Freeze Leads to Survival

Published: December 4, 2015

“We die so that we can live.”

Father Opossum to baby from the animated film "Over the Hedge"

Over the last 15 years, billions of cells have cycled through my body – created, utilized and disintegrated – without any of my own intentional efforts. Most of my life I took these processes for granted. Yet, after I was raped, I became fascinated by the mystery of this constant, invisible rhythm of birthing and dying happening within my body. It was a useful touchstone reminding me that on a cellular level, my body was shedding the residue of the perpetrator from the inside out. In a terrifying and also transcendent way, trauma ushered my radical awakening to the brilliance of the human organism and its relentless pursuit to fulfill a single purpose: staying alive.

When my life was threatened, in an instant, all of my survival mechanisms came online. The shock of what was happening to me physically, mentally, and spiritually, drove me outside the borders of my own skin, beyond the confines of time and space. I began to float in a slow motion dream: sensations increasingly numb, language escaping my mouth with no thought, mechanical movements and gestures coming through my body without control. If I was lucky, I would only be assaulted while stranded in the largest public park on the continent of South America. However, the anger from my attacker communicated something far more insidious. If I managed to survive the rape, what would he do next?

With no other escape available to me, my primitive survival responses conspired on my behalf. I froze. My spirit exited my body. I watched my own undoing looking down from the top of a eucalyptus tree. Still, parts of me remained trapped inside my shape. My body fell floppy. I don’t recall breathing. My tears stifled along the corners of my dilated eyes. The silence was piercing. Without my conscious awareness, my brain tracked every detail of the forest, archiving this information for the future. The instinct of my nervous system memorizing all the ways I landed here so that it could attempt to ensure this would never happen again. Meanwhile, this man was breaching every barrier within me – body, mind and soul. I was unbearably present to the rape though elements of me continued moving in and out of body, in and out of consciousness.

Suddenly, a stick broke in the woods and it was enough to startle him. To trigger his fear. This attack would not end with death. Rather, this would be the painful and precious re-birth into a post-rape reality where I escaped. The story of my undoing and my remaking was just beginning.

Everything Has Changed

In a matter of days, my body began to reject the many medicines I had started taking. The fatigue of shock and hyper-vigilance was further compounded by the simultaneous investigative processes of both the State Department and local law enforcement. I was telling my story twice, every single time. Answering the most intimate questions twice, every single time. The Spanish version and the English translation. I was living through and disclosing two different rapes. The dual nature of my disclosure mirroring the dual nature of my traumatic experience – both in my body and watching my body. The words I was pronouncing, in rooms full with too many men listening, was further torture to my growing shame. I was increasingly disconnected with each repetition of the narrative and this sense of separation that could be almost perceived as indifference, provoked more internal worry that I was responding inappropriately. I longed to simply hide from the world, but there were appointments, visitations and explanations I had to give; to friends, to my employer and colleagues, to the students I was teaching at the time who wondered why their teacher didn’t show up to class, to my family, doctors and attorneys. My stomach shifted between nausea and the hollowness of hunger. Nightmares roused any sleep I found with images that would haunt me throughout the day. I soon became saturated with an indescribable fear – of everything.

I felt trapped within of a body that was no longer my own. The initial hollow quality I felt inside began to turn alarmingly dark and heavy. Mood swings, exaggerated startle response and a mistrust of everyone I didn’t know permeated my waking existence. I wondered whether this filter of fear would ever leave me. I felt myself a prey in a city full of predators and I couldn’t possibly let my guard down. Within weeks of surviving rape, I began to face the spoken and unspoken advice of those around me, “You have to move on.” They didn’t understand that I was just now starting to feel for the first time in weeks. I was just now beginning to thaw. I was just now coming out of shock. The sweeping immensity of what rape would continue to do to me – long after the act itself had ceased, and what would now need to come through me – as the tornado of trauma’s imprint finally touched down – would alter the trajectory of my life.

