Trauma and The Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

“Before researching trauma, I had never connected what Dr. Herman refers to as an “altered state” with how I coped with incest. If we can’t “fight or flee,” we go into an altered state. Once such state is “freezing.” We don’t decide to freeze. It’s involuntary. “If the terror continues, the child may move from freezing to complete dissociation appearing to ‘go away’ or to disengage mentally and emotionally from the immediate environment.” (Dr. Bruce Perry in Karr-Morse and Wiley, Ghosts From the Nursery, p. 167) ~Marilyn Van Derbur

A lot of people are uncomfortable with this, but when we are doing the work of healing, we have to relive the trauma. We don’t get a choice. It’s involuntary. Trying to interfere with this sacred process is akin to holding your breath. You can hold on to it for so long before you burst to catch air again. Once our bodies decide we are ready, the relivings happen automatically. The is what people might mean when they say they hit a wall. What they probably mean is they are being forced to live out consciously what the child had dissociated from. This is why it is so important to resist the temptation to judge or rush people through this process. It is hard as hell to go through this and it can only be done incrementally. I personally think we will all at some point on our journeys go through this process. It’s the only way we can ACTUALLY move past our pasts and find true liberation.

The new age movement has designed all these energy techniques that are supposed to skip this process of reliving, but I have some doubts. I intuit energy work, unless it helps you get to your feelings, might further mask the pain. Of course you will get some relief when you mask pain, but so did the child when they dissociated. This is just more dissociation. We might find that after trying all these fancy energy healing techniques that we will sooner or later have to go back to the basics and heal the way the body and soul was designed to heal which is reliving the trauma. I don’t believe there is a way out of this.

Animals in the wild also go through this same process. Contrary to popular opinion, they don’t “play dead”; they freeze like we do and when the traumatic event is over, they literally shake it off and they move on instantly.

“Traumatic energy must be released.

Dr. Peter Levine, who has worked with trauma survivors for twenty-five years, says the single most important factor he has learned in uncovering the mystery of human trauma is what happens during and after the freezing response. He describes an impala being chased by a cheetah. The second the cheetah pounces on the young impala, the animal goes limp. The impala isn’t playing dead, she has “instinctively entered an altered state of consciousness, shared by all mammals when death appears imminent.” (Levine and Frederick, Waking the Tiger, p. 16)The impala becomes instantly immobile. However, if the impala escapes, what she does immediately thereafter is vitally important. She shakes and quivers every part of her body, clearing the traumatic energy she has accumulated.” ~Marilyn Van Derbur


Humans aren’t given the same privilege to release trauma. Our culture forces us to hold on to the trauma and most never heal in the same lifetime as a result. We might see their pain might be manifested through both physical illness, depression, anxiety, numbness, denial, depression, self-harm, suicide ideation, the need to be busy all the time and addictions as a result of holding on to it.

There is an interview with Marilyn Van Derbur on this very topic.

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