Dorsal Vagal Shutdown – Symptoms Effects and Treatment

Introduction to Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

In the realm of mental health discussions, the concept of “Dorsal Vagal Shutdown” has gained increasing attention. But what exactly does this term entail? Understanding the symptoms of dorsal vagal shutdown is crucial. The dorsal vagal state, located at the core of our responses, is the oldest and most primal. It manifests as a shutdown, leaving individuals feeling frozen, disconnected, and often trapped in depression. This mode conserves energy, resulting in a sensation of weightiness and numbness. It functions as a self-protective mechanism in dire circumstances. This article delves into the depths of this phenomenon, exploring its symptoms, dorsal vagal shutdown treatment, and the art of self-recognition.

What is Dorsal Vagal Shutdown?

Dorsal vagal shutdown treatment stands as the body’s innate defense mechanism, a strategy to conserve energy when dealing with overwhelming situations and seemingly insurmountable stress. This physiological response aids survival by rerouting energy from higher-level cognitive functions, allowing the body to transition into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Think of it as your built-in “off switch,” offering a respite from stress and a moment to unwind.

Body Freeze response

In situations of extreme sympathetic arousal, the body reveals a survival tactic known as freeze. This defensive response involves an overpowering surge of the parasympathetic system, effectively immobilizing the individual. Understanding what does dorsal vagal shutdown feel like can help identify this state. Freeze can manifest as complete collapse, dissociation, or partial shutdown, hindering cognitive functions, emotional access, and movement.

Understanding the Mechanism of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Within the parasympathetic nervous system lies the dorsal vagus, a pathway capable of shutting down energy-intensive bodily functions, inducing a state of “freeze” (McKeever, 2022). This phenomenon, akin to a lizard’s feigned death response, serves as a survival mechanism (Porges & Dana, 2018). When individuals facing trauma feel numb or immobilized, it’s often due to activation of the dorsal vagus. During this phase, dissociation—a sense of detachment from reality—kicks in, aiding survival.

While dorsal vagal shutdown can be beneficial in moments of danger, its excessive occurrence in everyday life can have detrimental effects.

Dorsal Vagal Shutdown & the Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system, comprising the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, regulates our responses to stress. Dorsal Vagal Shutdown primarily involves the activation of the parasympathetic system, inducing a reduced heart rate, shallow breathing, and other physiological changes that aid energy conservation. In essence, it’s akin to the body entering “hibernation” mode.

Trauma’s Impact on Nervous System States

For trauma survivors, these states aren’t just fleeting responses; they can become ingrained patterns. Trauma isn’t merely stored in memories—it becomes a reflexive nervous system state. Chronic stress can lead to being perpetually stuck in the sympathetic or dorsal vagal state, causing emotional, relational, and physical distress.

Distinguishing when dorsal vagal shutdown treatment is advantageous versus when it becomes detrimental is a nuanced skill. However, mastering this discernment is crucial for maintaining mental well-being and optimizing one’s life journey.

Polyvagal Theory in Action

Polyvagal Theory introduces three distinct states of the nervous system, each influencing human behavior: the ventral vagal, representing safety and sociability; the sympathetic, activating fight or flight responses; and the dorsal vagal, associated with shutdown reactions.

Symptoms of Dorsal Vagal Shutdown

Experiencing dorsal vagal shutdown triggers an array of short-term effects. These encompass physical manifestations like 

🥴 Decreased heart rate 

🥴 Decreased blood pressure 

🥴 Potential fainting, especially in severe cases

Mentally, it can result in impaired concentration and communication difficulties, while emotional turmoil such as fear and shame might intensify. While short-term effects are formidable, the repercussions of dorsal vagal shutdown extend into the long term. Chronic illness, depression, anxiety, and persistent physical pain are among the potential outcomes. Addressing this condition early is crucial, as the longer it persists, the more significant its impact on overall well-being.

Signs of dorsal vagal shutdown  

  • Unable to Take Action

Entering dorsal vagal shutdown makes taking action a challenge, often leading to extreme procrastination. Even crucial tasks are postponed, contributing to mounting stress.

  • Neglecting Self and Others

Neglecting personal needs and distancing from loved ones are telltale signs. Energy dwindles, and even basic self-care becomes secondary.

  • Struggles with Activity

Simple tasks become challenging, and physical activity diminishes as the body enters a freeze-like state.

  • Extreme Fatigue

A sense of extreme exhaustion sets in, often accompanied by increased sleep and reduced energy levels.

