Every single one of us has our limit, so what happens when we’re pushed beyond it for a sustained period of time?
In threatening situations, our brains assess whether it’s best to fight, run away or freeze. Freeze is the lesser-known response of the nervous system. When the brain is given the information that the threat is beyond the first two options, the nervous system gives the only other response available - to freeze.
It’s unlikely that a single threat or event will cause the nervous system to stay in freeze mode. However, unrelenting ‘threats’ in our modern world, including two years of a global pandemic, could give the impression to the nervous system that it’s time to immobilise, shut down and disassociate.
So, if you’ve been experiencing this heightened response for a while, what can you do to reset, come back into your body, nourish yourself and ‘unfreeze’? Keep reading to find out what the freeze response is and how to reset your nervous system.
What is the ‘freeze’ part of the fight, flight or freeze response?
The word ‘stress’ no longer seems to encapsulate the depth and complexity of what we have experienced as a collective. To say we’re burnt out and exhausted was already an understatement pre-2020. Many of us are now entering into the state of freeze, a response by the nervous system designed to help us disassociate or ‘numb out’. The freeze response falls under the other branch of the nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system.
Humans have evolved as a species to have the freeze response for immediate threats wherein running away or fighting was no longer a viable option. However, when the threat doesn’t appear to go away it can result in a maladaptive freeze response, meaning we stay stuck in that state.
If you’re interested in learning more about nervous system responses and polyvagal theory, I’ve written more about it here.
What are the symptoms of a long-term freeze response?
Technically speaking, the traditional freeze response in humans is marked by the absence of movement, tense body posture and a slowed heart rate. One study found that freeze-like responses can happen regardless of the type of threat, some people tend to remain immobile and maintain vigilance. This prevented their ability to use other, healthier coping strategies.1
Given the long-term nature of some types of ‘threats’ to our safety, it’s important to check in with ourselves. Typical long-term freeze response symptoms include:
- Dissociation - defined as “a mental process of disconnecting from your own thoughts, feelings, memories and sense identity”.2
- Numbing behaviours such as excessive alcohol or other substance abuse (yes, even caffeine and sugar!)
- Overuse of social media, scrolling and not actually enjoying this time
- Excessive TV and Netflix-watching without paying attention or enjoyment
- Eating disorders, including under or overeating, even orthorexia (an obsession with ‘healthy’ eating)3
- Gambling addiction.
How to heal from exhaustion and an overactive freeze response
Polyvagal theory expert Dr Stephen Porges believes that in order to bring people out of a numb or dissociated state they must be ‘shaken’ back into their bodies. This may not sound pleasant, but moving back into the sensations of our bodies has wonderful benefits to the nervous system.4
This idea of moving back into the sensations of the body is sometimes referred to as ‘body awareness technique’. There are quite a few techniques to choose from and they are all designed to encourage people to become more ‘embodied’ - meaning that they become more grounded, self-aware and more able to self-regulate.
From a place of greater embodiment, we can also notice and release muscle tension, begin to hear soothing voices and sounds again (hearing difficulties are associated with shutdown), and move from the freeze/shutdown response to the social engagement nervous system response.4
Effective body awareness techniques include:
- Movement such as dance, yoga, swimming
- Breathwork or regular deep belly breathing
- Sound baths
- Positive visualisation
- Massage or self-massage
- Practising presence
- Eating nourishing, satiating food at every meal - filled with good fats, seasonal fruit and vegetables, fermented foods and protein
- Stay hydrated
- Ensure your basic needs are met - i.e. regular bedtimes, staying warm as the weather turns cooler.
Seasonal Cleanses & Health Resets.
Nourishing the nervous system is the most important work we can do right now. I’ve drawn on my daily practice of this in my own life, as well as my experience of treating chronic stress and dysregulated nervous systems in my clinic, to create a programme that does exactly that. The transition from summer to autumn is the perfect opportunity to revisit how we choose to nourish ourselves in mind, body and spirit. In autumn we recover from holiday excess, we balance, consolidate and strengthen for winter.
