Holistic Counseling + Integrative Health

The Freeze Response: Your Nervous System’s Response to Harsh Lifestyle Changes

Lessons from The Biggest Loser
Six years after completing the show The Biggest Loser, nearly all contestants gained the weight back. Reason for that as per National Institute of Health Institute was their slow metabolism. What shocked researcher most was that their metabolism stayed slow up to six years after the show, when it should have gone back to normal.

I like of offer an alternative explanation. It is my understanding that the contestants' metabolism got stuck on 'freeze'. A response seen in individuals as physiological response to trauma, initiated by the extreme military drill style and drastic diet changes. The freeze response happens when both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system are activated and overwhelmed at the same time.

The show chose to put contestants on an extreme weight loss, military drill regime. Both exercise and diet were implemented without transition. Those changes were too much, too fast and too soon not taking the individual's state into consideration. Further, the underlying issue of the weight gain was not inquired into.

Often important life events (injury, illness, childbirth, menopause as well as trauma often stemming from childhood) precedes weight gain. Food in this case is a way of coping with the unprocessed traumatic life event charge and as well as unprocessed emotions (such as sadness, anxiety, grief, anger, etc.).

Stephen Porges' Polyvagal Theory sheds further light on the what exactly happens with our nervous system. His research concluded that early life traumatic experiences can rewire neurological pathways (endocrine/metabolic) as an adaptive means of survival. In this case brain and nervous system change in response to early environmental and social influences, before we had the capacity to choose alternative options.

Looking at the constants of the Biggest Loser, imagine the stacking of events ...

Individuals with highly activated nervous systems, with life events that were often traumatic, put on a high stress "too much, too fast, too soon, no choice" program, with little to no nurturing support.

A metabolism that stayed frozen six years post show. READ ON.

On Obesity
Research shows that obesity has affected a third of America's population. In fact, obesity is classified as a chronic illness. Obesity is known to cause diseases such as diabetes and heart failure. Because of the risk obesity poses, weighty people strive to lose weight. The most common methods used to achieve this are dieting, and exercising. But did you know that these methods, if not used properly, will allow all the weight back again?

Kevin Hall, a National Institutes of Health researcher, who monitored the contestants well-being after the show The Biggest Loser just came to terms with that. His results were just published and bring great insight for those who want to lose weight.

Fast weight loss will not work
For those who are not familiar with the TV show; The Biggest Loser selected a number of individuals to work as a team towards weight loss. Their method: intensive military drill exercises and extreme dieting measures. And indeed, the goal was achieved with the winner losing a whopping 291 pounds. Remarkable, isn't it? His fans tweeting and commenting positively all over his Facebook and twitter accounts! Danny Cahill was elated! But this was not to last long. In the years that have followed since, he has regained another 100 pounds. Other contestants have also reported bulky weight gain, some even more than they lost.

Kevin Hall who followed the contestants six years after the show concluded that the individuals gained the weight back as their metabolism had slowed down significantly, making it difficult for the metabolism to burn calories. Even though a slower metabolism is seen in individuals after dieting, what was shocking in this case is that the metabolism stayed low for six years.

In order to understand what happened I like to take you on a tour of your nervous system.

The Fight/Flight and Freeze response
The primal duty of your innate Fight, Flight and Freeze response is to keep you safe and prepare yourself for defense. When you come across a fierce dog, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol hormones. These two hormones power your hearing and sight; breathing becomes faster and thinking, clearer. The heart beats faster too. Then the digestive system is halted so that you concentrate on the issue at hand. In this case, you are prepared to meet your enemy and freeze, fight, or take your flight to keep yourself from harm.

The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System
This fight/flight mechanism is triggered back in the nervous system, specifically the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS does not only to come into effect in extreme situations like ‘the fierce dog’ scenario, but in this fast-paced quick solution orientated world of it can stay on on-mode throughout.

In comparison, the parasympathetic system also called rest and relax organizes the involuntary responses that generally reflect visceral function in a state of relaxation. When we are relaxed and at ease, our gut can digest food.


