- Why did I freeze?
- Why was I so paralysed?
- Why did I have his “out-of-body” experience?
When people discuss responses to traumatic experiences they always talk about the fight/flight response, but not so often about to freeze response.
So let us look at the freeze response – what is actually happening in our brain?
There is a brain area called the periaqueductal gray and that’s a bit like a danger detection centre.
For example, if you are walking along and there is a snake on the footpath, it takes less than 15 milliseconds for this information to go from your eyes – “see it” – till it reaches our danger detection centre => the periaqueductal gray.
So this is a super fast process.
Which is really important to protect ourselves. So the second this danger detection centre detects this danger, it initiates physiological changes that result in the release of adrenaline and cortisol for example. This starts the fight/flight mode so we can protect ourselves.
Adrenaline and cortisol make sure we have the energy to get our muscles mobilized to fight or flee.
The problem is when the traumatic experience is inescapable. Like in childhood when our abusers were much larger and stronger than us…
So very soon we realized that there is actually no escape possible. I can’t help myself. I can’t protect myself. These sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
All this and on top of it all the physical pain that comes with being assaulted…
Then the periaqueductal gray initiates that switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system.
Which means, instead of the fight/flight response (sympathetic), we enter shut down mode (parasympathetic) and everything slow down:
- our heart rate slows down
- our breath becomes shallow and slows down
- our metabolism slows down
With this switch, there are also different chemicals released like endorphins.
Endorphins can act a bit like painkillers.
The freeze response is the last resort that our body has to protect itself. When there is nothing else possible => This is a bit like a shutdown.
The freeze response is one of the strongest predictor if someone will develop PTSD after a traumatic experience or not.
This has a very significant impact. I think it’s important for us to actually understand that there is a physiological reason there. I know sometimes I can kind of geek out about the science behind this, as I’m a researcher in the medical field 🙂
But I believe it’s important that we all know a little bit about what’s happening in our brain, so that we can let go of some of that unjustified blame, guilt and shame.
Freezing is NOT a sign of weakness.
We can see now, from brain scans on people who have had traumatic experiences that, for example, the activity patterns of the periaqueductal gray have changed. Even long after the traumatic incidence.
This constant alertness and state of hypervigilance about detecting danger has changed the activity of our periaqueductal gray.
Similarly, if you spend a lot of time numb and disconnected, it shows changes in activity patterns.
I encourage you to read Dr. Daniel Amen’s books, because it really highlights that
- yes, trauma affects brain activity
- there are physiological reasons for our symptoms
- even more important: our brain has tremendous capacity to change even in adulthood
Our traumatic experiences are the cause of our current problems and there is a physiological reason for our symptoms – >
As we can see from brain scans, which are showing all these changes in brain activity patterns.
Yes, there is scientific proof! No, we are not being weak or difficult to get people’s attention etc…
However, our brain has tremendous capacity to change. Yes, we have scientific proof for this too 🙂 So never give up!!!
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