Freeze, Fight or Flight: Dealing with Trauma

1.“When a young tree is injured it grows around that injury. As the tree continues to

develop, the wound becomes relatively small in proportion to the size of the tree. Gnarls, burls and misshapen limbs speak of injuries and obstacles encountered through time and overcome. The way a tree grows around its past contributes to its exquisite individuality, character, and beauty.”

Peter A. Levine, “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma”

2.Trauma:

1690s, “physical wound,” medical Latin, from Greek trauma “a wound, a hurt; a defeat,” from PIE *trau-, extended form of root *tere- (1) “to rub, turn,” with derivatives referring to twisting, piercing, etc. Sense of “psychic wound, unpleasant experience which causes abnormal stress” is from 1894.

Online Etymology Dictionary

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Frida Kahlo, “Without Hope”

Trauma is an inextricable part of human experience. We are all wounded, we are all damaged. As Carl Jung wrote:

“The patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story. It is the patient’s secret, the rock against which he is shattered. If I know his secret story, I have a key to treatment.”

That rock against which our psyche or its substantial part got shattered is a treasure that needs to be retrieved from our deep personal underworld. Equally strong in us is the will to tell the story of our trauma to the world and to bury the trauma as deep as we can. In her book Trauma and Recovery: from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman calls this conflict “the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” This is why victims of trauma (i.e. all of us) oscillate between numbness and intense reliving of a traumatic event. Within our psyches we carry unconscious memories not only of our personal traumas, but also of collective ones, about which we know from history. The wounds of our ancestors are our wounds. I also share the view that not only do we carry traumas from our birth, childhood and from the course of our whole lives but our subtle mind has imprints of past life traumas which at times may resurface and compel us to feel our old, even ancient wounds.

Mark Jones, an evolutionary astrologer, mentions Judith Herman’s findings on trauma in his own book (Healing the Soul: Pluto, Uranus and the Lunar Nodes). Inspired by her, he discusses three types of psychological trauma that have surfaced into public consciousness in the last two centuries. The first type of trauma has to do with misogyny, which revealed itself as diagnoses of hysteria in women: “a dramatic medical metaphor for everything that men found mysterious or unmanageable in the opposite sex,” as the historian Mark Micale put it (quote after Mark Jones). Women’s “hysterical” symptoms and unmanageable aspects were simply and predominantly manifestations of their unexpressed potentials.

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Circumstances for women at that time were unbelievably repressed, as Herman points out:

“Until the late 1870s feminist organizations did not even have the right to hold public meetings or publish their literature. At the first International Congress for the Rights of Women, held in Paris in 1878, advocates of the right to vote were not permitted to speak, because they were considered too revolutionary.”

The suppression of the feminine is at the core of many types of trauma. Connected with it in a way may be combat trauma; we all hold within our unconscious memory the senseless brutality of war violence, the pointless suffering of many of our ancestors. Herman writes:

“The moral legitimacy of the antiwar movement and the national experience of defeat in a discredited war had made it possible to recognize psychological trauma as a lasting and inevitable legacy of war. In 1980, for the first time, the characteristic syndrome of psychological trauma became a ‘real’ diagnosis. In that year the American Psychiatric Association included in its official manual of mental disorders a new category, called ‘post-traumatic stress disorder.’… Thus the syndrome of psychological trauma, periodically forgotten and periodically rediscovered through the past century, finally attained formal recognition within the diagnostic canon.”

One of the chief characteristic of trauma is that we feel compelled to re-enact traumatic events over and over again because the truth will out and the splintered parts of our psyche gravitate towards reintegration. We are drawn to the same scenarios over and over again, which is quite frightening if we think of the implications for the chances of world peace.

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Asmus Jacob Carstens, “Sorrowful Ajax”

The third type of trauma discussed by Herman results from sexual abuse and domestic violence, thus from the public collective domain we turn to the quiet private suffering. Violence and aggression, which are approved of in the public arena, flourish behind closed doors. Mark Jones writes:

“Victims attempt in vain to express personal power, and instead find themselves bound to their poisoned nest. … A high level of self blame among victims of domestic violence and a pattern of chronic victimization work in tandem to keep people trapped in the situation despite their suffering.”

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Edvard Munch, “Ashes”

The fourth type of trauma added to Herman’s taxonomy by Mark Jones is the so called evolutionary trauma. It has to do with the unresolved traumas from birth and from past lives. We are reminded of Grof’s COEX systems of condensed experience, i.e. a set of experiences that are related and organized around a powerful emotional core. It all starts with a root experience, to which subsequent, thematically related experiences, are attached as memories. Each subsequent experience acts as a reinforcement of the core (nodal) one. Strong negative COEX systems result in energy blockages: they affect negatively our thoughts, emotions and communicative expression:

“Past-life trauma includes those prior-life memories held within the long-term memory which is signified by Uranus/Aquarius/11th house. …This deep state of the unconscious symbolized by the Uranus archetype can be brought towards conscious awareness through the attention and focus of the individual, as part of the process of individuation. Through contemplation, regression work, dreams and intuition, this state of awareness can arise as the experience of states of being that transcend the merely egocentric focus within the here and now.

