“The lively world of our emotions, fears and responses is like a great forest with its fauna. We experience those feelings as though they were wild animals bolting through the foliage of our thick being, timedly peering out in alarm or slyly slinking and cunningly stalking, linking us to our unknown selves” (Paul Shepard).
Species develop adaptive survival mechanisms to keep them alive, whether to avoid detection and attack. This is not always about winning, but surviving so a freezing state or submissive posture is sometimes best. These fight, flight and freeze (immobility response when fight or flight seems impossible) responses are very primitive so they predate the reptilian brain and are found in all species including humans. When threatened we can fight, flee or freeze, this is not a thought out process, but are instinctually orchestrated. The aim is to survive and deal with the consequences later when the danger has past.
When freeze response is activated, which is common in trauma responses, the energy that would have been discharged if flight or fight were activated, is constricted. This energy is then amplified and bound up in the nervous system, resulting in a very anxious and emotional state. The frustrated anger response erupts into rage, while the frustrated flight response erupts into helplessness. If one can release the energy through fight or flight and thus defend itself, trauma will not occur. With the frozen energy states of helplessness, terror and rage are common.
Traumatic anxiety is an aroused, hypervigilant state that will not dissipate and leads to an almost continuous state of anxiety. There is a continuous sense of danger and search for that danger, dissociation, a feeling of helplessness, fear, panic and as if you are on the brink of insanity. Importantly, this is not a permanent aspect of one’s personality, but indicative of a nervous system temporarily, albeit perpetually, overwhelmed. With unresolved trauma, we repeat what we have done before, but inevitably this leads to the circuit not being completed and a sense of trapped energy.
These traumatic symptoms affect one’s emotional and mental states, but also one’s physical health. The trapped energy from being in this hypervigilant state will use any aspect of one’s physiology available to it in order to release this energy. Trauma can make a person deaf, blind, mute, have paralysis in arms/legs, have chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, severe PMS, gastrointestinal problems, migraines and many psychosomatic responses. As Peter Levine states, “any physical system capable of binding the undischarged arousal caused by trauma is fair game”.
The fact that the freeze response feels like death is partly why humans struggle to stay with the felt sense of it long enough to reach its natural conclusion. We respond emotionally to flashbacks in the same we did when it happened, but the way out of immobility is to experience it gradually, in safety through the felt sense.
“And no Grand Inquisitor has in readiness such terrible tortures as has anxiety…which never lets him escape, neither by diversion, not by noise, neither at work or at play, neither by day or by night” (Kierkegaard).