Our bodies have two complementary nervous systems: 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝘀𝘆𝗺𝗽𝗮𝘁𝗵𝗲𝘁𝗶𝗰 (arousing) and 𝘁𝗵𝗲 𝗽𝗮𝗿𝗮𝘀𝘆𝗺𝗽𝗮𝘁𝗵𝗲𝘁𝗶𝗰 (calming). Both are needed not only for psychological balance but for survival. Without a parasympathetic modification, the heart would beat too quickly to sustain life.
In an ideal situation, there is a smooth balance between the two nervous systems. The sympathetic is dominant in action, exercise, emotional and sexual arousal, as well as in stressful situations. The parasympathetic takes over in relaxation, sleep, meditation, massage, gentle touch, connecting deeply with another person etc.
When there is a real or perceived threat, the sympathetic system automatically goes to a fight or flight response. Either fighting or fleeing can resolve the stress. If neither is possible or successful, the sympathetic arousal can get so extreme that it is too much for the body to handle, going into total shutdown mode, sending the person into a state of freeze.
This can be a full collapse, dissociation, or a more partial freeze such as an inability to think clearly or access words or emotions, or to move parts of the body.
We see this intense response in animals as well short term—example: the goat that freezes completely when scared. However, animals get out of the freeze response once the threat is gone. For humans, on the other side, it can continue even after the threat is gone.
Knowing how these states manifest is crucial for understanding how we should self-soothe and show our bodies we are now safe. Trying to convince ourselves to get out of these states is futile since even entering these states is not something we do with awareness – The amygdala perceives the threat even before cognition happens. That’s why we may have panic attacks even though nothing threatening has actually happened.
Photo source: https://tinybuddha.com/blog/how-to-stay-calm-in-a-chaotic-stressed-out-world/