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Written for therapists but informative for anyone in or out of therapy, the excerpt below gives guideposts for healing and explains why some therapists seem to "tip toe" around trauma with new clients ("let the patient lead").

by David Puder, M.D.

Coming Out Of Shutdown Mode

So how do we climb back out of shutdown mode?

The opposite of the dorsal vagal system is the social engagement system.

So, in short, what fixes shutdown mode is bringing someone into healthy social engagement, or proper attachment.

Getting down into the nuts and bolts of how this works in our body can help us understand why we feel the way we do physically when your body is in fight, flight, or shut down mode.

When we understand why our body reacts the way it does, like a string of clues and some basic science about the brain, we can understand how to switch states. We can begin to move out of the fight or flight state, out of the shutdown mode, and back into the social engagement state.

As therapists, whether we are just establishing a connection with a new, anxious patient, or helping them deal with their deepest traumatic memories, knowing how to navigate the polyvagal states is important.

It can also be helpful if you have just identified yourself in some of these symptoms. Such as, “When I’m with my parents, even as an adult, and they start fighting, I feel lightheaded and disconnected.”

If you’ve seen some of these things in yourself, hopefully through therapy, and even understanding how this works, you can pull yourself out of a disconnected state.

Studies show that some parts of the brain shut down during the recall of traumatic events, including the verbal centers and the reasoning centers of the brain (Van Der Kolk, 2006).

This is why it’s important to conduct therapy, or coming out of shutdown mode, in a safe, healthy way, in a safe, healthy environment. This is why positive attachment is imperative. Otherwise, you run the risk of retraumatizing the patient.

Because I am a psychiatrist, I am going to write this to demonstrate how to help a patient switch out of shutdown mode.

However, these tips still apply to those who are just understanding how shutdown mode works. And it can even help those who feel shut down to begin to know how to try and attain a healthy social engagement mode again.

  • Have a trust-based relationship. Because of the potential to re-traumatize, don’t even address intensely traumatic events—especially ones where you think shutdown mode kicked in, until the therapeutic relationship feels deeply connected.

    It’s important as the therapist to allow the patient to express things they couldn’t express to other people—shameful feelings, anger, sexual response, anything that feels frightening to share with others.

  • Find your own calm center. If you can empathize with their distress, stay in the moment with them, and help them feel connected during their shutdown, you are throwing them a lifeline. You’re helping them come out of shutdown, into social engagement.

    It’s important to fight against the urge to dissociate, no matter how gruesome the subject matter is. As therapists, we could dissociate because of the mirror neuron response—to mirror our patient’s brain, and because when hearing horrific trauma, it’s easy to imagine it happening to us.

    The human experience is so powerful that when we re-engage the trauma, with someone else to support us, it rewrites that event in our brain, adding in the feeling of being supported within the trauma memory. We create new neural pathways around the trauma, and we can change our body’s response to it.

  • Let the patient lead. Don’t go on a witch hunt. If the patient brings it up, lean into the subject. But it is harmful to prompt the patient into something that isn’t there by asking leading questions and trying to get them to confess. Don’t let your own experience lead you to imagine they have also experienced something.

  • Normalize their response. The entire polyvagal theory should make us say “thank you!” to our bodies. Even if that system is overactive at times—unwarranted panic or anxiety—that our body is watching out for us, trying to keep us alive.

    Our body reacting in that way is the same thing as the gazelle either running away or going limp. And gazelles have no idea what emotions are in the first place.

    Now that the patient understands that their emotional response was adaptive, primal, and appropriate, we can get rid of the shame that their non-reaction caused.

  • Help them find their anger. Anger is an incredibly adaptive emotion, and it’s one we don’t allow ourselves to have. We think anger is bad. But really, anger shows us where our healthy boundaries were crossed.

    Anger gives us energy to overcome the obstacle. We can help the patient see they had the emotional energy to overcome, but the energy wasn’t able to be manifested at the time they wanted it.

    If, in a session, we can get a patient to identify their anger, they will see that they were not completely unresponsive to the traumatic event. If we can help them feel even the tiniest movement of a microexpression of anger on their face—the slight downturn of the inner eyebrows—we can show them their body didn’t totally betray them in that moment.

    We can reconnect their body and their feelings to their emotions. This helps develop a state of congruence—where their inside feelings match their outer demonstrations of those feelings.
Further, as a dissociative memory is explored, finding anger and reducing shame allows for the memory to fundamentally change. Anger brings them out of dissociation, even if it is anger at you, the therapist!

  • Introduce body movement. Because shutdown causes us to freeze, reactivating body movements while talking about the trauma is a great way to reconnect the body and mind, to bring them out of shutdown.

    For example, one of my patients was in an accident. When the EMS showed up, they strapped her to a gurney to load her into the back of an ambulance. More than the actual accident, being trapped on that gurney was traumatic for her. For the entire ride to the hospital, she was terrified that she’d hurt her neck, and all of the anxiety that surrounds a neck injury caused her to be frozen in fear.

    Even in talking about the trauma in the therapy session, her body was stiff, frozen, and she was dissociating.

    I asked her, “In what way would you have wanted to move during that moment?” She said she would have wanted her arms to be able to move. I asked her to slowly, mindfully, move her arms in the way she would have wanted to.

    It’s important to do the movement mindfully and slowly, focusing on the sensation of the movement. That patient felt a huge release of energy. In the following sessions, she was able to tell the memory as a narrative, instead of dissociating.

    Having the patient move—slow punching, kicking, twisting, running slowly in place—flips the person from shutdown into the fight or flight mode, with the goal being to move into connection, or social engagement, mode.

    Body movement exercises, in conjunction with talking to a therapist, can fundamentally change the memory.

  • Practicing assertiveness. Emotional shutdown can occur within relationships where one person feels they cannot communicate with the other person well.

    One therapist, John Gottman, describes this practice as stonewalling. Practicing assertiveness can help the patient feel more in control of their emotional state, and feel safe to move into healthy relationship patterns.

  • Breath work, mindfulness, and yoga all have a role in becoming more connected to your here and now body. I will discuss this subject at length in a future podcast.

  • Become a Judo Master and practice strength training. Teaching yourself how to better protect yourself in the future can be powerful and also resets the stress system over time. I talked about strength training in a prior episode, and in the future will talk about learning to fight as an active way to not remain passive or a victim both in mindset and capability. Further doing something hard, on an ongoing basis, allows for building inner strength which can keep you in fight and flight longer before going into shut down.
 
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