I was waking up every morning, exhausted. Drinking copious amounts of coffee at my parent’s kitchen table, exhausted. Sweating through tears on the yoga mat, exhausted. I lived in two realities at the same time – a part of me functioning in the outer world, and another part of me swept up in remembering a scene my brain couldn’t shake. In time, I developed a habit of asking myself self-sabotaging questions, weighted with regret: Why didn’t I fight harder? Why couldn’t I scream louder? Could I have run faster? Why did I give up?

I couldn’t make sense of what happened. I replayed the attack, from the moment his arm sank over my chest suffocating my breath, until the moment my body collapsed beneath him. I searched for a way out in every detail: the narrow trail, his thick hands, the pressure on my back, eyes scanning the woods, the stories I told him, the way that I begged. The constancy of my own doubt became a distraction leading me to the worst conclusion – that I should have and could have done more to not be raped.

Translation: it was my fault.

A Revolutionary View on Trauma Healing

During this phase of self-blame and intense isolation, I ventured into a “spiritual” bookstore with the intention of finding some relief, maybe some answers, and hopefully, some insight from someone who was openly talking about trauma that wasn’t also in the throes of their own catastrophe. When Waking the Tiger, a treasure of a book written by Dr. Peter Levine, the creator of Somatic Experiencing, found me that day in the stacks – the golden tigers on the cover calling my attention – it reframed my concept of survival.

Levine’s desire to understand the debilitating impacts of trauma on humans – why we develop post-traumatic stress injuries and disorders when wild animals, who experience routine life threat can come away (if they manage to escape) seemingly unscathed, lead him to research prey and predatory animal threat response cycles. He believed that animals might shed light on how humans might access a natural capacity to not only survive trauma but to instinctively resolve it. In his studies of both animals and then through working with his own traumatized clients, he recognized, “Trauma is not caused by the event itself, but rather develops through the failure of the body, psyche, and nervous system to process adverse events.” After watching how animals would tremor and breathe upon surviving a close encounter with death, the dichotomy between human and animal responses became more clear: “All mammals automatically regulate survival responses from the primitive, non-verbal brain, mediated by the autonomic nervous system. Under threat, massive amounts of energy are mobilized in readiness for self-defense via the fight, flight, and freeze responses. Once safe, animals spontaneously ‘discharge’ this excess energy through involuntary movements including shaking, trembling, and deep spontaneous breaths. This discharge process resets the autonomic nervous system, restoring equilibrium.” 

The physiology that prepares them for the possibility of death is also the physiology which returns them to life. This struck me.

Yet humans, for myriad reasons – social, cultural, medical, familial and for survival – often have these innate processes interrupted, whether by onlookers, first responders, friends, family and our own personal desire to move on. We are forced to over-inhibit. For many people, the nature of their trauma combined with their identity – a child survivor of ongoing incest, a soldier who must return to duty after a traumatic incident, a woman of color trying to heal sexual trauma amidst a racist, racially traumatizing society – prevents them from ever feeling truly safe enough to lean into the vulnerability that completing physiological protective responses requires. They need their guard up indefinitely to survive their current environment as the threat remains. This too is wise.

Still, reading about the physiological roots of my fears, symptoms and responses validated the invisible wounds covering me. The deep well of grief. The disgust I internalized towards my own body. The psychological overwhelm of feeling like my panicky mental patterns would consume my ability to ever relax. The socially imposed quelling of my anger created a rising tension that made me feel even more explosive. The shame of wondering why I didn’t stop him. The existential questioning of who it was that left my body in the first place and what to call that experience?

I sat on the ground amidst the bookshelves in a mixture of disbelief and gratitude and I read the first half of the book. Levine spoke a language my whole being understood. As a survivor, I felt seen. This was my first glimpse into the notion that the animal within me not only saved my life, but could also assist and guide my recovery.

Waking the Tiger painted a redemptive picture of the innate instinct to heal which ran counter to the societal weight of brokenness. Socially, I was considered damaged, dirty, fragile and defenseless. I was the unlucky statistic we never hope to be and will do anything to distance ourselves from. I read victim-blaming stories about other survivors in the news daily. I experienced the immense discomfort in people’s facial expressions who had heard about my rape – most barely looking me in the eye. Eventually, I watched as the space between me and so many of the people around me began to widen – like I was contagious with something they were desperate to outrun.

