I’m sure you are familiar with our instinctive fight or flight response to immediate threat. What you might not be aware of is the third response called freeze. I’m writing about this because learning of it was incredibly helpful for me in terms of trauma recovery. Peter Levine, in his book Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, writes extensively about the effects of trauma and the freeze response on the human body. I strongly encourage you to read this book, but I also wanted to share some of the key points from it here.
According to Levine, there are times when we are faced with overwhelming threat but cannot fight or run from it. In the absence of any available action, our bodies go into what he calls the freeze response. He likens this to the response of an impala running from a predator. The impala is running for its life, using a huge amount of energy, and as a last ditch effort, as the predator leaps at it, it falls to the ground, playing dead. If you have experienced a trauma (and there are few of us who haven’t) where fight or flight was not an option, you may have experienced the freeze response.
Levine has a very broad definition of trauma, including medical/dental procedures as a child where you may have been terrified and unable to fight or flee, which strikes me as something fairly critical to note. Often we think of trauma only in terms of something overwhelmingly horrific, like war or seeing a loved one killed. We don’t necessarily recognize the far more common traumatic events of car accidents, abuse, medical procedures, etc. Without recognizing trauma, we have no way of addressing it. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of the freeze response, I encourage you to read this book in order to gain a greater understanding of Levine’s definition of trauma.
In animals, it’s easy to see the freeze response – the animal will simply fall to the ground, appearing dead. If lucky, the predator may lose interest or attempt to move the animal, providing an opportunity for escape. When the prey animal escapes, it goes through a prolonged period of shaking…and then it is fine. When humans experience the freeze response, we don’t drop to the ground and play dead; instead, we mentally leave our bodies, dissociating from our present experience. According to Levine, it is not the trauma that causes the lifelong suffering – it’s our inability to “complete” the traumatic experience by getting out of the freeze response. Trauma is stored in our physical body; it is a physiological response, and for the majority of us, the ‘completion’ of our response is interrupted by our rational thinking. That leaves us in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety, and sadly often draws us to events and situations where we may have the opportunity to resolve the trauma – though often we simply end up re-traumatized.
Levine has come up with his own brand of trauma healing, which does not involve talking through or reliving traumatic memories, called Somatic Experiencing™. There are several other methods available, including hypnotherapy and trauma shaking, that directly address the intense energy stored in the body without going through memories. Though I personally would recommend having a relationship with a therapist if you are going to try any of them just in case you need additional support, but you all know by now I’m a therapy junkie.
There is no way I can cover this very rich book in one blog post, but I am putting this out there in case you or someone you love is riddled with fear and anxiety and doesn’t seem to be able to let go of it, no matter the circumstances. It is a profoundly powerful and hopeful book, and I can’t recommend it enough. Hope it helps you as much as it did me!