Looking at how the weight loss was attained in The Biggest Loser shows why this sympathetic nervous system was activated.

Extreme military drill exercise combined with a crash course diet all obtained in a short period of time with no ease in transition, put the fight/flight mechanism into gear. This resulted in an inactive gut, slowed the metabolic rate and triggered high insulin production. The insulin, overrode the adrenaline prompting to burn fat, and pushed for fat storage for future use. If you add all of these factors together, the slow metabolism, fight/flight and quick extreme transition and harshness of program you can understand why the metabolism was literary on a ‘freeze’ and the weight gain was inevitable.

Meet your Body’s Freeze Response
Trauma is defined as an event that is too much, too fast, too soon, no choice. Being pressured and incentivized with winning, the contestants of The Biggest Loser followed a program promising massive weight loss in a short period of time. The lifestyle changes comparing before and during the show were too much and too fast. There was no transition. If you were to take a measure of the nervous system of the contestants during the show, you would have seen that their nervous system was highly activated. Putting mind over matter, the contestant’s bodies did not have a choice but to follow the program.

It is my understanding the contestants body got stuck on the physiological freeze response, often seen in individuals as a physiological response to trauma.

The freeze response happens when both the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system are activated and overwhelmed at the same time. It is an over-stimulation of the sympathetic and neuromuscular pathways or over-stimulation of the parasympathetic pathways and loss of tone in the neuromuscular.

The freeze option is primal and is a remnant of our reptilian past. Where the freeze response is great strategy for a turtle, it is unusually not such a good idea for us; think fainting during a concert. Hence, the freeze mechanism is only used it when we know our social engagement and fight/flight aren't going to work.

Important Life Events and Weight Gain
Studies have shown that most obese individuals have experienced one or more ‘Important Life Event’ preceding the weight gain.

Important life events range from changes of circumstance, injury, illness, childbirth, menopause as well as trauma often stemming from childhood. Food in this case is used as protection. A defense strategy to not deal with emotions such as unprocessed grief, anger, sadness. A result of these early life events in many individuals is a nervous system where the “stress response” is stuck on “On”.


Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory shines additional light on this. His research concluded that early life traumatic experiences rewire neurological pathways (and hence endocrine/metabolic) as an adaptive means of survival. Porges’ states that our nervous system employs a hierarchy of strategies to both regulate itself and to keep us safe in the face of danger. In fact, it's all about staying safe. In this case brain and nervous system change in response to early environmental and social influences.

Furthermore, overweight and obesity themselves can promote activated emotional states. Imagine repeatedly trying to lose weight and fail, or succeeding in weight loss to gain it all back. This struggle can cause tremendous frustration over time, which can cause or worsen the emotional state. A cycle develops that leads to greater and greater obesity, associated with increasingly severe emotional difficulties.

Most obese do not know that do not have a shot at weight loss by means of “too much, too fast, too soon” methods as their body's response will be beyond their conscious control.

Go slow + Inquire into your past in a compassionate, supportive environment
With this information, you realize that it is smarter to approach the weight loss process and in fact all life style changes slow.

In somatic counseling it is understood that you need to bring the rest and relax, parasympathetic nervous system on board for any lasting weight loss or lifestyle change.

It is a slow process, specifically so that the outcome will be sustainable as opposed to in The Biggest Looser. One that requires an understanding of self-regulation in the body.

When working somatically practitioners guide individuals into experiencing a sense of safety and support in their body; the parasympathetic state. Only when the individual got a somatic sense for feeling safe and supported, both move on to looking at small amounts emotional history. This is done in small bits, constantly moving back to safety and support. Back and forth, like circling on an infinity loop.

Somatic Counseling offers individuals a way to rewire and create new neuropathways, so that their nervous system can experience the health benefits of the parasympathetic state while gaining healthy self-regulation.

Eating healthy food is only half of the story of good nutrition. Being in the ideal state to digest and assimilate food is the other half.

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