional overwhelm and physical exhaustion that comes from being in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can be caused by any prolonged experience of fear or intense emotion. Experiences of traumatic stress, chronic stress, and extreme levels of physical pain are all common causes of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. 

Specific causes of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown include:

  • Experiencing a natural disaster
  • Experiencing an assault (or even witnessing one)
  • Experiencing a sudden death of a loved one 
  • Experiencing a severe illness or hospitalization
  • Experiencing prolonged stress over a long period of time 
  • Being in a toxic relationship 

So whether the trauma is quick and aggressive (like a devastating tornado or the death of a loved one) or the trauma is prolonged over time (chronic stress and overwhelm at work or in an emotionally abusive relationship), the symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can show up in either situation.

Essentially, trauma is trauma. And no matter how that trauma comes about, as long as your Nervous System is staying in "fight-or-flight" mode for too long, you're more vulnerable to fall into Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.

The Signs Of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Unable To Take Action

When you're in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, it's difficult to take action, and procrastination becomes pretty common. Even if you KNOW you need to take action, and even if you WANT to take action — it becomes pretty impossible when your body sinks into this freeze state.

And while procrastination is a common theme when it comes to generalized anxiety or just being overwhelmed in your normal day-to-day life, the procrastination that happens during Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is extreme.

You'll start putting off as much as you can, including important tasks that have deadlines and looming consequences. 

You're Neglecting Yourself

If you're experiencing Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, you're typically neglecting any and all bodily needs, including both physical needs and emotional needs. You put yourself on the lowest level of priorities and your brain doesn't even realize how much you're ignoring your own self.

This sign of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is unfortunate because it tends to lead into other more severe repercussions like extremely low energy levels and excessive fatigue.

You're Neglecting Those Around You

Not only do you put yourself on low platform for prioritization when you're in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown but you also put your friends and family on it too.

That's not to say you can't go through the day-to-day necessary responsibilities to keep your family fed, but you'll probably start doing just the bare minimum. So it's rare to have enough energy to go out and interact with others while you're in a freeze state.

Hard To Be Active

It becomes difficult for you to simply do things. You're staying in bed or on the couch for the majority of the day and it's becoming hard to complete tasks that need to get done.

Extreme Exhaustion

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can be debilitating for most, making it hard to just get through the day. Common signs of being in freeze mode include sleeping way more often and just a general sense of being tired throughout the day.

Slower Heart Rate

The main physical response to Dorsal Vagal Shutdown is a slower heart rate. When you're in freeze mode, your body is trying to conserve as much energy as possible — because it thinks it's experiencing a threat.

Effects of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Dorsal vagal shutdown occurs when the lower regions of the brainstem are not functioning properly and can result in a host of physical and emotional effects. From feeling a lack of energy to experiencing extreme fatigue and even an inability to form coherent thoughts, the symptoms of dorsal vagal shutdown can be life-altering! And it's important to note that these are serious signs that can create lasting effects on the physical and psychological body.

Short-Term Effects of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

The short-term effects of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can be confusing and overwhelming, as they include a wide array of physical, mental, and emotional responses.

Physically, these effects can present as difficulty breathing, decreased heart rate, fainting spells, and loss of muscle coordination or control. And those can be a scary experience for people who are not familiar with Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.

Mentally, Dorsal Vagal Shutdown manifests as an inability to concentrate or think clearly and difficulty speaking or finding the right words to express oneself. So this freeze state can definitely make for a frustrating experience.

Additionally, feelings of emotional overwhelm such as intense fear or shame can also often occur during this process and can add to the confusion and distress that may already be present.

So the short term effects of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can actually make being in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown even worse.

It's important to remember that the condition of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown IS a normal response from your body though — and not a sign of weakness or failure. It's just your body's natural ability to self-protect. 

Long-Term Consequences of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can also have long-term effects on the body too.

These effects include things like increased risk of chronic illness, depression, anxiety, physical pain, and a variety of other debilitating conditions. And those conditions to continue to wreck havoc on the body over time. Which is why addressing Dorsal Vagal Shutdown early on is so critical. The earlier you recognize your body being in a freeze state, the earlier you can treat it, and the less possibility of these long-term effects taking over your life.

Although the effects of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can be very serious, there are some techniques that can help you to better manage it —specifically with things like somatic exercises. 

