How Fight, Flight and Freeze Heals The Traumatic Wound

There is nothing more compelling than a big “traumatic” moments in movie plots.  Indiana Jones dodges poisoned darts, nearly dies in plane crashes and narrowly escapes being crushed by large, rolling boulders.  We are the safe observer, reveling in his escape from death against all odds.  Exciting!!

But in our real lives, we are less enamored with life and death challenges, and it takes far less to create a sense of overwhelm than it does in action movie scenes.  Take a bad car accident, for example. How can something we walked away from, shaken but without serious injury, still leave us emotionally limping, unable to fully recover for weeks or even months afterwards?

Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, and other trauma researchers write about how our human brain stores trauma. They explain how the central nervous system, which includes our reptilian brain, and our reason-driven neocortex compete for our attention during potentially life threatening events. But how does this explain how we become “traumatized”?

It turns out that “trauma” is not the event itself, but rather the way we get stuck in an incomplete response when we feel overwhelmed by pain or fear.   The fight, flight, freeze mechanism that exists in all animal brains, is designed to give us the best chance of surviving overwhelming situations. These instinctual energies take us through three stages:

  1. arousal — heightened awareness of our surroundings
  2. activation — fighting, fleeing or immobility responses
  3. discharge — the bodily shaking or trembling

These stages occur rapidly and instinctively, without the slow hindrance of conscious thought. When the cycle completes, we are returned to a relaxed nervous system state, able to get on with our lives.  So, if it’s hard wired biologically, what goes wrong? Weeks after my car accident, why do I still feel anxious while driving my car? Why am I reliving the accident whenever I hear tires screeching or the blare of a car horn?

The problem is with the rational brain; it interrupts the instinctual response cycle. Before the dust has even settled from the auto accident, our well-trained neocortex engages, overriding the reptilian responses:  Are my passengers OK?  Where is my car registration? Our rational mind, being reasonable and wanting control, robs us of our chance to be fully afraid or angry, let alone time to reorient and come slowly out of a state of shock. Instead of allowing those feelings, too often we shut them out with rational activity. We are on our cell phones in an instant, and then deal with the accident in the most reasonable way possible, ignoring shock and certainly not allowing ourselves time to cry or tremble.

Our training from early childhood to be rational and in control of our bodies is often the very thing that keeps us from completing our survival driven instincts.
 This is when a skilled trauma therapist can be so helpful.  The therapist can help the nervous system safely discharge those stored, incomplete responses, allowing the natural cycle to complete.  In somatic trauma therapy, using many Mindfulness and Sensorimotor Psychologoy techniques, the client is shown how to become both the actor in the action movie and the one who is watching the action unfold.

“This self-awareness requires us to recognize and track our sensations and feelings.  We unveil our instincts as they live within us, rather than being alienated from them or forcibly driven by them.”
—Bessel Van der Kolk, MD, The Body Keeps The Score

There is even bonus material waiting at the end! We are, by design, meant to either not survive the event at all, or come out the other side feeling more fully alive, more dynamically aware of our inner strengths and abilities. This earned resilience has the power to help us cope more effectively with the next situation that overwhelms us, making us wiser and more likely to allow other instinctual moments to unfold naturally.  This is the transformative nature of trauma recovery.  The feeling of successful completion of these basic animal responses to fear, pain or overwhelm is often elation, great peacefulness and an intense sense of pride in one’s ability to survive.

And this is a good thing, because after all…is there anything we love more than a happy ending?