But none of this fit for me, which is also why it hurt so deeply. There was a sense inside me that I had overcome something remarkable, albeit horrible – and contrary to the socially implied “damaged victim” placed upon me, I felt strangely victorious. Even that feeling, which one would think is positive, created an additional layer of badness and shame. I worried that something must be severely wrong with me to feel this powerful in the wake of my absolute powerlessness. Was this latent shock or was this a signal of healing?

Levine’s philosophy of resilience affirmed what my body, my brain and my soul was manifesting in their organic attempt to overcome traumatic loss. It assured me that every action I enacted to come out of the assault alive was not merely wise, but also the reason I survived – including freezing. His understanding of trauma and the organic ability of humans to eventually move from freeze back into “flow” – regardless of how much time has passed – affirmed my intrinsic wholeness. The book revealed to me the humble survival skills of prey animals that would quickly become my teachers. My daily unraveling, my rages, my vigilance, my tears, my nightmares, my triggers and my desperate need to keep moving – yoga, walking, running, this too was the intelligence of survival. This was a disorganized nervous system seeking balance, calling my attention to it through multiple, layered, and clearly identifiable symptoms. The symptoms gave me and the holistic team of healers that I worked with, a very specific map towards my own resilience. Most importantly, I re-imagined my collapse beneath the weight of my rapist as a kind of unconscious cunning that sustained my life.

I have met hundreds of survivors who, despite all the logic in the world, still recycle their story in their mind. This is natural, and a part of recovery – however, it can become self-defeating. They continue to search for a way out that wasn’t ever there, or an ending that doesn’t break their heart. As survivors, we are convinced in both subtle and overt ways to berate ourselves for not being able to change the circumstances, nor the outcome of our assault. Yet, if armed with the truth about the somatic nature of our survival, survivors might instead develop gratitude for themselves – recognizing that their bodies, their nervous systems, and the deepest cells in their brains knew exactly what to do to stay alive. If we could view ourselves as the adaptive animals we truly are, there would be less room for shame. In fact, we may be inclined to start taking up the space within our bodies, our relationships and our communities, that is rightfully ours to claim. This creates the possibility for a truly embodied sense of justice that no one can take away.

I wonder, what if all survivors were introduced to the wisdom of their survival responses from the moment they disclosed? What if they learned about how animals in the wild organically shake off traumatic events and are able to adapt to the flow of life again? What if early on, someone suggested all the different ways that we could engage our body in becoming one of our best allies in our recovery – what would our healing practices look like? How would this influence the way we cope after trauma? If we could actually harness the power of the body, mind and soul working in concert, an intrinsic collaboration that could fortify our heart alongside the holding of overwhelming stress – how would our recovery process change?

Holistically Attending to the Body-Mind-Spirit Split 

Many survivors detail the sense of disconnect they feel from their body, and ultimately, from themselves, on a very fundamental level both during and long after sexual violence. There are high levels of dissociation and fright paralysis that aid in our survival in the moment, yet, unattended to, these responses risk becoming our default. Trying to move forward in a society where sexualized violence is pervasive, and every news story or rape joke, mixes with your trauma, can force us to shut out parts of ourselves where the wound still lives. We may end up storing the visceral memories of violence in the tissues of the body. There may be corners of the body with buried images whose content we fear will completely undo our psyche. We keep all the energy bound up inside, all that we had to block out in order to survive and we try our best to cope. Understandably, many survivors will seek methods and mechanisms that numb or distort their reality. That which has been frozen desperately wants to thaw, and yet knowing intuitively the immensity of what is being stored, we devote tremendous (often unconscious) effort to keeping it at bay. Who could tolerate any more pain? When a survivor attempts to escape their reality, this too is part of their survival. They are doing their best to cope and it is a mark of their resilience that they even try.

