Have you ever noticed that sometimes your body takes over and responds for you without your awareness, consent, or permission? Sometimes it saves our lives and other times it can be very confusing or frustrating. I’d like to offer a brief overview from a neurobiological perspective of what happens in our bodies when we experience a stressful event or when we sense a threat/danger.
When our body registers cues of threat/danger — these could be emotional, verbal, or physical cues — first, it freezes. Let me clarify what I mean by freeze. I do not mean the person is paralyzed or immobilized. The body is actually in an intensely active assessment phase. Think about a rabbit or a deer when they stop moving and their eyes get very big. Their body is assessing the level of threat and scanning the environment. This can take less than a second or may go on longer if needed.
The body is assessing whether fleeing or fighting would be the next best option. This is not a conscious process, the body is doing this automatically on our behalf. If running is our best bet, we run. If fighting will help us survive, we fight. This is the fight-or-flight response that many are familiar with.
Next, if our body determines that fleeing or fighting will actually make things worse or put us in more danger, it makes us either dissociate and/or become immobilized. This usually happens when we perceive that there is no escape from danger. We might feel trapped or overwhelmed. This point is very important and not as well known or understood as the fight-or-flight response.
Allow me to expand.
Dissociation is a protective and adaptive mechanism in our system that takes over to keep us as safe as possible. Dissociation is when the brain disconnects our conscious awareness from overwhelming, painful, or terrifyingly inescapable experiences. Some have described this as being out of the body, in a fog, blanking out, in a dream, in a movie, disconnected from the body, and one may experience memory loss or difficulty recalling what occurred.
Immobilization is the collapse response. One might feel paralyzed, unable to move or speak, helpless, or unable to cry out for help. Think of an animal playing dead — we have that physiological response as well.
Sometimes dissociation and immobilization occur simultaneously when we cannot move or speak and we are somewhere else in our mind. These responses can also happen independently of one another. For example, many people who have experienced sexual abuse have talked about how they will go somewhere else in their mind but their body was not immobilized. The body engages without conscious awareness. This, again, is adaptive and the body’s way to protect the person. You may have heard this referred to as the submit or fawn response. The body is moving and going along with the encounter so that it ends as quickly as possible and hopefully, it helps limit the damage done to the body. The dissociation is attempting to protect their mind and memory. The flip side is also possible — where a person can be immobilized but completely aware and present. They remember every detail of an event but were unable to move or call out for help.
An important caveat to note is that when we live in an environment where danger is almost always present, we often default to the dissociative response because it is our best bet at surviving in an unsafe home or community. Our system already knows that fighting or running away is not an option, so it fasttracks to the dissociative state. This is often the case for children who grow up in a chronically neglectful or abusive environment and are forced to depend on the guardians causing harm in that environment for their survival.
I hope this snapshot was helpful. If any of this connects with you or you think it would be helpful to process with a therapist, please reach out to GR Therapy Group. We have many clinicians who would be honored to walk alongside you and help you get to know your own system better.