The archetype of Uranus corresponds to that part of the core self that holds memory, the subtle mental nature, and this subtle mind or memory can hold traces of trauma which can cause constriction, the formation of patterns within the subtle mind that can then manifest as difficult mental and emotional states, even physical circumstances within a person’s life.”

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The most brilliant book I have read on healing trauma was Waking the Tiger by Peter A. Levine. It is deeply satisfying on both theoretical and practical level. He does not mention Grof’s COEX but he does speak a lot about how we remember traumatic events and how we effectively disassociate from them, repress and deny them. Faced with a life-threatening situation, we go into the survival mode. Our mind goes into a research mode, comparing the present situation with past memories in order to make a fast decision. We access pictures, images within our memory, which help us respond to the situation:

“These pictures are organized by their levels of arousal, activation, emotion, and response. Our gestalts of experience are categorized by the levels of activation at which they occurred. An analogy of this could be a multi-storied library with several floors of shelved books. The lower stories hold books associated with lower levels of activation (arousal) and those in higher stories are related to higher levels. If we think of the books as containing images and responses (related pictures) to that level or category of activation, then at each level there are possible, appropriate resources and responses from which we can choose. When we need a response we do not search the entire library; we scan the books at the appropriate level of activation.”

I cannot recommend this book enough. Before reading it I only had a vague understanding of what trauma was. He has nevertheless confirmed a lot of my intuitions regarding the ways to heal trauma. I love his assertion that trauma affects not only the mind but also the body – in equal measure. Talking about it and prescribing medication only serves to heal the mind part of the equation but this is unfortunately what most traditional therapies are limited to. Both mind and the body are profoundly affected by trauma and both need healing. When faced with a threat humans and animals have three responses at their disposal: immobility (freezing), fight or flight. He says:

“I believe that the key to healing traumatic symptoms in humans lies in our being able to mirror the fluid adaptation of wild animals as they shake out and pass through the immobility response and become fully mobile and functional again. Unlike wild animals, when threatened we humans have never found it easy to resolve the dilemma of whether to fight or flee. This dilemma stems, at least in part, from the fact that our species has played the role of both predator and prey. As in the Greek myth of Medusa, the human confusion that may ensue when we stare death in the face can turn us to stone. We may literally freeze in fear, which will result in the creation of traumatic symptoms.

Traumatic symptoms are not caused by the “triggering” event itself. They stem from the frozen residue of energy that has not been resolved and discharged; this residue remains trapped in the nervous system where it can wreak havoc on our bodies and spirits. This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body, and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms e.g. anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism’s way of containing (or corralling) the undischarged residual energy.”

It was fascinating for me to realize that at the heart of trauma there is an immense amount of energy waiting to be released. This energy can be a great gift endowing us with wisdom, and “returning us to the natural world of ebb and flow, harmony, love, and compassion,” as Levine says. It is the wounded healer who has the greatest capacity to heal others and the whole world.

Levine’s book is also full of practical examples from his therapy sessions and it contains exercises that may help us get in touch with our own forgotten traumas. He recounts one of his first sessions with a patient, which proved pivotal in his understanding of trauma. Nancy was suffering from intense panic attacks, which were so severe that she was unable to leave her house alone. In their first session she went into an intense anxiety attack:

“She appeared paralyzed and unable to breathe. Her heart was pounding wildly, and then seemed to almost stop. I became quite frightened. Had I paved the yellow brick road to hell? We entered together into her nightmarish attack. Surrendering to my own intense fear, yet somehow managing to remain present, I had a fleeting vision of a tiger jumping toward us. Swept along with the experience, I exclaimed loudly, ‘You are being attacked by a large tiger. See the tiger as it comes at you. Run toward that tree; climb it and escape!’ To my surprise, her legs started trembling in running movements. She let out a bloodcurdling scream that brought in a passing police officer (fortunately my office partner somehow managed to explain the situation). She began to tremble, shake, and sob in full-bodied convulsive waves. Nancy continued to shake for almost an hour. She recalled a terrifying memory from her childhood. When she was three years old she had been strapped to a table for a tonsillectomy. The anesthesia was ether. Unable to move, feeling suffocated (common reactions to ether), she had terrifying hallucinations. This early experience had a deep impact on her. … Nancy was threatened, overwhelmed, and as a result, had become physiologically stuck in the immobility response. In other words, her body had literally resigned itself to a state where the act of escaping could not exist. Along with this resignation came the pervasive loss of her real and vital self as well as loss of a secure and spontaneous personality. Twenty years after the traumatizing event, the subtle and hidden effects emerged. Nancy was in a crowded room taking the Graduate Records Examination when she went into a severe panic attack. Later, she developed agoraphobia (fear of leaving her house alone). The experience was so extreme and seemingly irrational that she knew she must seek help.

