Understanding the Freeze Response and Breaking Free from Paralysis

Do you ever get so overwhelmed by stress and anxiety that you just shut down. That could be mentally, emotionally, or physically. You quite literally can't take action. Maybe you can't get out of bed to face the day, maybe you stare at a blank computer screen, or maybe you have high functioning anxiety and you're moving through your day with a smile on your face but behind the veneer there's kind of this blank numbness and you're unable to engage or connect with anyone or anything in your life. This state, this nervous system state, can be best described as a freeze response and is best understood through polyvagal theory, as taught by Stephen Porges.

The Autonomic Nervous System

A huge portion of my work focuses around the autonomic nervous system. Traditionally, we would think about the autonomic nervous system with two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Stephen Porges developed the theory of polyvagal theory, which helps us understand that the parasympathetic branch actually bifurcates into a ventral vagal response and a dorsal vagal response. The ventral vagal response is associated with rest, digest, relax, and social engagement, while the dorsal vagal response is a primitive nervous system response that results in freezing, being physically or mentally stuck.

Understanding the Freeze Response

When we experience the freeze response, we often start beating ourselves up and assume that we lack motivation or willpower. However, what we often need is connection. The freeze response can be seen in extreme examples in the news media, such as the bystander effect where people simply sit and watch dangerous situations unfold without taking action. Understanding this response is crucial because many of us are experiencing the same thing to a lesser extent right now.

Breaking Free from the Freeze Response

The opposite of a freeze response is not taking action or motivational books. The opposite is connection. Socially connecting with others can help us break free from the freeze response. Whether it's connecting with a family member, a friend, or a therapist, looking someone in the eyes and having that human-to-human connection allows us to behave like modern humans rather than primitive humans stuck in a freeze response.


Understanding the freeze response and breaking free from paralysis is essential for our mental and emotional well-being. By recognizing the importance of connection and actively seeking social engagement, we can overcome the freeze response and live more fulfilling lives.

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