Fight, Flight and Freeze
Have you ever seen a cheetah chase a deer? When a situation is perceived to be life-threatening, both mind and body mobilise vast amounts of energy in preparation to fight or escape. When the victim cannot fight the threat, it flees at seventy miles an hour and its sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is highly charged internally to support its action - commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. When the body and mind perceive stress, the SNS kicks in to produce cortisol and adrenaline to tighten the muscles and increase blood pressure to prepare the body for action.
There are two possibilities: the deer may escape or the cheetah takes its final lunge and the deer collapses. However, the fallen deer is not dead. From the outside, it looks motionless and appears to be dead, but inside, its nervous system is still highly charged from the chase. Though it is barely breathing or moving, the animal’s heart and brain are still racing. Any animal that is trapped in a situation where fight and flight are not viable options will use immobility as their first line of defense. The vital function of the immobility response is numbness. If the deer (or human) is killed while “frozen,” it will not suffer pain or even terror during its demise.
The “immobility response” used by the deer is just as important a survival tool as “fight” and “flight.” This normal survival strategy is also called the “freezing” response. Now there is a possibility that the deer will not be devoured immediately. The cheetah may drag its apparently dead prey behind a bush, and then go seek out its hungry cubs, safely hidden at a distance. While the cheetah is gone, the temporarily “frozen” deer may awaken from its state of shock, will stand up on wobbly legs, then shake and tremble in order to discharge the vast amount of energy in a normalization procedure, take a few tentative steps, then bound off in search of the herd as if nothing unusual had occurred.
It’s all about energy
We humans use the immobility response—frozen energy— regularly when we are injured or even when we feel overwhelmed after trying fight or flight response. Unlike the deer, though, we humans tend to have trouble returning to normal after being in this state.
Animals in the wild instinctively discharge all their compressed energy and seldom develop adverse symptoms. We humans are not as adept in this arena. When we are unable liberate these powerful forces, we become victims of trauma. In our often unsuccessful attempts to discharge these energies, we may become fixated on them. This residual energy does not simply go away. It persists in the body, and often forces the formation of a wide variety of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, psychosomatic and behavioral problems. These symptoms are the organism’s way of containing the undischarged residual energy.
What prevents people from returning to normal functioning after a threat no longer exists? How do wild animals successfully return to their normal state? Can we release our excess energy the way animals naturally do?
The answer lies in the particular type of spontaneous shaking, trembling, and breathing that animals do. 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. If you observe an animal’s behavior once they escaped and before rejoining their herd, they shake off, tremble and breathe heavily. If they have not trembled and breathed, they will not survive. Humans do, in fact, possess the same built-in ability to shake off threats that animals do. If given appropriate guidance, human beings can and do shake off the effects of overwhelming events and return to their lives using exactly the same procedures that animals use.
Physiological shock at the cellular level
In our society it is commonly thought that we should ‘get over it’ and ‘move on’, in effect ignoring the trauma that we have experienced and pushing it down deeper and deeper. We are in a rush to return to a life as usual and the psychic wound is left in a stressed state (the root of the word trauma is wound). Although humans rarely die from trauma, if we don’t resolve it, our lives can be severely affected and limited by its effects. All attempts to address our traumatic past may seem to work only temporarily. Deep down, we remain stuck and under the influence of traumatic triggers. These triggering events challenge our self-regulation, i.e. our ability to return to a state of equilibrium and balance, and keep the trauma circuits intact.
Then how do we heal from trauma? The key to healing traumatic symptoms in human beings is, understanding that trauma is primarily physiological. Trauma is something that happened initially to our body and our instincts. Only then its effects spread to our mind and emotions. It exists there in the body, on a cellular level. It is also important to understand that our physiological mechanism is governed by and resides in the primitive, instinctual parts of our brain and nervous system which are not under our direct conscious control.
Yoga - a systematic method for healing
The purpose of the practice of Yoga postures - called asana-s - is not just to increase flexibility, blood circulation, burning calories and improving our balance and posture as modern day advertisements may suggest. It is a systematic practice to connect with our body on a cellular level and to develop mindfulness in how we relate to ourselves, coming out of frozen energy and freeing ourselves from traumatic symptoms.
The traditional and non-competitive approach of Yoga practice - comprising the Five Points of Yoga outlined below - helps one to be fully at home in one’s body, with oneself and the world.
1. PROPER EXERCISE
The whole body exists as an organic unity, in a deep rhythm of its own. Yoga exercises release all sorts of accumulated toxins from the body. Stretching stimulates receptors in the nervous system that decrease the production of stress hormones. Asana practice enhances the flexibility of the joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments and stimulates circulation. Flexibility and strength of the spine keep the body youthful.
2. PROPER BREATHING
Conscious breathing allows one to notice one's surroundings, to pay attention to oneself and decompress. It connects the body to its battery, the solar plexus, which is a storehouse of energy. Stress and depression can be overcome by breathing more deeply with increased awareness.
3. PROPER RELAXATION
Taking time to relax means taking time out of one's busy life to pay attention to the body and mind. Conscious relaxation techniques relieve the body of existing stress symptoms and also helps develop resilience against external stress factors. Once body and mind are freed from constant overload, they are at ease and perform more efficiently.
4. PROPER DIET
Right diet is eating in tune with your body’s and nature's rhythms.
It promotes health and has a balancing effect on body and mind. A yogic diet is natural, simple to prepare, easy to digest, calming for the mind and causes the least harm to other living beings and the environment.
5. COGNITIVE TRANSFORMATION & MEDITATION
Eliminates negative thought patterns by becoming aware of hidden unconscious mental and emotional patterns through mindfulness and inquiry. This is the way to Inner Peace.
Harvesting your learning
What did you take away from this article? What was new for you, what surprised you?
We invite you to commit to a practice or intention for a fixed number of days to incorporate the insights into your daily life.
"I will practice 15 minutes of relaxation daily for 7 days and consciously keep my focus on areas in my body that feel stuck."
"I will spend 2 hours per week for the next two weeks educating myself about trauma."
What will you do?
You're welcome to let us know by commenting below this article or sending us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources & Recommended Reading
Peter A. Lavine: What Resets our Nervous System after Trauma
Peter A. Lavine: Nature's Lessons in Healing Trauma
Peter A. Lavine: Waking the Tiger – Healing Trauma
Peter A. Lavine: Healing Trauma – A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body
The information in this article is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, fitness, or other health program.