How Stress Affects Your Voice: The Freeze Response
Read Chapter One here.
There is one other autonomic response that affects your voice (typically without you realizing) and that’s what lies between fight and flight.
You may know it as the Freeze Response, also known as Immobilization, and you may have seen it play out in responses like Stage Fright, Feinting, or Playing Dead. It is a neural vestige we have kept since our time as creatures that slithered and crawled, a vestige that helped us survive to the point we find ourselves now and it is still very much alive in the way we behave and perceive the world.
But why does that concern me and my voice?
Well, if you’re lucky enough to never know trauma or crippling anxiety, you can still learn how the folks around us personally endure and deal with stress. There may also be a time in your life where you can’t fight or run away, and knowing your body and its behaviors in these instances may have great value.
This reptilian response switches on when the body and mind are aware (neuroception) that running and fighting are no longer an option to deal with the threat you are facing. There is only one other alternative. Freeze. The parasympathetic nervous system takes the helm, and takes its role of relaxation to its extreme by activating this ancient neural network. This network is known as the unmyelinated vagus nerve and it runs from the Dorsal Vagal Motor Nucleus in the brain down into various parts of the body. It acts as a vagal brake on your heart slowing it to a beat lower than that at rest, numbs your muscles and sense of feeling by releasing a concoction of chemicals and just about locks your vocal folds apart to keep the oxygen flowing into your lungs. It’s why in this mode it may feel physically impossible to speak, scream or call for help! And it’s this physiology and feeling that can remain with you like a weight around your shoulders.
For instance, the longevity or repetition of the traumatic event has further repercussions upon the body; for instance, if the event is repeated and the body doesn’t have time or suitable surroundings to re-calibrate its nervous system by trembling, social interaction, or receiving soothing from the voice of a close guardian that thaw your body, the mechanistic adjustments your body underwent can remain within you long after the event is over (PTSD is an example). The mind may move on but the body holds what hasn’t thawed, and the ability to calibrate between systems, to create homeostasis, is compromised. The changes your body has made to protect itself become permanent, like a habit, rather than dropping the protective shell once the event has passed. It’s not just the body that changes too, but your ability to discern safety and threat is compromised as everything becomes a threat and triggers a shutdown response. Facial expressions become lifeless and an inability to interpret them arise, as these expressions are a higher order language run by the neo-cortex whereas the shutdown response is driven by a much older autonomic mechanism that hadn’t evolved the necessity for social communication. The ability to regulate emotions and talk them through is also limited for the same reason as intense feelings repeat the freeze cycle as they are treated as threats. Modulation of rhythm, inflection and tone in the voice, are also switched off creating a monotonic sound in the voice as these elements too are enervated by the neo-cortex via the myelinated vagus nerve.
The symptoms of trauma on the voice are intrinsic and varied according to the adaptations the body produced; however, there are four common coping methods in these instances and we will look more closely at them in Part Three.
Porges SW. The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. Int J Psychophysiol. 2001;42: 123–146.