Let’s ditch the myths in favor of some hard science.
The other morning, I was scrolling on social media when I ran across a post by a celebrity trainer in the mental-health and somatic-therapy community. It went a little something like this:
“Here’s what’s happening when you feel immobilized and can’t take action on, say, responding to an uncomfortable email you got earlier in the week that you need to address… Your nervous system is saying that things are not safe, so you’re in ‘freeze’ or ‘shutdown’ mode.”
Respectfully, that’s a giant load of horse manure.
I can’t just stand by anymore, watching mental-health celebrities and influencers spouting ridiculous fairy tales that are based on pseudoscience and outdated neuroscience.
Let’s break it down.
First off, the nervous system (in this case, the autonomic nervous system) doesn’t actually say anything…about anything.
Your body’s autonomic nervous system puts you in action mode or resting mode.
Your autonomic nervous system is simply the mechanism that supplies you with energy or turns off energy production.
End of story.
It doesn’t do anything else.
Nervous system myths
Unfortunately, there’s a big story going around that the nervous system is always scanning for danger.
This particular bit of nonsense is supported by a trio of notions that also happen to be made-up:
- Your brain contains a social-engagement system
- You have an emotional brain that needs to be controlled by your rational brain
- If (for whatever reason) that all isn’t in working order, you’re going to be stuck in a high-alert, fight / flight / freeze mode
This is not only a wholly incorrect understanding of how the brain and nervous system function, but as far as helping you to understand your mental and emotional life, it’s also going to be about as useful as the “explanation” that babies come from storks.
If you don’t know the truth about how your brain and body actually works, you can’t employ the tactics that’ll most effectively resolve mental and emotional discomfort.
The real deal
If you find yourself uncomfortable all week long because you keep thinking about an email you’re avoiding, it’s not because your nervous system says you aren’t safe (and is putting you into fight / flight / freeze mode).
You’re uncomfortable because you have something you believe you need to take action on. When that’s the case, your brain—logically and rationally—decides that it needs to keep you energetically ready to take action.
By thinking about that email, you’re signaling to your brain that it’s time to gather some energy so you can address the problem.
But, instead of spending that energy on moving toward the problem, you’re resisting.
And so you experience the symptoms of discomfort that typically go along with having a bunch of unspent energy in your body.
Depending on who you are, that discomfort could look like…
- A churning gut
- Achy joints
- Stomach pains
- Tense muscles
- Shallow breathing
- IBS symptoms
- Feeling frozen
Bottom line is, you’re “frozen” because you have involuntarily made a choice, based on past learning, to not move toward this threat.
Maybe that’s because you believe that your opponent is likely to defeat or outwit you.
Maybe it’s because you don’t want to face the shame and disapproval you expect.
Your nervous system hasn’t decided that you’re not safe.
The story-making, conceptualizing part of your brain has.
Your meaning-making brain has combined that story—which, in this case, comes with the expectation of a negative outcome—with the excess energy in your body.
You and your brain have thus constructed the experience of non-safety, which you’re attempting to manage by hiding out behind a shield of inaction.
A mysterious force in your nervous system hasn’t victimized you.
You’re actually being victimized by the nonsense from internet therapy gurus who want you to believe that this behavior is a “freeze” response resulting from your overactive (mythical) emotional brain.
What to do?
First, don’t fall prey to these popular but unhelpful ideas.
You’re the storyteller who gets to construct the reality of your mental and emotional life.
Second, understand that with a lingering unsolved problem, your brain will keep on supplying you with the energy you’ll need to solve it.
Third, solve that problem by taking action—and/or recategorizing the email as something other than “a problem that needs to be addressed.”
To spend the energy you’ve generated by thinking about that email, you do have to take some action—but that action doesn’t have to literally be taking action on the email.
You can go to the gym.
You can go for a run.
You can go do some bioenergetic pounding.
You can talk it over with someone.
With that said, go now!
Break these conceptual chains and finally conquer your mental and emotional life—armed with the real science of how your brain works.
And if you want to figure it out, give me a call. We’ll talk.