Freeze Response to Trauma
As I walked with Gibbs the other day the sun was really attempting to shine! We had had what felt like weeks of gray days, people all around me were in desperate need of some vitamin D to boost their moods, and the walks we had taken were ones where we were searching for beauty rather than being stopped in our tracks by it. So on this day, when there were small breaks in the clouds and the sun was trying to work its way through them, the trail we were on was a hindrance to feeling its effort. This particular trail started off in the trees with fairly thick cover, closed in on both sides, snow crunching underfoot. Gibbs and I walked down it, barely noticing the struggling sun. But then, all of a sudden, the path came to a crossroads and opened up to an expansive view of a frozen pond in front of a large meadow, brown grasses standing tall above the snow, a line of birch trees surrounding it…. and the miracle of blue cloudy sky above! Even though I know this view is there, I still felt my heart open up, my breath deepened, my eyes blinked to take it all in, and a smile crept across my face. Ahhhhh.
As I was reflecting on this full-bodied flood of expansion, I was reminded, maybe strangely, of flashbacks, both my own and ones I have sat with clients through. For many of us, when a flashback to a past trauma happens, especially if it is a trauma from childhood, or from repeated trauma where we have been helpless, the response is to freeze. Many people understand the flight or fight responses, but for those who have experienced repeated trauma, disassociation is a common. Leon Seltzer Ph.D describes the three states as follows:
“Here, in brief, is how the survival-oriented acute stress response operates. Accurately or not, if you assess the immediately menacing force as something you potentially have the power to defeat, you go into fight mode. In such instances, the hormones released by your sympathetic nervous system—especially adrenaline—prime you to do battle and, hopefully, triumph over the hostile entity.
Conversely, if you view the antagonistic force as too powerful to overcome, your impulse is to outrun it (and the faster the better). And this, of course, is the flight response, also linked to the instantaneous ramping up of your emergency biochemical supplies—so that, ideally, you can escape from this adversarial power (whether it be human, animal, or some calamity of nature).
Where, in what you perceive as a dire threat, is the totally disabling freeze response? By default, this reaction refers to a situation in which you’ve concluded (in a matter of seconds—if not milliseconds) that you can neither defeat the frighteningly dangerous opponent confronting you nor safely bolt from it. And ironically, this self-paralyzing response can, in the moment, be just as adaptive as either valiantly fighting the enemy or, more cautiously, fleeing from it.”
When the body freezes, or disassociates, the freezing state is not just an outer state of being. It temporarily shuts down the internal organs not vital for life. It shuts down the emotional state of being. It shuts down the feeling of physical pain. It can save a life as a resilient coping strategy, disengaging the body from what is happening.
So when a flashback occurs and someone re-enters the memory of a trauma, the body can once again freeze. The breathing slows, the digestive system shuts down, the mind can go blank, speech can be hard or impossible, and mostly flat lined in affect. It is as though the memory frozen within our cells… and, indeed, it is trapped in our body, takes hold of us once more. But with help, the memory/flashback can be worked through and healed, piece by piece, allowing the body to re-incorporate the feelings and event.
So how did my path remind me of this? When someone is coming out of a freeze state, the body opens up once more. There is an expansion, often witnessed by stomachs gurgling, breath deepening, yawning, eyes blinking… all signs that the body is, once again, alive. Just as my body reacted to the sight of the meadow, so our bodies react to a coming out of a freeze response. There can also be shaking and emotions that come at this point, all signs that the body is waking up and restoring itself. And while my body did not do all of these things as I stepped into the open, the feeling of expansiveness was a familiar one. The way I felt spaciousness within my heart and lungs, the ways my eyes teared at the beauty, the way life flooded through me once more… yes! I was alive! I was restored! And the sun was almost shining!
As you go about your week this week, I invite you to pay attention to these moments of expansion, the moments that make you feel most alive. Think about what came before them and how that helped you feel this way. Give thanks to God for the times where you can feel more deeply, embodied and heart-filled.
And if you need someone to walk through those frozen places with you, reach out for help to someone you trust. Allowing the healing to take place, piece by piece.
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