A Third Option: Freeze
As covered in the last post, when we are acutely stressed we experience fight or flight response. For trauma survivors, there is often an additional response option, freeze. The freeze response often accompanies fight or flight and kicks in after a very quick (milliseconds) assessment of a situation based on previous experiences.
Let's consider this for a moment. If in the past I had success in scary or threatening situations, then I may process my current situation as potentially having a successful outcome. As an example, let's say I was a bear wrangler-in a very humane bear sanctuary. During my training and career I had experienced some stress, but all in all, those instances ended with both the bear and I fine. I learned some lessons, made some changes, processed the old experiences. Now, I'm out hiking, and a bear lumbers out of the bushes in front of me. The information hits my brain and my nervous system is activated. Because I have stored memories of prior situations and recoveries, I may decide to yell, shout, wave my hands. I may decide to play dead. I may have an impulse to run. These decisions, milliseconds in the making, are based on my perceived chances of success and survival. Now, let's say I was a really bad bear wrangler.
Every time I entered the sanctuary, no matter what I did, no matter the tools I employed, I was unsuccessful. Any attempt at fight or flight in my past was met with pain, injury, fear of loss of control over my body. Now back on the path with the bear lumbering out of the woods, in those milliseconds of assessment, I may reach a conclusion that I am without control, and therefore become overwhelmed and paralyzed. I just might freeze. No scream, no scooby-doo legs. Awash in chemicals, all systems move to protecting the psyche, maintaining sanity and mitigating pain through numbing, splitting, or dissociation. This is a coping skill, not a pathology. I hear clients lament that they froze in a given situation. It can be helpful to know that these are physiological responses, not choices.