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, 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 parasymphatetic 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.
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