The same thing happens to humans after experiencing something traumatic. However we’ve forgotten and been socialised away from our wilder nature, deriding it as primitive, savage, reptilian. Have you ever started to shake or tremble when something traumatic happened, but either you or someone else stopped it? Maybe you were even frightened that it was happening? But once upon a time we did shake and know how to discharge trauma, or we wouldn’t have survived as a species.
When humans are faced with threat, our nervous system gears up to flee or fight, if these defences aren’t possible, we freeze (this is called ’tonic immobility’ in the literature). We can freeze psychologically and/or physically, I believe both are types of dissociation that act as protective analgesics.
When we freeze physically, our muscles will stiffen so as to enable us to remain as still as possible, we might not be able to use our voice, even if we want to. Immobilisation comes from our autonomic (automatic) nervous system and is not under our conscious control. It is crucial to understand this so we don’t later blame ourselves for “not putting up a fight”. We also need society to be more trauma informed about immobilisation, especially in cases of rape and incest. Too often freezing is seen as acquiescence which has profound implications for the victim being more prone to developing PTSD and being retraumatised and the perpetrator not being brought to justice.
When we freeze psychologically, we mentally leave our bodies and can watch what is happening to us as if from afar or above. It helps distance what is unbearable or indigestible in the moment so we can process it at a later date. But as we know, this rarely happens, we become afraid of the many experiences that we’ve dissociated from and we develop strategies to contain them as best we can. Until, they start spilling and leaking into our lives and we can’t ignore them anymore. This is when we might be diagnosed with things like; anxiety, depression, PTSD, fibromyalgia and so on.
It is crucial that we get back in touch with our minds and bodies, slowly and gently so they become safe places for us to inhabit.
The interview that the quote above is taken from can be found at: http://www.dailygood.org/story/1901/trauma-in-the-body-an-interview-with-dr-bessel-van-der-kolk-elissa-melaragno/