I really love the work the NICABM does. Here’s their smart infographic on trauma responses and how the freeze reaction is neither a cognitive decision nor a failure to do the best thing but an evolutionarily adaptive response.
Interesting in particular to note that “freeze” and even the possible “flop” response (so we now know it’s not just fight-or-flight but flight, flight, freeze or flop) is an automated response to the perception of the danger being inescapable.
This is one of the key features of an experience that increases the likelihood of the individual being traumatised by it. And this makes a lot of sense in the context not just of ‘single-incident adult-onset trauma’ but also relational trauma or c-PTSD with a childhood onset. Children are regularly helpless in the face of threat and especially threat from their carers. They are more helpless physically, and particularly helpless for psychological reasons if the dangerous person is also needed for the child’s survival and nurture.
And I’ve been wondering, for those of us with c-PTSD, whether freezing becomes the most likely response as a global survival strategy throughout our lives if it was consistently the most appropriate response in childhood, even if we’re not actually helpless in a situation. If part of what we learn and then don’t unlearn is that we are helpless. Which puts me in mind of the much older research of Martin Seligman into “learned helplessness” as a redescription of depression (Seligman, M.E.P. (1972) “Learned Helplessness”. Annual Review of Medicine Vol 23 p407-412).
And this also puts me in mind – as everything seems to! – of the importance of working with ‘parts’ of the self and learning to distinguish between a surfacing child-part who remembers feeling helpless, and the functioning adult part who, if she can be kept “on-line”, can be facilitated through therapeutic experiences of rediscovering, especially in her body, her potency.
Keeping this functioning adult part online is effectively achieved in two ways. Firstly by maintaining relational engagement with the client during a moment in therapy when a strong experience with historic origins begins to surface. Secondly by encouraging so-called vertical-integration in the brain by having the client observe or ‘notice’ and report their experience, rather than being taken over by it.
I have two vivid memories of sessions with my c-PTSD therapist, working through old experiences of helplessness in the kinds of ways described in the wonderful book “Healing the Heart of Trauma and Dissociation with EMDR and Ego State Therapy“. In one session I described the situation as vividly as possible, and the accompanying feelings and sensations surfacing, but with an emphasis on visually imagining the child I was as seen from the outside, through the eyes of the adult I am now, and then creating a continuation of the event in which I as the adult intervene and take the child to safety and provide her with soothing and reassurance. In the other session, my therapist facilitated me to move between a body posture congruent with the feelings of helplessness and impotent rage and an upright standing position culminating in me placing my hands firmly on a wall and pushing hard against it, to give myself proprioceptive feedback about my own strength and size.
So if freezing or even completely shutting down are familiar responses for you, firstly know that this is an effective survival response initiated automatically by your nervous system. Secondly, it may be a current way of coping now because it was the only way of coping a long time ago, and by engaging with your body and your imagination it is possible to generate new experiences of potency as opposed to helplessness which may well mean that over time, your nervous system will use new and alternative survival strategies in moments of stress and threat.