Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

The most effective diet tip of all

Get in touch with your hunger.

That’s all. Just get in touch with your hunger.

How long has it been since you actually felt hunger? We live with abundant food all around us, but our bodies haven’t evolved much from 10,000 years ago when the human species was hunting and gathering its food, feasting in times of plenty and going hungry in lean times.

Many modern people go for years without ever feeling hungry, so that when it does happen, they don’t know the sensation—and if they do know it, they gobble food down to avoid feeling it as quickly as possible. Feeling anything has become something to be avoided.

Many people eat according to the clock, not according to their stomachs. And we wonder why we have such an obesity problem. It’s not just the HFCS. It’s not being in touch with our bodies, with our hunger, with what “enough” actually is.

If you feel stuck with unnecessary weight or a poor diet, if you’ve used food to numb your feelings while comforting yourself, try this:

Postpone your next meal until you feel hungry and really notice the sensations in your body of feeling hungry.

There are wonderful wise lessons to learn from feeling hunger that can help you live a healthy life that you actually experience and enjoy first-hand.

  • You can allow yourself to feel hunger and know that you are going to survive. You are not going to starve to death from a little hunger (even though your mind may be telling you so). Death by starvation unfortunately did happen 10,000 years ago and sadly still happens even now, but it’s pretty rare in first world countries. How much discomfort is actually there, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being excruciating discomfort? Can you feel it as simply sensation without judging it as painful?
  • You can recognize the signature of feeling hungry. How do you know it’s hunger? Where in your body do you feel it? Feel it for 5 or 10 or 30 minutes. How does it change—does it ebb or constantly get more intense? Do you forget sometimes that you’re feeling hungry? Can you distinguish between feeling hungry and feeling thirsty? What happens to your hunger if you drink water?
  • You can experiment with how much food, and what kinds of foods, you can eat to no longer feel hungry. After fully experiencing your hunger, eat three bites of food slowly, savoring the taste and the mouth-feel and thoroughly chewing each bite before swallowing. Wait one minute and notice your hunger again. How has it changed? Now eat three more bites and notice. Notice how many bites of food you need to eat for your hunger to go away, and notice how long it stays away before it returns.

You can totally play with eating in this way! A couple of weeks of eating like this is quite refreshing after mindless eating and pretty much guarantees that just by being in touch with your hunger and eating accordingly, you will drop a few pounds.

More importantly, you may feel more energy and gratitude for your life.


Caveat: When is it not a good idea to play with hunger? When you have issues with your blood sugar. If you are diabetic or pre-diabetic or have hypo- or hyperglycemia, or get really shaky when hungry, you need to take extra good care of yourself and consult a knowledgeable professional first.

I’ve touched 100 naked people

I realized today after carefully counting that I’ve touched 100 naked people in the last 7 months. That probably makes you wonder if I’m a sex worker.

I’m not. I’ve been a student of massage therapy since June 2011, and I’ve worked on my fellow students and teachers, many of my friends and family, and clients at the student clinic.

I’ve worked on many of these people several times. When I complete just 10 more massages in the intern clinic, I’ll have completed the requirements for graduation and will have given about 150 massages.

Every person I’ve touched has gotten my full attention, presence, and skill. Even that one person who happened to be my fourth recipient in one day, when it crossed my mind that I felt tired and cranky — I pulled myself out of that mindset, got a second wind, and gave them my best.

A naked and vulnerable human on the table in front of me is a divine gift with whom I hold a sacred contract to give my best.

Every person I’ve massaged has contributed immensely to the intelligence in my hands, heart, instincts, and awareness.

Most people are fairly silent when receiving massage, their attention on their bodies or breath or my hands, I presume, or perhaps their grocery list. I don’t read minds, so I don’t really know.

Silence helps me work.

Some people stay mentally alert and present the entire time. Some sink quickly or slowly into a state of deep relaxation, that state of no effort where the body is being breathed, the mind is loose and free, and imagery bubbles up out of darkness. Some fall asleep. Their snoring tells me.

Sometimes I go into a trance with you, and those are the best massages.

I watch and listen to you breathing. I feel your pulses. I see your scars — the ones on your skin and the emotional ones like the chronically rounded shoulders, that one tight hip, the rigidity in your torso. Sometimes your bodies tell me stories, of weight gained or lost, an old injury with a long recovery, a recent injury complete with road rash, surgery, playing a sport, working out regularly, working at a computer.

No one — so far — has had a perfect body. I belief that’s likely a myth created by airbrushing.

I’ve learned that nearly everyone has some tension in their shoulders — in the upper trapezius muscle, to be specific.

The low back is also a popular place for tension and pain to hang out. It’s amazing that by working on your rectus abdominis (the abdomen’s six-pack), the front and back of your body become balanced and your low back pain goes away.

I’ve learned that due to handedness, no one’s upper trapezius muscles are exactly symmetrical.

Some people think they’re relaxed, but when I pick up their arm or leg, they have a hard time letting go of control, giving me the full weight.

Some people want more pressure, some less. I’ve gained strength in my arms and hands and can now deliver more consistent firm pressure.

I’ve worked on fat people, skinny people, people with chronic health problems, healthy people, a lot of people stressed out from office work (I’ve posted before about too much sitting), an age range from 11 to 85, people with tight bodies and loose bodies, and one pregnant woman.

All precious.

When I worked on my daughter, memories of her infancy arose, and I realized that everyone who gets naked on my table is just this:

an old baby
no longer tiny or quite so helpless
nonetheless innocent and vulnerable like a newborn

I’ve learned that some people are not very knowledgeable about their own bodies, misnaming their body parts, unaware of tensions, oblivious to the postural or movement habits that cause them pain — that they’ve unconsciously created for themselves.

Your body tells the truth. It can’t lie.

Why aren’t body awareness and anatomy taught at home and in schools?

There are certain massage strokes that tend to get sighs of relief and moans of pleasure. I’ve developed an opening routine that opens.

Receiving massage is all about you becoming more alive and your nervous system waking up, your body shedding tension and moving into relaxation and pleasure, not to mention improving your circulation, breath, brainwaves, mood, compassion, immunity, energy flow, digestion, posture, alignment, balance, movement, and presence.

In many ways, allowing me to massage you is like letting me to take your armor off — the armor you probably weren’t aware of putting on until you started feeling tense or in pain.

Everyone can benefit from taking their time getting up afterwards, not rushing off in their cars to get somewhere else, not re-engaging their left brains too quickly.

Yes, leave your armor off for a while and stay for a cup of tea with me.