Fight-Flight-Freeze Responses and The Vagus Nerve

Keywords: fight-flight-freeze

The Vagus Nerve.

I think there is far too much hype about the vagus nerve these days, especially given that the discussions occur without providing any context for what is happening on a broader emotional and nervous system level.

For example:

“The vagus nerve, which runs from the neck to the abdomen, is in charge of turning off the ‘fight or flight’ reflex.” (source)

This might be so when you are mildly stressed, but it will certainly not be the case when your fight-flight mechanism is chronically activated, as in Post-Traumatic Stress.

It is only when your fight-flight sympathetic nervous system starts to calm down that your parasympathetic nervous system—and thus your vagus nerve—can start to properly function again, thereby restoring balance.

You can breathe, stand on your head, sing mantras, and visualize all the colors that you want—and it might certainly help to temporarily manage your situation—but without addressing the often underlying emotional issues that keep your fight-flight autonomic system high, you will never be able to help regulate your parasympathetic nervous system, and thus your vagus nerve, to successfully come out of a freeze response.

It is only when your fight-flight sympathetic nervous system starts to calm down that your parasympathetic nervous system—and thus your vagus nerve—can start to properly function again, thereby restoring balance.

The parasympathetic nervous system is compromised in part of the cranial nerves 3, 7, 9, 10 (the vagus nerve) and sacral nerves. It is the vagus nerve that connects to most of your organs, including the heart and lungs. When the parasympathetic nervous system and the vagus nerve come out of a hyperactivation—or freeze response—they can restore proper digestion and immune system functioning.

  +   Learn more about the parasympathetic nervous system here.

The Hierarchy of the Nervous System and Your Fight-Flight-Freeze Responses

You have to think in terms of hierarchy when talking about the nervous system. When you are under threat, your primary goal is to confront or escape, which is your fight-flight mechanism as regulated by your sympathetic nervous system.

When fight or flight is not effective and you continue to be under threat, you will dissociate through the freeze response. The parasympathetic freeze response acts like a temporary pressure-release safety valve that unburdens the body—and prevents your fuses from blowing—from being on “ON” all the time due to your fight-flight sympathetic nervous system response.

The vagus nerve isn’t only a fuzzy, warm, helps-you-regulate-and-feel-good nerve. It is also involved—through its hyperactivation and freeze response—in shutting down the digestive system and inhibiting immune system functioning, which can contribute to depression, lethargy, exhaustion, fatigue (ME), and chronic (pain) issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), multiple sclerosis (MS), and fibromyalgia.

Beside the Fight-Flight-Freeze Response, You Have the Please Response

Post-Traumatic Stress causes dysregulation of both the sympathetic—think fight-flight—nervous system, as well as of the parasympathetic nervous system—think freeze response.

There is another response besides the fight, flight, and freeze response which is the please, appease, fawn, or feign response—choose the word you like most.

Stephen Porges started talking about the vagus nerve and it’s different sympathetic and parasympathetic functions, and divided those functions according to the dorsal and ventral part of this particular nerve.

Dr. Art explains a bit more about the differences in function right here in this video.

The Please Response, The Frontal Cortex, and The Social Engagement System

It is my understanding that the please-appease response is one which we develop when traumatic stress has become chronic, which is often the case with childhood trauma, and when the standard fight-flight-freeze responses have become ineffective.

The pleasing survival response seems to gravitate somewhat between a sympathetic, fight-flight, being hypervigilant response and a parasympathetic, freeze-appease response. This makes the pleasing response a highly complicated and even sophisticated survival response that people use in an attempt to mitigate ongoing traumatic stress.

Furthermore, the pleasing response seems to engage a level of social skills, anticipation, and adaptation—which would include the frontal cortex—and the social engagement system, which is regulated by the ventral part of the vagus nerve, as explained by Stephen Porges here:

The trouble is that these higher brain functions of the frontal cortex and ventral part of the vagus nerve— anticipation and social engagement—are being hijacked by the more primitive brain parts, the brain stem, for survival.

Summary of the Fight-Flight-Freeze and Please Responses and The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous system

  1. Regarding Post-Traumatic Stress, your fight-flight autonomic nervous system needs to calm down first before your parasympathetic nervous system can successfully come out of a chronic hyperactive response.
  2. A dysregulated, hyperactive parasympathetic nervous system and dorsal vagus nerve set in motion a freeze response and, when the dysregulation is chronic, can contribute to shutting down the digestive system and inhibiting immune system functioning, which can contribute to depression, lethargy, exhaustion, fatigue (ME), chronic (pain) issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), multiple scelerosis (MS), and fibromyalgia.
  3. A regulated parasympathetic nervous system and vagus nerve help restore balance, sleep, proper digestion, and immune system functioning. There is a fourth survival response, the please-appease response, that is often activated due to chronic traumatic circumstances, as in prolonged childhood trauma.
  4. The please-appease response seems to involve both a level of sympathetic fight-flight activation and parasympathetic freeze activation.
  5. With the please-appease response, the “higher” brain functions of the frontal cortex—anticipation, adaptation—are in use by the “lower” brain functions, the fight-flight-freeze responses of the brain stem.
  • Jeremy says:

    Okay, so I’ve identified CPTSD and attachment trauma from childhood. I have been honest with myself about how this affected my sense of self and emotional state. I have released a lot of emotions around this stuff. I have started to tell myself that my sense of worth and my identity can be reformed and that I don’t have to continue in the same beliefs about myself that formed in early childhood. But I’m still experiencing chronic anger (usually directed at the toxic person I was in a relationship with for 3 years, who represented the relationship I had with my mom as a child) and an inability to handle any kind of criticism without having a mild to moderate panic response. Shame is clearly a major part of it all. I have a whole bunch of health issues (several mentioned in this article) which doctors can’t explain or even properly diagnose. I have had chronic jaw pain for over 20 years. I am pretty sure it’s all related to trauma. I guess I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.

