Responses to traumatic events

A traumatic event can trigger three responses to our knowledge today: FLIGHT/FIGHT and FREEZE.

The two first ones are easy to understand: We either fight back to whatever situation we are in or we go away, probably run. Fight or flight can potentially dispel trauma or a part of it because movement of the body is possible.

What is not often talked about is the FREEZE response.  When someone cannot fight back or cannot run away, the body response for survival is FREEZE. This happens when we are sexually or physically abused by someone who has greater power, within the family or elsewhere; when we are in a situation which cannot be avoided or left.

Freezing is an intense response that is triggered for survival and it is entirely normal. However, many of us think about it over and over again, wondering why we did not fight back or simply leave. The FREEZE response is the reason why. The body shuts down for survival and does not allow any movement. Sometimes the victim simply blanks out the experience, as if leaving the body, and later has no recollection of the event. It is important to know that these are NORMAL responses. They are survival instincts and are neither better nor worse than FIGHT and FLIGHT.

Any sort of assault can bring a mix of fear, anger, frustration, sadness, guilt, shame or/and other emotions. In time this mix becomes explosive. The results are multiple: a burst of anger or rage, self harming, illness, accident, suicide attempts, depression and many other responses.

Each person reacts differently to the trauma they have lived. If you don’t recognise your reactions in what I am describing, it does not follow that you are not affected. And it does not follow that you cannot heal.

Exploratory work around trauma is like an onion. We take off one layer after another. And this process can lead to very strong emotional reactions, without adequate preparation this itself can be traumatic. If the body has functioned over the years with these emotions, they became like a type of subconscious or conscious companionship. Letting them go all at once is not advisable and often, not possible. The process is to readjust gradually the body and the mind to a new state.

If you have experienced sexual assault (in fact any kind of trauma), these emotions need to be addressed and released with care, and only when you are ready. Verbalising the assault is often a first step but not necessary so. Healing is messy; it doesn’t have a preordained order.