For any survivor, fully feeling the presence of the memory of trauma can be debilitating. Being asked to recall the story can have a similar effect, whether in the moment or days, months and decades later. It is not surprising that survivors of sexual violence are at a high-risk for developing eating disorders, abusing substances, addiction, self-harm, or engaging in high-risk sexual encounters. All of this is actually in service of managing the impossible tsunami of painful experiences inside. Importantly, some of the seemingly self-sabotaging behaviors can be related to our psyche’s desire to gain mastery over the trauma. Yet, we must acknowledge that there are many realms, many fantasies, many trials we consciously and unconsciously place along our pathway to healing and they aren’t always “neat”. They don’t always make “sense”. Sometimes they may even seem unsafe. For some, finding light amidst this deeply intimately terrain first requires a willingness to confront absolute dark. It may be messy, it may be chaotic, it will certainly be nonlinear – yet, after sexual violence, how could we expect it to be any other way?

The casually distant way we diagnosis a person with PTSD often fails to make room for the vast scope of what the experience of trauma holds. Specifically, the less tangible, yet equally important realms of energy and spirituality. Trauma can cause an “out-of-body experience”, it can provoke an existential crisis, it can cause a spiritual split – and yet, we reduce it to a psychological condition. In our well intentioned efforts to “correct” or to “fix” we miss the embodied experience of being traumatized and we cover up the organic, albeit uncomfortable, way that a person responds. We twist a healthy, natural response to a horrific event into a personal weakness or inadequacy, when in reality, our amazingly creative ability to cope, however it is that we do that – is anything but weak or inadequate! We often avoid naming the potent place where sexual violence stirs immeasurable pain – the injury on our soul. Soul, of course, however you define it. Perhaps as simply as the core essence of who you are, or your way of knowing who you are in relationship to the world around you.

After sexual violence, there is a painful re-birth into a world that is instantly foreign. There is a feeling of being altered on a fundamental level that words alone cannot describe. Your body, your moods, your dreams, your desires and your relationships all require a kind of re-construction. You are forced to acquaint yourself with the New You and it can be a terribly confusing, consuming and isolating process. Something intangible feels lost, silenced, or stolen from inside. Of course, some folks don’t have the privilege of a foundation of Self to re-construct their lives upon because the abuse began so early. They may be searching for a Self they’ve still never truly met. When we neglect to divulge the physiological nature of what survivors might undergo during trauma, we undermine the magnitude of their experience. For some, freeze is the very difficult to articulate experience of watching your organism prepare itself for death. We are a witness to a process for which we were never prepared. We might feel trapped in a body we cannot move and that induces its own level of terror. We see the faces and memories of loved ones appearing in our mind’s eye and the desire to rouse oneself from a bad dream cannot be satisfied. How are we to make sense of this kind of experience on our own? Who are we tell and what would we even say about being that close to the edge?

All of this questioning, inquiry, and flashing back happens at great depths of our unconscious, and yet, our responses to survivors far too often tread lightly on the periphery of their experience so as to not make more waves. Yet if you look closely, survivors quickly become adept at riding the rising and falling waves – they have to in order to survive. It is often the people around the survivor who lose their balance watching the ocean of trauma surface in the survivor’s life and they stifle the survivor’s organic process in order to avoid confronting their own.

Much of our current organizing and education relies on valuable, yet to some degree, stale scripts of how we talk about sexual violence and trauma. We underestimate our audiences and do the movement a disservice when we gloss over freeze, when we neglect the wounds of the soul. Trauma survival is encoded within all of our systems, so our allies and communities actually can relate to this topic, translated through their own direct experiences with fear and loss. In my presentations on sexual violence, I screen videos where we watch wild animals in the throes of the hunt, the stages of attack, and how the prey miraculously survives. I have seen how this opens a doorway to understanding the range and depth of physiological experiences a survivor may undergo. It fortifies empathy. It creates context. It invokes humility in the viewer. Importantly, I think it builds awe.