  • Leilani says:

    This makes a lot of sense. That the please appease would have FFF and I would also say Flop…

    For instance: thinking of when people enter into sex with someone and did not give consent, but went into pease appease response.

    Therefore the person’s body is still re-enacting and feeling like it’s in a trauma response to sex, however on the outside they appear to be socially engaged but the ventral vagus circuitry is being hijacked by the dorsal vagus and so the social engagement which appears fully cognitive, actually has dissociative and cognitive dissonance as an automatic pilot.

    It has taken me years to understand this inside my own body in relation to the pease appease response and I enjoyed reading your article on the subject matter.

    In the past 3yrs I have done the deepest inner work I’ve ever done over the past 20yrs to continue to shift this state and experience post traumatic growth, where I can have connection with emotional regulation and my body in the heat of the moment and therefore be able to have resiliency to be more vulnerable and honest and sit in very tough emotions and allow myself to experience them in relationship with others.

    The greater work for me is to be able to now replicate this and put it into practise with someone whom I’m willing to share my life with in a romantic intimate relationship.

    Meeting someone who can do the same and be in it with you is the next challenge lol.

  • Cheryl says:

    .feel the please-appease response is most harmful to the mind and body. I spent years repressing my true feelings particularly since most of the abuse was covert like subtle invalidation, derision, and silent treatment. I couldn’t protest about something I couldn’t put a name to as a child. Deep down I knew my family did not care but continued to be good and kind thinking that something must be wrong to me and then I was a good Christian. I am still working through my rage of being cheated and being used.

  • So, last month when I sister died my PVN must have frozen to protect me from feelings. Do you think that’s right?

    And it probably acts up causing IBS when I travel. An interesting way to look at this.

  • Rick says:

    I enjoy Roland’s blog and info.

    I wanted to order the meditations but very time I mediate and even when I took the one year full DBT course, I disassociate a lot worst ever sometimes….

    Is my trauma preventing me from going forth to heal………….?

    What am I doing wrong?

    • Roland says:

      Hi Rick. When you meditate, you are likely getting in touch with the unprocessed emotion that makes up your trauma. While this can be helpful when you have enough containment or support, it could also be overwhelming when your trauma is still very raw or too much too quick comes up at once. Meditation can be helpful but, regarding trauma, needs to be done with a lot of care.

  • Agrippa says:

    Roland has been of a very big help to me.I spent 6 months without knowing wat I was passing through till I came across Roland, thank u for making me understand what the Doctors failed to tell me

  • Kim Wallace says:

    Thank you so much Roland for sharing this valuable information and tools,Stephen Porges is a incredible soul and is yourself for sharing this information with us,ive learnt so much from this collection of tools,what i was amazed to realize was just how often i go into freeze mode,im constantly/daily going in and out of this mode,is know wonder ive felt so stuck,its really rared its head physically in the last ten years,ive just never until now been able to connect those dots,with all the ibs issues,digestion issues,depression,exhaustion,fatigue,chronic pain in my neck with inflammation,i had know idea it was all connected,such a light bulb moment for me,which has brought alot of mental relief,that my body is communicating with me,its not just all in my mind,thank you so much Roland…

  • Darlene Jance Harris says:

    Hi Roland, I really like your article “Why Trauma is at the Root of It. I think a lot of the racial challenges we are struggling through today is very much related to past or generational trauma. Thank you for being so clear.

  • Carlo says:

    Would it make sense to have a please/appease response, being born prematurely (33rd week) and being in an incubator for a period of time?

  • Pete says:

    I’m finding this blog very informative, but I have a very stubborn trauma response which has destroyed my life.

    Over 5 years ago I had a big muscle release, and I think my system dropped quite suddenly in parasympathetic, which felt very strange and triggered a lot of terror.

    Since then my left hip and back have been stuck in an intense clenching pattern, which is so uncomfortable, and relentless. It causes buzzing all around my body, and I’m never able to relax.

    Sometimes it mellows, but it seems to be unconscious, not determined by anything I’m doing to soothe myself.

    Nothing I do I able to release it, and it’s ruined my sleep. I often get no sleep at all and am totally exhausted. I just want some rest.

    The signal it’s sending is that if wants to squeeze, and complete a motion, but if I go along with it, let it squeeze, let it shake etc. it doesn’t ease up.

    I try and soften it but it seems impossible, and the tension and buzzing are so strong it’s very hard to focus on anything else. Like listening to a whisper next to a loudspeaker.

    Has anyone else experienced anything like this? It’s so physical, and I’ve seen 2 SE practitioners who have just ended up bewildered.

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