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I am soooo excited for today’s YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA interview! Robert Scaer was one of the first voices that helped me understand what had happened to me after trauma, plus what it would take to move toward feeling better.
Live on air at 2pm EST today (you can listen in online or via phone) we’ll be talking about strategies to heal your body and brain from stress and trauma. If you have questions about that you can post them here, or call in and ask Scaer yourself: 877-320-3062.
In the meantime, have you ever wondered about how frozen you sometimes feel, and what the heck the process should be to unfreeze? Scaer’s new book 8 KEYS TO BRAIN-BODY BALANCE is all about that and he was kind enough to let me excerpt a part of it here…
We generally think of prey animals as being those that don’t feed on other animals—rabbits, mice, and so on. But all predators also have the capacity to become prey. The ferret is the predator when he pursues the mouse, but becomes the prey when pursued by the hawk. A few “universal predators,” such as sharks, lions, and polar bears, only rarely achieve prey status, such as through encounters with armed human beings, the ultimate predator.
If fighting or fleeing is useless, prey animals have one more option to fall back on: the freeze response. I discussed the freeze response extensively in Key 3, describing it as centered in the brainstem/reptilian brain. The main function of the freeze is to enable the reptile to go through a prolonged period of time with minimal expenditure of energy, minimal respiration, and profoundly slow heart rate. The purpose of this reptilian period of suspended animation is to hibernate, to dive under water to escape a predator, or to pursue prey without needing to breathe for an extended time.
Without an emotional affiliative brain, reptiles aren’t very selective in this area of behavior, and if the opportunity presents itself, they will eat their own kind, or their young. In the mammal, however, the freeze occurs only when the fight/flight response is no longer possible. The animal collapses in a state of immobility, with the reptilian suppression of heart rate and respiration governed by the dorsal vagal nucleus. Although useful for survival, the freeze in mammals also is dangerous because mammals rely on high energy expenditure to enhance their strong points in the game of survival—their capacity for speed and mobility. The slowing of the heart rate and respiration during the freeze, therefore, poses the possibility of death in cardiac arrest—the “voodoo death” described in Key 3.
In the human species, the freeze response can assume many faces. It’s far more complex than just collapse and immobility on the ground, like the opossum, the popular model for the freeze. For instance, when shamed in public by the comments of a teacher, boss, or other dominant figure, the human will blush, a reddening of the face and upper body due to the dilatation of arteries that accompanies the parasympathetic freeze. Those of you who have experienced shame may recall that, for an instant, one’s mind also freezes in the moment. The state of profound grief is also often associated with a physical collapse, numbing, and clouding of consciousness, another example of the freeze triggered by a purely emotional trauma. So the freeze may involve elements of somatosensory, visceral, and circulatory changes going on in the body. Clearly the freeze can also be triggered by “vehement emotions,” where the life threat may be real but is associated with a threatening personal loss rather than with an immediate physical threat to life.
All of these complex changes provide a message for the parts of the brain that store memories, primarily the amygdala and the hippocampus, for implicit and explicit memories of the traumatic event. As you’ll recall, the sensory memories from the somatic body and the organs of the chest and abdominal cavities are stored, prompted by the nature of the life threat (shame and grief both represent a threat to life or well-being). Our brain learns survival skills through this process. If the animal, opossum or human being, survives the freeze response, these survival memories need to be stored as an event in the past, available for future use but no longer representing imminent threat. This process of sorting out, saving, and discarding memories is achieved by a very important physiological process called the freeze discharge.
Many of you have probably seen a bird fly into a large, reflective window and then fall to the ground, apparently stunned. After a brief period of immobility, the bird will stagger to its feet, shake all over, and then fly away, none the worse for wear. If you were to watch the bird in slow motion, you would see that it is actually flying in place during the shaking, replicating the last motor action that occurred before it collapsed on the ground.
There are many video examples of this phenomenon in animals, usually from nature programs on cable television. I have a video of a polar bear shot with a tranquilizer dart from a helicopter for the purposes of tagging to collect migration information. As the bear came out of its stupor (superimposed on a freeze response), it shook all over in a manner that, when viewed in slow motion, replicated the movement of running, followed by deep sighing respirations. Footage of gazelles, frozen after being run to the ground by a cheetah, also shows replication of the motor action that preceded the freeze. This unusual and dramatic behavior, common to birds and mammals, is quite specific and stereotyped. As I mentioned, it almost always reflects the particular motor actions that the animal used as a means of attempted escape or of an attempted but failed fight response. Such relatively universal patterns of behavior must be assumed to have a purpose of some sort, especially if they are replicated throughout the species.
Psychologist Peter Levine has studied the freeze response as an animal-based instinctual process that clearly has implications for survival. In interviewing gamekeepers in Africa, he documented the critical importance of the “shaking” phenomenon in wild animals. These gamekeepers routinely tranquilize wild species for tagging and monitoring disease states and migration patterns. They commented to Levine that “if the animal does not go through the shaking, it will surely die.” In these wild species, the act of the freeze response must be followed by what has been called the “discharge.” Without the discharge, the animal somehow loses its survival resiliency. Some have described the shaking as the “discharge of energy.”
Want to hear more about this? Listen to Peter Levine describe the freeze discharge process, how it works, and why it helps.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Robert Scaer, MD. Used with permission by the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company.
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