  • Slower Heart Rate

The primary physical response is a decreased heart rate—a mechanism to conserve energy in perceived threat situations.

Dorsal vagal Shutdown Treatment 

Step-by-Step Process

  1. Recognize Freeze State: Identify when someone is in a freeze state characterized by immobilization and survival instincts.
  2. Provide Cues of Safety: Reduce environmental stimulation, enhance the tone of your voice, and maintain a calm breathing pattern to convey safety.
  3. Practice Self-Compassion: Understand and acknowledge your own reactions and sensitivities to the situation.
  4. Show Compassion: Approach the situation with empathy and respect for the person experiencing the freeze state.

How to stop dorsal vagal shutdown

Ventral Vagal Pathway – The Social Connection

The latest development in vagal pathways, the ventral vagal pathway, is responsible for the unique human trait of recognizing social cues (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018). This pathway connects to the brain, enabling emotional regulation and facilitating social engagement (McKeever, 2022; Porges & Dana, 2018). In essence, it underpins the distinction between mammals and reptiles.

Related Video:

Guiding Recovery through Polyvagal-Informed Therapy

The Polyvagal Theory paints a hierarchical picture of these systems (McKeever, 2022). To navigate from dorsal vagal (shutdown) activation, individuals must traverse the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight), finally reaching the ventral vagal pathway for safety (McKeever, 2022).

Empowering individuals to regulate their nervous systems lies at the heart of polyvagal-informed therapy. By creating safe spaces and traversing the hierarchy of responses, therapists help clients activate the ventral vagal pathway (social engagement). Techniques such as breathwork, sensory focus, walks, and creative outlets aid in progressing towards ventral vagal activation.

How to recover from dorsal vagal shutdown 

  1. Somatic Exercises: Somatic exercises, gentle movements that heighten bodily awareness, prove effective in treating dorsal vagal shutdown. These exercises activate the parasympathetic nervous system, promoting the regulation of stress responses and overall well-being. Somatic exercises offer a pathway to recovery. They facilitate a return to a balanced state, helping you regain control of your life and mental health.
  2. Recognize the Shutdown State: Start by recognizing that you are in a dorsal vagal shutdown state. Symptoms may include emptiness, isolation, dissociation, numbness, or fogginess.
  3. Create a Safe Environment: Find a quiet, low-stimulation environment. Dim lighting and slow movements can help you connect with the shutdown state.
  4. Feel and Express: Allow yourself to feel the shutdown state without judgment. You can use artistic mediums like drawing, journaling, or dance to express your emotions.
  5. Gradual Return: As you feel more comfortable, gradually introduce stimulation and movement into your life. Remember, recovery is a slow process, and patience is your best ally.
  6. Supportive Therapist: Working with therapists or supportive individuals holds immense value, as our nervous systems co-regulate. Just as infants rely on caregivers for soothing, adults benefit from others’ calming presence. Therapists intentionally use their own nervous systems to foster safety, aiding clients in finding stability and calm.
  7. Finding Your Path to Healing : Empowering individuals to recognize and manage their nervous system states opens doors to healing. Acknowledging the nuances of these responses equips survivors to navigate trauma’s aftermath, fostering resilience, connection, and self-compassion.


1. What’s the difference between dorsal vagal shutdown and freeze?

  • Dorsal vagal shutdown primarily involves the dorsal vagal pathway, while freeze entails the activation of two pathways, including dorsal vagal and sympathetic flight or fight.

2. How can I create a safe environment during a shutdown state?

  • Find a quiet space with dim lighting and minimal stimulation. Slow movements or stillness can help you connect with your emotions.

3. Is there a one-size-fits-all approach to coming out of a shutdown state?

  • No, recovery is highly individual. It’s essential to experience and acknowledge your shutdown state while gradually reintroducing stimulation and movement into your life.

4. Can I use artistic mediums to express my shutdown state?

  • Absolutely! Drawing, journaling, dance, or any creative outlet can help you express your emotions and navigate the shutdown state.

5. How long does it take to recover from dorsal vagal shutdown?

  • Recovery is a slow process and varies from person to person. Patience and self-compassion are essential throughout your healing journey.

Medical References


  • Dr Khadija

    DPT | MS Pain Management | Intra-articular Injec Specialist | Acupuncturist | Cupping Therapist | Oncology Pain Specialist | Certified Chiropractor 🇬🇧 | Medical Writer | Author