My 21 Day Autumn Cleanse and Health Reset is not just about getting back into healthy eating habits. This is an opportunity to shift priorities and put self-care practices that may have been lost during times of chronic stress or shutdown back on top. These are self-care practices designed to both nourish and restore health and energy while pairing back the things that don't serve you or actively contribute to burnout.
What you’ll learn:
- Restore your inner peace - build in meditation, breathing, rest, exercise, sourcing, preparing and eating food, sleep, relationship time, family time, hobbies, creativity, nature, general self-care, work and play.
- Create a new rhythm - if you keep doing the same thing you will get the same outcome. This is an opportunity to reset, refresh and rebalance.
- Invigorate your mind and body - you will feel vital, content, empowered to make clear, conscious choices rather than live reactively or by default. Revisit your goals and intentions, stay on track, connect with your intuition, your heart’s purpose and feel fulfilled.
- Lose your addictions - your desire for stimulants such as caffeine and sugar will wane as you start feeling balanced and energised.
- Reduce reliance - your need for painkillers, uppers or downers will lessen as you restore your health.
- Reset your taste buds - your desire for healthy foods will heighten and you will lose your cravings for sugar and processed foods.
- Say goodbye to processed foods - these include ingredients such as processed grains, dairy, vegetables oils and shortenings, sugar, refined salt, ready-to-eat foods, snacks and treats.
- Identify and remove toxins - these include those that you eat, drink, inhale and use on your body. Release these stored toxins by giving love to your organs of detoxification: lungs, liver, skin, spleen, kidneys and bowels.
- Return to your roots - you will start eating what you have evolved to eat and feel better for it. You will embrace whole, clean, seasonal foods from healthy plants and animals; farmed ethically, grown thoughtfully and prepared in specific ways to retain and enhance nutrition.
- Regroup and take stock - if life feels overwhelming, confusing, stressful, fast-paced and all too exhausting, a seasonal cleanse helps you stop, reset and reclaim your mojo.
- Get educated - get in the know and be discerning. Learn to see through the fads and trends and become your own health, nutrition and lifestyle champion.
- Heal and repair your gut - your digestive system will heal with nourishing meals from healthy plants and animals prepared well to retain nutrients. Healing foods build healthy enzymes and digestive acids which in turn help break down, assimilate, metabolise and utilise nutrients. Healing foods restore gut biota which promotes healthy digestion, absorption and elimination, involved in the synthesis of vitamins, minerals and other important substances to make neurotransmitters that make you feel good (did you know that 90% of serotonin is found in your gut), helps regulate metabolism, keep inflammation at bay, prevent leaky gut, provide protection from infection, and makes up two-thirds of your immune system.
- Balance your weight - shed body fat, gain muscle mass, as required.
- Prevent illness before it happens - address the underlying causes and contributing factors of ill health. Do not wait until you break, be proactive!
While we don’t have control over traumatic events, we can choose how and when we begin to heal from the after effects. Cleansing unveils what lies beneath - symptoms and diseases masked by sugar, caffeine and processed foods, uppers and downers and all the things we do to prop ourselves up or numb ourselves out. Cleansing creates an opportunity to heal.
Why 21 days? Research shows that it takes 21 days of healthy eating and positive lifestyle changes to create a new habit (and you’re here for lifelong habits, not quick fixes).
If you’re ready for a new way to nurture yourself, you can read more about my 21 Day Autumn Cleanse and Health Reset and sign up here.
- Riskind, J.H., Sagliano, L., Trojano, L. & Conson, M. (2016). Dysfunctional Freezing Responses to Approaching Stimuli in Persons with a Looming Cognitive Style for Physical Threats. Front Psychol, 7(521).
- Better Health Vic. Dissociation and dissociative disorders. Accessed February 2022 from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/dissociation-and-dissociative-disorders
- Eating Disorders Victoria. Orthorexia. Accessed March 2022 from https://www.eatingdisorders.org.au/eating-disorders-a-z/orthorexia/#:~:text=Orthorexia%20is%20a%20term%20that,food%20to%20an%20excessive%20degree.
- Counseling Today. Polyvagl theory in practice. Written July 2016, accessed March 2022 from https://ct.counseling.org/2016/06/polyvagal-theory-practice/