Freeze Is Self-Defense

As humans, many of us have personally experienced how a traumatic or overwhelming event immediately influences the very functioning of our physiology. We may have experienced freeze watching someone fall and not being to prevent it. Or, maybe we have been in a car accident where the moment of impact is recorded in the mind’s eye in slow motion. Coming upon a fire in our kitchen and not mobilizing to put it out. We know the overwhelming paralysis of fear. Yet, when it comes to disclosures of sexual violence, as a society we exhibit a display of speculation and cultural inquisition – both casual and criminal. We expect them to behave differently when confronted by sexual assault than the way in which we know human beings are wired. This inquiry rubs into unhealed wounds and diminishes a survivor’s ability to recognize all that they did to survive. When we ask, “Why didn’t you fight?” we imply culpability, which is rooted in the deep denial of our own vulnerability and a reflection of socially supported ignorance and indifference to this epidemic.

It isn’t long before survivors start to admonish the instincts that lead them to freeze when neither fight nor flight were options. Freeze had to happen if we wanted to survive – and our organism desperately wants to survive. Painfully, the emotions associated with the freeze response often manifest as shame. Without orientation to the true nature of freeze and the fact that it is out of our control, there can be a perception that we “allowed” the violence happen to us, or that we could have done more to stop it. Feeling that level of helplessness – immobilized in the face of your worst fear – confuses our minds. Why didn’t we fight back? Why couldn’t we fight back? What is wrong with us? We will replay every detail leading up to the assault a thousand times, still every time, unable to create a different outcome. The repetitive self-interrogation is psychologically disorganizing. When you live in a culture that regularly blames survivors for the horrific acts of violence done to them, and teaches them it is their responsibility to somehow avoid being assaulted, it becomes harder and harder to see that the outcome simply wasn’t up to you. The cultural messaging seeps in and wreaks havoc on our self-esteem and our capacity to give ourselves the tenderness we so very much deserve.

There are survivors of repeated sexual abuse who for decades, have loathed themselves for freezing. They don’t know that from a physiological perspective their systems learned over years of abuse, that fight or flee would prove useless. This isn’t intellectual, this is instinctual. Emphasizing the physiology of the trauma response could create a paradigm shift for survivors who have long questioned their reactions, their bodily responses, and their patterns or behaviors. It is particularly relevant for those who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, as children are more inclined to freeze, as are those people who have experienced multiple sexual assaults. Our physiology discovers through failed attempts at escape in the past, that freeze is the most effective defense and may default to freeze. The body remembers, the body records, and the body decides. The body delivers the response. Our body makes this choice for us when faced with overwhelming threat and fear, and as viscerally dis-empowering as it can feel, its purpose is to give life.

Freeze is self-defense and it should be known as such. When we freeze we are psychically separating from that which has the potential to crush our connection to ourselves, to humanity, to our Source. Our absolute stillness protects against the slightest disturbance that might escalate the event and lead to our own end. Freeze allows for a reduction of pain as endorphins flood our body. The numbing quality allows us to endure the worst. Freeze isn’t failure, it is how we survive.

This is no small task for the human nervous system. It is a high state of energy conservation and places the greatest metabolic demand on our nervous system, even though to the outside eye it can look like calm. We are bearing the unbearable. Tolerating the inescapable horror of the most intimate boundary breach. We are holding our breath until it is safe enough to exhale. This is the capacity that freeze creates. It is a reservoir for future resilience if we can make our way back to tap into it. It allows for the feats of the human spirit to overcome tragedy. It is the foundation upon which the archetypal hero’s path begins. The inbuilt intelligence to freeze, to be still, to dissociate, to “play dead”, is like a superpower we are born with. It is a lifeline and a miracle when it seems there is no way out. It is the way out. We can recognize this as a last ditch, unconscious decision that none of us should have ever had to make. When we go towards freeze, we don’t know if we will return, and so truly, our return should be cause for celebration – not shame.

