Beyond Fight or Flight 3: Shutting Down
Bodily responses to threat can be profound. That gut-wrenching, heartache, or ‘heart in the mouth’ moments are familiar to us all. Often we are unclear about the physiological causes of these experiences and therefore we find it difficult to understand them. Even when we seek this information, it is limited to the fight or flight response which only part-explains our experience and can lead us to have even more unanswered questions.
In this series of 'Beyond Fight or Flight' we explore three levels of autonomic nervous system response to safety and threat to develop a greater understanding of these responses.
If both our calls for help and the powerful all-body fight or flight sympathetic nervous system response do not get us to safety, such as if we are trapped or held down, then the most ancient survival response is triggered.
Shutting down to conserve energy and self-preservation (Level 3) is the body's final tool to protect us. This response is usually triggered when the consequences of the threat are inevitable, and our only option is to endure and survive.
This is the final and ultimate survival system, in which the old vagus nerve (dorsal vagal complex) is activated. This raises pain threshold and disengagement - meaning we are capable of enduring horrendous abuse and desperate conditions. At it's extreme, this is expressed in mammals as "death feigning" in which closing down and pretending to be dead is our only option. This ancient neurological defence developed early in our evolution and is something we share with most animals with a backbone (vertebrates, such as amphibians and reptiles).
This response system diverts blood from our muscles making us feel weak and shaky, triggers our heart rate and blood pressure to drop, slows breathing and reduces gut activity - sometimes prompting emptying of the bowels. This system reaches down below the lungs to the stomach, kidneys, and intestines and drastically reduces energy consumption (metabolism) throughout the body. This is the point in which we can dissociate, during which we lose a sense of continuity between our actions, thoughts, memories, and a sense of connection to our bodies.
We shut down, passively avoid, disengage, collapse and freeze.
Although this series of articles focuses on danger, a milder immobilization response is also used in more social behaviours such as childbirth, conception and breast feeding. In these instances, being still and calm can be of importance. However in life-threatening situations, these systems which usually support healthy connection, balance and health, are hijacked to create a profound and powerful defensive response.
As our nervous system and bodies respond to danger in the ways listed in this series, we can influences these systems by creating safety for ourselves both within our environment and our minds.
For instance, ensuring homes are safe and free from violence, having financial security, and reducing the amount we attack and criticize ourselves are a few of many examples that safety can be established allowing our neural systems to calm. We can also practice skills in creating a ‘safe break’ from psychologically stressful situations. Exploring pages on this website may help on your journey to achieving such aims.
Summary of Levels:
3. Social communication or social engagement
Neural response: The new vagus nerve activity is reduced – higher levels of activity is associated with calm behavioural states through inhibiting the fight or flight response.
Behavioural responses: Expressed through facial expressions, vocalizations and social engagement (e.g., being able to listen to others).
Neural response: The sympathetic nervous system mobilizes our muscles, the heart, lungs and sweat glands. Resting, recovery, growth and digestion are inhibited.
Behavioural responses: Running and hiding or fighting for our lives.
Neural response: Activation in the old vagus nerve causes blood to divert from our muscles making us feel weak and shaky, triggers our heart rate and blood pressure to drop, slows breathing and reduces gut activity.
Behavioural responses: Feigning death and behavioural shutdown.