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  • Trauma and Its Aftermath
    Part III: Fight, Flight or Freeze: What Difference Does it Make?

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    A child huddled on the roof of her home, pelted by rain while floodwaters rise around her…A Gulf War soldier stunned and powerless as a convoy of his comrades is blown apart by an IED…

    A woman cowering as she is punched and kicked, yet again, by her raging husband, while their terrified children look on.

    Each of these individuals is experiencing the threat and horror of a traumatic event. Woven into each experience is something perhaps more devastating: a sense of paralysis or helplessness in the face of great danger.

    A traumatic experience, by definition, evokes a sense of helplessness or horror, taxing body and psyche to their limits. But those who are able to hold on to a sense of efficacy—making a difference with their own choices—are more likely to recover from trauma, and less likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Most of us have heard of the fight or flight response. This is our brain’s remarkable ability to to marshall needed resources in a time of threat. In an emergency, it’s a more primitive part of our brain—the limbic system—that takes charge, overriding the conscious deliberation of the neocortex to trigger an instantaneous body response that could ensure survival. The bloodstream is flooded with hormones that sharpen our senses and send a burst of energy to our limbs, enabling us to do battle or run for our lives. If we are able to act on this biological imperative, we may be able to save ourselves or others, and the likelihood of PTSD diminishes.

    There is a third, less talked-about response. When we perceive that neither fight nor flight is possible, we are biologically programmed to freeze, or go limp. The parasympathetic nervous system sends the fight/flight response into reverse, slowing respiration and blood pressure, relaxing muscle tension, and flooding the body with pain-killing endorphins. We’ve all seen this immobility response in animals. When a mouse is caught by a cat, it will play dead; so, too, a zebra or gazelle overtaken by a lion.

    This unconscious, biologically programmed response of freezing has its advantages. A predator may be tricked into thinking its prey is safely dead and leave the scene, giving the victim an opportunity to escape. Or, if death is inevitable, the animal’s suffering will be diminished due to the presence of endorphins in its system.

    In humans, freezing can be thought of a kind of dissociation, or disconnection from ourselves and our experience. When we are trapped and have no option to fight or flee, the next best option is to escape psychologically by becoming emotionally detached. Dissociation is highly correlated with the later development of PTSD.

    While it can be adaptive—the best response in a terrible situation—the freeze response can leave human survivors haunted by what they see as their own failure. Writes trauma expert Belleruth Naparstek, “…they tend to assign negative meaning to their naturally, biologically driven immobility response. Freezing is usually judged as cowardly, ineffectual, and somehow weak-willed—as if will had anything to do with this automatic survival mechanism” (Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal; New York: Bantam Dell, 2004).

    As a specialist in sexual trauma, I have worked with survivors of every form of sexual abuse and assault. Because their perpetrators were inevitably more powerful than they, fight and flight were impossible. Most of these victims froze/dissociated while they were attacked, setting the stage for later PTSD.

    Survivors of drug-facilitated rape have a particularly difficult road to healing. In most cases, these women were slipped a drug that rendered them unconscious and essentially paralyzed, then raped by their perpetrators. When they woke, their bodies were aching, their memories fuzzy—but they knew something terrible had occurred. In my experience, these women suffer a exceptionally vicious form of PTSD. Denied even the possibility of fighting back, they must work very hard to face and resolve this imposed helplessness. They search their memories for what they might have done differently. They often blame themselves for having said yes to the date, or for drinking alcohol. This self-blame is itself an attempt to claim some power in the situation. Irrational self-blame is also typical of survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Efficacy is so important to the human psyche that we may prefer to blame ourselves for terrible events than to face our true powerlessness.

    Consider the three trauma survivors we started with. Imagine that the child on the roof could have comforted and soothed her younger siblings, or that the soldier had been able to rescue a buddy from a burning vehicle, or the battered wife to gather her children into a locked room and call 911. In so doing, they may have been able to find some sense of choice and mastery in an otherwise out-of-control circumstance.

    For those who did not have this choice, healing from trauma may be difficult, but not impossible. More on that in the next article.

    To Learn More:

    The Body Remembers by Babette Rothschild

    Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal by Belleruth Naparstek

    Getting Past Your Past by Francine Shapiro, PhD