The Physiology of Resilience

When we view freeze through this lens, we can hold a sense of admiration for the human organism and its unique ability to transform pain into fuel for resilience. We recognize that it is an impulse born of our lineage. We need to saturate our society with the stories of the physiological wonders that occurred and saved our lives. Our bodies are designed for survival, and in an instant, perhaps the most frightful and life-altering one/s of our lives – we subconsciously assessed our options: Was it possible to fight? Was there a way to flee? All of this processing, all deep in the reservoir of the brain, all of this within seconds. We may in fact, have briefly attempted fight and flight, and yet, for those of us who call ourselves survivors (or victims, or thrivers, or just humans with a story) those defenses failed. We were left with one last option – to freeze. It was innate, it was primal, it was mostly biology, and partly mystery. It is why we are still living.

You survived. I survived. We survived. Instead of lamenting others or ourselves for the actions of the hard-wired, life-giving systems of their bodies – let us recognize what a gift it is that those systems, designed to sustain our very heartbeat, mobilized at the moment of attack. We have stolen from survivors this empowering knowledge: their body did not in fact betray them – it saved them. It is time to give this inherent wisdom back to survivors and to resource them with the tools, spaces and healing practices where they can cultivate an embodied reverence for their unique ways of surviving. Healing is innate within us, however it is not a process we should have to embark upon alone. It requires a witness, a steward – perhaps many – someone/s who deeply understand the impact of trauma, who trust in each person’s capacity for resilience and who offer practices that restore and magnify the survivor’s own, innate healing wisdom and abilities.

The survival responses that prevented our ancestors from being eaten by large predators and which saved the young impala from being taken from its herd, are the same responses that allowed us to live through the monumental trauma of sexual violence. If survivors can re-connect with the wonder of their wild and wise nature, they can transform decades of shame into a future where they feel agency, empowerment and intrinsic worth throughout their whole being. We can thrive alongside the legacies of harm because we remember and we respect the ways we got through and continue to get through. This potential for living beyond the pain of our wounds has been buried beneath the conditioning of modern culture that asks us for over-inhibition of our nature as well as the many interlocking systems of oppression that chip away at our sense of personal and collective self-worth and sovereignty.

It is time to remember. To reclaim. To rewrite. Those of us who have battled trauma have glimpsed the ultimate paradox in being confronted with the primal fear of death coupled with the overwhelming instinct to survive – let us unapologetically share about it. Let us learn from each other and our ancestors. Let us honor the courage and the tenacity required to survive. We are animals and it is the animal within us that gives us this second, third and fourth chance to repair the wounds of our past and to fully inhabit our life. It is never too late. The human nervous system is ready for restoration whether it has been 3 weeks or 35 years of simply surviving. There are healers who can accompany us in an incremental process of unlocking or restoring the frozen, dissociated or long dormant parts from our organism in service of revealing our inherent right to feel free.

Trauma survivors are teachers. They embody how the resources of physical, mental and spiritual repair and rebound that emerge from inside. In the humble heroism of living through the pain of trauma, survivors suggest a possibility that being dropped into that kind of darkness may bolster a fierce commitment to cultivate light. This resilience, this quest to counterbalance horror with hope, is inherent within all of us. It is not only stunning to behold, it is life-force that each and every single one of us can learn to hone.

The physiological processes that conspire on our behalf to prepare us for the terror of death, are also the innate, instinctual processes – the resources from within – which can return us to our full and precious life.

About the Author:

Molly Boeder Harris
Molly Boeder Harris
Molly Boeder Harris (she/her) is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, and a trauma-informed yoga teacher and trainer. Her own experiences surviving sexual trauma catalyzed her to enter the trauma healing field in 2003, beginning with her work as a medical and legal advocate with children and adult survivors, a campus violence prevention educator, and as a yoga teacher specializing in working with survivors. She earned her Master’s Degree in International Studies and her Master’s Certificate in Women’s & Gender Studies, which inform the way she holds both individual and collective forms of trauma and oppression close together in her work. Over the last 2 decades of her career and healing trajectory, she has found that the practices which recognize the whole person – body, mind, and soul – and which also honor the ways in which trauma and resilience manifest physiologically, offer the greatest possibility for embodied justice and social change.
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