I now know that it was not the dramatic emotional catharsis and reliving of her childhood tonsillectomy that was catalytic in her recovery, but the discharge of energy she experienced when she flowed out of her passive, frozen immobility response into an active, successful escape”.

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Nele Azevedo, “Ice People” (via http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/01/melting-masterpieces-impressive-works-of-art-made-from-snow-and-ice/272538/)

One of the most important findings of Levine, to my mind, is the necessity to empower the victims of trauma. Instead up of constant dredging up and reliving past emotional pain, which will lead to nothing else but further re-traumatizing, he teaches his patients that they are not helpless and the frozen energy can be recovered and used to their benefit. He asserts: “If we remain ignorant of our power to change the course of our instinctual responses in a proactive rather than reactive way, we will continue being imprisoned and in pain.” It is not possible to change past events but we can modify our present reactions. We need to engage our animal natures, our bodies, to get back with our primal and natural instincts in order to heal our traumas and retrieve our souls. Trauma can be a unique opportunity for healing and renewal, both on individual and collective levels. Levine calls a resolved trauma “a blessing from a greater power.” The world of trauma is the same world that brings joy and light.

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Salvador Dali, “Birth of New Man”

Sources:

Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror

Mark Jones, Healing the Soul: Pluto, Uranus and the Lunar Nodes

Peter A. Levine, Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma

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24 Responses to Freeze, Fight or Flight: Dealing with Trauma

  1. saraannon says:

    Bert Hellinger’s family constellation work is one of the few avenues I’ve encountered that address and release multi-generational family traumas constructively. His first book in English “Love’s Hidden Symmetry” is definitely worth reading.

  2. Don says:

    This is absolutely brilliant Monica. What a pleasure to read. I have been watching the Oscar Pistorious trial and it’s quite amazing how so much of what you have written pertains to the dynamics behind the events of his life and the life of the young woman he shot. Thank you for this. It really is outstanding.

    • I have been thinking of Oscar Pistorius recently and hoping the trial will change something in the public awareness instead of just focusing on the scandal, etc. Thank you for your kind comment.

  3. amazing and extraordinarily illustrated post on trauma – its persistence and evolution in us through life times and being a reservoir of secret energy for our evolution with some astrological insights as well – Monika your treatment of the subject also is thrilling like the unfolding of a gripping sci-fi movie in which we do not know what it will eventually reveal, quite suspenseful – traumas known and unknown shape us all like soft clay being thumped by a purposeful sculptor – no one is free of having been ‘shaped’ – i would even venture to say that our DNA carries traces of trauma which is the sculptor’s tool – excellent – the idea of using frozen energy for our benefit – introspection on our gravest faults ( the locked doors we visit again and again almost like being drawn back to the scene of a crime we committed ) which are the monstrous traumas hidden behind the locked door of our sub conscious, becomes vital to have the courage to unlock the door and face IT – we may not survive the encounter but it may indeed vaporize the knot like cauterizing a cancer that does not go away.

    • Fascinating thoughts: we are hard wired to be traumatized! I also love your metaphor of locked doors. Thank you so much for your response and valuable contribution.

  4. kimfalconer says:

    Monica, is this bizarre synchronicity a manifestation of our matching Ascendants, or am I just noticing it now because I know about them? Two days ago I handed in a short essay on writing trauma into narrative, quoting/referencing Peter Levine (whom my brilliant Pisces sister trained with. She’s a trauma therapist, among other things . . .)

    Thank you for this excellent post. You are a treasure house!

    xKim

    I’m taking this to mean something . . . like there was something I missed. Rereading now!

    • This is amazing. I envy your sister. I know the book is not the most recent but I have recently discovered it and really loved it.
      That does mean something!
      Thank you and hugs,
      Monika

  5. Gneiss Moon says:

    Wonderful post, thank you !
    One reason I am not keen on some forms of therapy – the repetitive pathways formed when speaking, or writing of trauma.
    I prefer constructing new neural nets, pathways to healing. Energy directed towards future health via a positive change in course.
    The traumas don’t define me – I define myself.
    Thanks, will look up the tiger book…

  6. ptero9 says:

    “One of the chief characteristic of trauma is that we feel compelled to re-enact traumatic events over and over again because the truth will out and the splintered parts of our psyche gravitate towards reintegration. We are drawn to the same scenarios over and over again, which is quite frightening if we think of the implications for the chances of world peace.”

