You’re probably familiar with your nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, the automatic reaction that prepares you to flee or react to danger. Less well known is the freeze response, which is triggered when you’re faced with a situation that is too big or scary to outrun or fight your way out of—such as a physical assault. You might experience a physical and psychological numbness to pain that allows your body and brain to prepare for the next move.
But when a threat is existential and ongoing, such as environmental devastation, climate change, societal inequity, or environmental racism (the disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on marginalized communities), the freeze response can overwhelm your nervous system, leaving you stuck, unable to take action or to even acknowledge that the problem exists.
Practices that support our nervous systems and our own sustainability can help us continue to show up in the world, and to our work. One way to avoid shutting down in the face of hazards that threaten your well-being and existence is to practice a mindfulness technique known as Resourcing and Imagining: connecting to feelings of safety and support through visualizing times you felt that way in the past, then picturing the ideal world or outcome you’d like to call in—one that will fully welcome and support you as your true Self.
This practice can activate an alternate nervous system response—the Social Engagement System (SES), coined by psychiatrist and researcher Stephen Porges. The SES picks up cues about safety from others (such as body language and tone of voice) and your environment. Any time we connect with feelings of safety, we tap into the SES. The resulting sense of security makes us more able to engage with, respond to, and take action in the world.
This practice can take as long as you’d like. Set aside some time, be it a few moments or an hour, and spend the first half on the Resourcing portion. Move into Imagining only when you feel naturally curious. I like to do this practice in the morning, but it can be done any time. In the evening, you might practice only the Resourcing part, because the Imagining portion can be stimulating rather than calming.
A Meditation for Thawing the Freeze Response
With a soft gaze or with your eyes closed, think about a place where you feel safe and can show up as your fullest Self. You may imagine a loved one’s home, a place in nature, somewhere you’ve seen in a magazine or on TV, or even a person or activity that conjures a sense of security and belonging. Engage all of your senses to picture each detail, noticing the sensations that arise in your body. Rest here until you feel curious about moving into Imagining.
Staying in touch with the sensations that feeling supported brought up, picture an idealized world. Your utopia might be a place where humans harmoniously coexist with nature, where rainforests are intact and thriving, or where individuals and societies are not threatened by systemic racism, sexism, poverty, and inequity. With curiosity, visualize how this place might look, sound, smell, feel, and taste. Remember, your wildest dreams of harmony, sustainability, and justice may not show up fully formed the first time you visualize them.
Move back and forth between Resourcing and Imagining several times, returning to your safe space (Resourcing) any time overwhelm or despair arises during your fantasy (Imagining). This triggers the SES, helping you to deactivate any freeze response you have in the moment. But it also recruits nerve fibers in the vagus nerve—the longest nerve in the body, responsible for unconscious functions such as breathing, as well as emotional regulation—making them less available to shut down in the future.
R.W. ALVES (she/they), C-IAYT, SEP, E-RYT 500, is a social justice educator, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, and yoga therapist. She teaches trauma-informed yoga and provides social justice and anti-oppression training for yoga communities. Learn more at rwalves.com.