Survival is complicated and incredible. We are innately wired with a sophisticated stress response system that allows us to survive hard things. To put it simply (although this is an oversimplification) there are 3 primary default responses to threat. First we seek social connection—safe people. If safety is not found in connection, we move into our fight or flight response. In fight or flight our physiology changes to encourage action and give us the best chance at survival. There are at least 27 things that happen physiologically during fight or flight to intensify action and improve survival.
The third default or mechanism of defense is our freeze response, also known as fold or fawn. The freeze response happens when our brain determines (in a matter of milliseconds) that the other two mechanisms, social engagement or fight/flight, will be ineffective. If I am powerless in a situation or unable to escape, fight or flight are less likely to work. In fact, action may increase my risk. During a freeze response we feel numb, our mind and bodies separate—often referred to a dissociation, and we likely will go through the motions in order to endure rather than act. Often this looks like avoidance or compliance. At its most extreme, the individual may faint or lose conscious awareness. These responses are not cognitive, they are automatic and involve involuntary physiological mechanisms.
If a child is being hurt by an abusive caregiver, he is unable to fight and doing so will increase harm. The child instead freezes in order to endure. He may comply or even align with abusive caregiver to avoid further harm. He may avoid conflict and aim to be invisible. If he endures abuse that is physically painful, he will likely go limp or numb and dissociate so the pain is more tolerable. A freeze response is also common in cases of sexual assault. Often, this means compliance until the threat passes.
If we endure threat often enough or for a prolonged period, we develop a more sensitive stress response–it does not take as much to engage our survival responses. The ways in which we endured or survived threat set the stage for how we will deal with future stress or threat. This is incredibly important to understand. If we have survived by compliance or freezing we are likely to do this in the future.
When Seligman studied learned helplessness in dogs, he found that traumatized dogs refused to escape even when the threat was no longer present. The dogs had learned that attempting escape or action increased their pain, so they stopped trying. In order to get them to leave their perceived prisons researchers had to drag the dogs out, resulting in an uncomfortable yet necessary visceral experience of escape. When an individual is taught that action is dangerous, they will not act. If I learn movement is dangerous, I won’t move. If I learn setting boundaries is dangerous, I won’t set boundaries. If I must comply to stay safe, I will continue to comply even when I have other choices.
Consider this for a moment, have you ever judged someone harshly because they avoided conflict or refused to set boundaries when it was obvious to you they needed boundaries? Perhaps for this individual it is not that they lacked the skill set or the desire to set boundaries. Perhaps the act of setting boundaries is so fundamentally unsafe at their core they are unable to take that risk.
Dr. Bruce Perry tells a story in his book “The Boy Raised as a Dog” about a young girl, age 7, who is sexually abused by her stepfather. The abuse was unpredictable but frequent. She had no choice to fight or escape. Because her young brain deemed abuse to be inevitable she learned to “seduce” her stepfather, making his favorite drink to initiate the abuse and get it over with. When she figured out how to do this her functioning improved (outwardly) and she was able to sleep at night without fear of unpredictable and terrifying interruption. In a trial, she would most likely be blamed though her skills to survive were incredible. This is a devastating example of a freeze and compliance response. She was brave and resourceful and she did what she could to survive.
Can you imagine the impact of this on this brave survivor? The shame that might exist. Consider how she might approach relationships in the future given what she has learned will keep her safe.
I have witnessed so many survivors hurt and shamed by well meaning people because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the freeze response and trauma in general. One particular case comes to mind–an individual who was sexually assaulted by a family member beginning at a very young age. She did act, though. She told a trusted adult. The adult did not believe her, and she was harshly punished by the abuser—in ways that are too heartbreaking to disclose here. Later, the threat of that adult passed but as an adolescent another adult in her life began to cross her boundaries in inappropriate and abusive ways. This adult was in a position of authority and power. It should be no surprise based on what we know about trauma that she complied and even “seduced” this adult to stay safe given the extreme consequences of saying no. Although she left the situation as soon as she was able, she has spent her life trying to reconcile this and she carries immense shame.
Eventually in adulthood she reached out, but the first counselor she confided in suggested she played a part in her abuse as an adolescent and even suggested she attempt to make amends with the abuser. This went horribly, reinforced her shame, and re-traumatized her. It is devastating.
We benefit as a society when we blame the survivor because we are somehow able to convince ourselves it could never happen to us or our family. Sometimes shame and blame are easier to swallow than powerlessness and the undeniable brokenness of our world. We can do everything right and we are not immune to the impact of evil.
If you survived by compliance or freezing, you did a good job. You did the best you could. You survived the way you were designed to survive.
If you are a helping professional, you don’t know what you don’t know about someone else’s story. Resist the temptation to judge the ways by which they survived. You do not know the risk required to do something different.
It may sometimes take years to “unfreeze”. This often requires professional guidance and help. The individual must distinguish past and present—what was true then is not true now. This might require allowing the body the visceral experience of escape through somatic therapies. This might include processing the trauma through EDMR, CBT or other trauma-informed therapies. This involves changing the shame narrative, which is so difficult (see a blog on shame here). But healing always involves COMPASSION before JUDGEMENT. Seek support if you need and keep your judgement in check. Thank you for listening and take care of you.
■Harvard University Center on the Developing Child. www. Developingchild.Harvard.edu.
■Levine, P.A. & Kline, M. (2008). Trauma –Proofing Your Kids. North Atlantic Books.
■Nakazawa, D. L. (2015). Childhood disrupted: How your biography becomes your biology, and how you can heal. Atria Books.
■Perry, B. D. & Szalavitz, M. (2007). The boy who was raised as a dog and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook. New York: Basic Books.
■Schwartz, A. (2017). The complex trauma workbook: A mind-body approach to regaining emotional control & becoming whole. Althea Press.
■Steele, K., Boone, S., & Van Der Hart, O. (2017). Treating trauma related dissociation: A practical, integrative approach. New York: Norton & Company.
■Van der Kolk, B. A. (2016). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York: Penguin Books.