    Hi Monika,
    Thanks for this wonderful look at trauma and healing, a subject near and dear to my heart. I truly suspect that although we may never get rid of the worlds problems, the opportunity to heal from our wounds remains vital for a culture to sustain itself.

    I have often suspected that people who wound others are re-enacting a wound they have suffered themselves. It saddens me when people take a punitive approach only, without seeing the opportunity for a broader-based cultural healing for some multi-generational abuse that is passed down from one generation to the next. While some very dangerous criminals need to be removed for the safety of others and perhaps themselves, we could be doing a much better job of healing with a more comprehensive approach that includes an understanding of how ancient these wounds are and how much we are influenced by powers we don’t understand.

    I have often thought that the professional healing community could learn a lot by attending to those who have lived through trauma and found peace and healing.

    The book does sound great. I enjoy reading anecdotal case stories very much!

    xxx
    Debra

  7. Wow. You hit a little close to home, Monika. I was one of those people who could never stop the tapes in my head, replaying traumatic experiences over and over again. Thankfully I learned some skills for dealing with these issues, but many people never do and wind up heading down self-destructive paths like addiction and isolation. Powerful post! Thanks for sharing it.

  8. Dear Monika what a wonderfully descriptive post. As a support worker I am often called to deal with trauma and I have on occasion had to use the flight mode to escape injury to myself.. The adrenaline generated and energy of being on ‘high alert’ in such situations I can verify is needed so that you can move faster to avoid being in danger..

    I was fascinated by your well scripted post, and I just loved the paintings and illustrations you have used to enhance your post..
    Salvador Dali, was indeed another remarkable individual and I have been to Barcelona and seen the magnificent architecture and his museum, which made you wonder at the mind of the man..

    Thank you for yet another education 🙂 as I live and learn, 🙂
    Blessings to you my friend and I hope you enjoy a wonderful rest of the week
    Love Sue

  9. Maia T. says:

    I see so many echoes in this of what I was taught about trauma and its healing as a shaman; soul-fragment retrieval is a spiritual way of addressing that kind of deep trauma, and it works whether the person it’s done for sees it on a spiritual or a symbolic level (or both; I see no conflict between the two!).

    As I was taught, great trauma of any kind can result in a fragment of the soul being torn away or tearing itself away to escape the pain. Those fragments flee back to the spirit realm, where the soul comes from, and are almost always very reluctant to return. This leaves an actual wound on the soul just as tearing away a piece of flesh would on the body; until that wound is healed, the mental, emotional, and physical wounds of the trauma can’t fully heal. That wound can also be “refilled” with energies that are alien to the soul, and generally are harmful and unwelcome (as infection can invade an unhealed physical wound).

    I believe this also explains the phenomenon of re-enacting or returning to a trauma. The soul expresses the same impulse that makes us search for a lost thing where it should be even if we know it isn’t there (“But I always keep it right here!”). It returns to where the fragment was lost because that was the last place it “saw” what’s missing and it hopes to find the lost part there. Returning the fragment helps break that pattern.

    The shaman enters the spirit realm, finds the fragment, and returns with it. That can mean a great deal of negotiation and reassurance, or it can sometimes mean wresting the fragment from something that holds it captive. With the fragment back in place, full healing can begin.

    • Thank you so very much for this. You have supplemented my post enormously. In the book I recommended by Levine there are a few passages about shamanism and soul retrieval but I feel I have only understood it thanks to you. I wonder what entities (?) may hold the fragments of the soul captive. Fascinating stuff. Thank you again.

      • Maia T. says:

        There are multiple possibilities for what can hold a fragment captive, many of them culture-based. In my experience, I’ve seen two situations repeatedly.

        First, if there are multiple fragments torn loose from one person that haven’t been recovered, they will often cluster together; they’re familiar to one another, and it’s comforting. They also often reinforce among themselves the fears that keep them from wanting to return, making the process much harder.

        Second, a dead loved one can often hold onto a fragment their death tore from the living they left behind. I’ve almost never seen that be a malevolent situation, though I’ve heard of difficult and dangerous situations involving abusers who die and start collecting fragments they themselves ripped from their victims. What I’ve seen personally is a soul that isn’t yet ready to move on that clings to a fragment as a comfort or to protect it. They generally aren’t hard to convince that it’s not a good thing to do; convincing them to move on can be another matter entirely.

      • Extraordinary! That really makes a lot of sense to me. Thank you very, very much.

  10. Maia T. says:

    I saw this today and thought you’d also find it interesting, as part of this topic and generally: http://news.yahoo.com/ancient-myth-helps-veterans-battle-ptsd-153531485.html

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