Fight, Flight or Freeze: When Trauma Speaks Through the Body
Trauma is the most avoided, ignored, denied and untreated cause of human suffering… More so in a masculine culture, where understanding the softer nature of our psychic blueprint may be perceived as a weakness, and where “doing” is revered more than “being”. Although the trauma imprint is unique to each individual, the underlying premise is the person’s inability to respond to a perceived threat - when our entire physical, emotional and spiritual systems shut down in order to protect us from perceived annihilation. However, one individual’s response to threat may differ from another’s. This depends on genetic make-up, family dynamics (particular to attachment style), and the individual’s history of trauma. Children are the most susceptible to trauma, as their ability to decode experiences, even the common ones, is limited. Unresolved trauma can wreak havoc on our internal system, manifesting and recurring in many areas in our lives, disrupting balanced, healthy living. The bad news is that we have all experienced trauma in one way or another and to varying degrees. The good news is that trauma energy can be accessed, released and healed.
Here is most of what you need to know about trauma in 3 minutes:
What trauma is: We become traumatized when our ability to respond to perceived danger is overwhelmed.
What trauma is not: Whereas all traumatic experiences are stressful, not all stressful experiences are traumatic.
What trauma feels like: Loss of connection – to our bodies, to our spirit, to your loved one and to the environment around us. Trauma may not manifest upon experiencing the adverse factors. It can happen slowly, over time, as we continually adapt to the hidden effects. In fact, many of us experience the hidden effects of trauma many years later in the form of disease, spiritual crises, and emotional breakdowns.
What causes trauma? Anything may be traumatic if it is perceived to be life threatening. This perception differs among individuals, and it depends on age, experience, family dynamics, and even temperament.
Categories of trauma:
Obvious Causes may include: War; childhood abuse (physical, emotional, sexual); neglect; betrayal; abandonment (especially in childhood); severe injuries; sudden death of a loved one.
Less Obvious Causes may include: Invasive medical procedures; falls and minor injuries; being left alone, especially in young children and babies; birth stress (mother and baby); automobile accidents.
Trauma Symptoms: When our body is in distress, it gives us messages. The purpose of these messages is to call our attention to regulate the imbalance. If these messages are left unattended to, over time, they evolve into trauma symptoms. Early symptoms that may be experienced at the time of or shortly after the trauma may include: hypervigilance, extreme sensitivity to sound/light, nightmares/night terrors, extreme mood swings, shame and lack of self-worth, inability to deal with stress, insomnia.
Symptoms that may appear years later may include: Panic attacks, phobias, anxiety, attraction to dangerous situations; avoidance behavior, addictive behavior, memory loss, self-mutilation, feeling stuck/inability to forge relationships, fear of dying/of having a short life.
Patterns of Recurrence: We are inextricably drawn to repeat the actions that caused the trauma in the first place. It is the psyche’s way of attempting to expunge that moment of “freezing” or “stuck-ness” from its space. Re-enactments may manifest in our intimate relationships, work relationships, repetitive accidents, and other inexplicable random events. An example of this is a prostitute with a history of childhood sexual abuse, or the emotionally/physically abused wife/husband with a childhood history of physical/emotional abuse, or the war survivor who is continually seeking a dangerous “thrill”.
Trauma and the Body: When we are faced with a perceived life-threatening situation, the mind and the body mobilize a massive amount of energy in instinctual preparation to “fight or flight”. When the experience is over and the energy is discharged either by “fighting” or “fleeing”, the brain is informed that that it can reduce the levels of stress hormones and regulate the internal system as the perceived threat is no longer present. The problem arises when this message is not given to the brain, and the body “freezes” as it contains the massive amount of ramped-up energy. With no way to discharge the accumulating energy and stress hormones, the body stores it all in its cells long after the perceived energy is gone. The physical and mental state at this point establishes a new baseline for functioning, which proves toxic with time.
Moving Out of Immobility: Animals in the wild react in a similar way to perceived danger. The main difference lies in the fact that animals do not store these experiences in their bodies/psyches. Even if animals react with immobilization, they have the capacity to normalize the frozen energy once the danger is gone. They do so by connecting back to their physical bodies through a spontaneous type of shaking, trembling and breathing to expend the all the pent-up energy. The difficulty that we, humans, face in normalizing a traumatic experience to bring back balance and equilibrium into our internal system is the primary factor for becoming traumatized. The key to moving out of immobility is to slowly and gradually re-ensoul our bodies and to reconnect at the physical level in order to release the energy.
Healing Trauma: The key to healing trauma lies in our ability to discharge our residual survival energy and to bring our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies into flow, harmony and equilibrium. This energy can be transformed into a creative force that brings balance and peace into our lives. I know it can. I am a trauma survivor on a continuous journey of discharging frozen energy!
If you or someone you know think you may have experienced trauma and feel stuck in your life, seek help! There are several ways to bring balance and peace back to your life. Somatic healing, yoga, meditation, are ways of beginning the process. If you would like more information on trauma healing, check out the work of Peter Levine (Http://traumahealing.com) or Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score. You can also connect with me via my webpage http://rosemaryandtea.com