Diagnosing Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Diagnosing Dorsal Vagal Shutdown can be difficult, as the physical symptoms often mimic a myriad of other medical conditions. And there's no blood test or brain scan you can really do to definitely label yourself in its freeze state. So to accurately diagnose Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, it's SO important to pay attention to subtle behavioral changes, as well as being aware of any recent stressful events that could be contributing to your stress and trauma response.

Once you believe you're experiencing Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, you want to start addressing the symptoms of it while also addressing the root of what's causing it.

Treating Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

We recommend somatic exercises to treat Dorsal Vagal Shutdown. These exercises involve gentle, slow movements that help to increase awareness of the body, while also allowing the person to become more in tune with their physical sensations. Somatic exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for calming and regulating the body’s stress response — so when you're starting a practice of these movements, you're specifically targeting the parts of your body that desperately need regulation.

Through somatic exercises, the body is able to learn how to respond in a healthier way to stressors while also reducing the physical tension that often accompanies Dorsal Vagal Shutdown and also improving posture and flexibility. Ultimately, these exercises restore balance to the nervous system, allowing your body to come out of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown and reset into its regulatory state.

Our Signature Somatic Exercise Program, which combines our three best selling courses (Free Your Hips In 30 Days, Free Your Neck & Shoulders In 30 Days, AND Release Your Jaw In 15 Days), allows your body to get OUT of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown with simple, at-home, easy-to-follow, 5-10 minute exercises you do for a period of 60 days.

Here’s what you can expect after starting a somatic exercise program to treat your Dorsal Vagal Shutdown:

  • You'll start to feel like yourself again.
  • You'll feel an emotional release of trauma around the third week that will literally lift a weight off your shoulders.
  • Your constant, chronic full-body pain will become a distant memory.
  • You’ll put away the anti-inflammatory meds FOR GOOD.
  • Your mental health issues will clear.
  • You'll enjoy being around friends and family again.
  • You'll step back into a normal routine at work and home.
  • You'll be able to accomplish tasks.
  • You'll get your energy back.
  • Your flexibility and movement will improve.
  • Your posture will improve dramatically.
  • Your headaches and body aches and stomach aches will disappear.
  • Your anxiety will improve.
  • You’ll breathe better.
  • You’ll sleep better.
  • And, most importantly, your body will thank you.

Moving Forward After Experiencing Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Moving forward after experiencing dorsal vagal shutdown can be a challenge, because it means you need to start understanding the signs of entering this state and also learning to recognize them before it progresses too far. The key is to take proactive steps to respond to your stress, trauma, and triggers before the effects of them progresses your nervous system to full shutdown. With some effort and self-discovery you'll soon be on your way towards a better understanding of your body's natural signals and responses.

Here are some tips to stay in check with your body:

  • Take breaks throughout the day to ensure that you're taking care of yourself.
  • Pay attention to your body and watch out for signs of entering freeze mode.
  • If possible, take some time away from your daily activities to rest and give yourself some time to recharge.
  • Make the time for adequate self-care and rest.
  • Check in with friends and family who are around you often and ask if they notice any changes that seem like signs of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown.
  • Keep a daily journal of the signs and symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown listed above. If you see yourself experiencing more of them over time, recognize that you could be in freeze mode.
  • Find ways to actively de-stress on a regular basis — things like mindful meditation or continuing a routine somatic healing practice are examples.
  • Take proactive steps towards living a calmer and healthier life so your body can function at its best.

It's important to recognize the presence of dorsal vagal shutdown in yourself so that you can take the necessary steps to take care of your mental health and well-being. By being aware of what dorsal vagal shutdown is, how to recognize it in yourself, and how to cope with it, you can make sure that you are taking the right steps toward better mental health AND physical health. 

You've been living in survival mode for WAY too long. And the trauma being stored throughout your body has taken a toll on your everyday life. Between the physical pain, the stress, the anxiety, and the various other issues you're experiencing in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown, you just know that your body is supposed to feel better than this. And you're ready to feel it.

So if you find yourself in Dorsal Vagal Shutdown (or you feel like you're body is approaching it...), it's time to take your mind, body, and life back with somatic exercises. And we have the perfect one to start with!

Try our 3 Course Bundle TODAY and heal your body from the further psychological and physical trauma that Dorsal vagal Shutdown is causing.