August 14, 2022
Trauma, Freeze, and Consent
It has been said that trauma is a thief. Whatever it was that happened, the worst of it often lies downstream. The events may have been horrific, in and of themselves, but trauma also steals from us our future and our self respect. Like interest on a maxed out credit card the effects of trauma are compounded daily. Especially when it happened early in life. As children we are usually considerably outmatched by our aggressors. The default stress response is to flee or to fight back. But when we are small this is usually not an option. Children facing violence, abuse, or violations of their boundaries and bodies have but one option: to survive it. A third stress response called Freeze takes over. Freeze is a shut down of all physical and emotional responses. It is akin to the opossum playing dead. The goal is to live. We go into shock, into paralysis, and then we dissociate, leaving our bodies to the circumstances at hand. We watch it all happen from a safe place outside ourselves. Or maybe we don’t even watch. But we survive. Only now… our nervous system is reset for instant eject, we hate ourselves for being so weak, and we can no longer trust others. Or even ourselves… Freeze destroys our ability to execute our will, crippling our self esteem, and stealing from all subsequent relationships a sense of safety and well being.
When we freeze we dissociate so we do not process the pain and the emotions of the event. Not then. Those feelings and all of that adrenalin get compressed into our bodies and etched into our psyches, our souls. Often we even bury the memories of these events, making them inaccessible to the conscious mind. We are left to stumble around in shame, self loathing, and fear of something we cannot completely define. It is all vaulted until we feel safe enough to finally face it. But we bookmark it so we can return to it later. We have triggers or ticks, places our body locks up or can’t move. This is how we know something is still there. Suddenly our emotions rise from zero to one hundred in a nanosecond as our unconscious remembers what the rest of us cannot. To heal from these events is to finally feel safe enough to address what is rumbling around in the shadows and reset. But that can take decades.
Traumatic events often initiate a freeze default neuropathway that is activated upon every subsequent confrontation. Our amygdala, the part of the brain tasked with anticipating danger, is posted as a sentry at the gate of our awareness, leaving it at the ready to activate the freeze response at a moments notice. This is where the secondary damage from trauma comes into play. We find ourselves unable to champion ourselves in times of stress and conflict. Our brain shuts down and we immediately go into freeze upon confrontation. This gives us the appearance of compliance, making it look like we agree with an aggressor when we don’t. They don’t even have to be aggressive to trip the switch, a simple confrontation, or difference in agenda, will do. The amygdala is on the job, ready to save the day, and now we are in Freeze!
Not being able to stick up for ourselves sets us up for appearing to consent to unwanted attention. We become easy targets for further abuse. We attract bullies, gaslighters, and opportunists we cannot stand up to… so we are assaulted over and over again, which completely undermines our self esteem. We hate ourselves for this. There is shame. There is self judgment. We see ourselves as disgustingly weak and woefully ineffective. The trajectory of our life gets shunted into finding safe people, avoiding conflict, and it often includes forms self medicating, self soothing, or self abuse to quell the anxiety and to dull the self loathing, all of which further undermine our self esteem.
To heal from trauma is therefore complex. Ultimately, it is a journey of the soul. Our soul is our psyche, the wholeness of who we are, both our consciousness and our unconsciousness. In a Venn Diagram the ego is a sphere of conscious awareness that lives within the much larger sphere of awareness we call the psyche or the soul’s consciousness. When we are wounded the ego tries to focus our self awareness down into a smaller more manageable realm of knowing. It wants to keep us coloring within these lines. It is happy to analyze and talk about itself within this scripted narrative. But to heal we must face what we have made unconscious. For many indigenous traditions it is thought that parts of our soul can actually splinter off in trauma and become lost, subsumed by the earth. In psychological terms we would say these essential parts go into shadow. They are lost. But the soul wants to heal. It wants the ego to expand its awareness into full self awareness. Into wholeness. It wants us to see what is missing and reclaim it. It starts with little hints, but if we are not listening it will find a way to bring us to our knees and force us to reconcile with our past. These are the dark nights of the soul.
Healing from trauma is to thaw from neurological freeze and all its downstream effects. It is to reclaim all that was stolen, beginning with the ability to defend ourselves outright. We need to do more than rearrange the mental furniture in our minds to truly heal, we need to tear down the house, rebuild the foundation and upgrade the wiring. Shamanic healing, when used effectively, works at this level. To heal is a shamanic death. By creating shifts in consciousness that break down all the story and open us up to a mystical experience of wholeness and transcendence, we can finally rewire the nervous system and restore the soul. In shamanic traditions this is done through energy work, breath work, drumming, rattling, dancing, ceremony, and psychotropic plant medicines, to name a few.
Healing is a process wherein our amygdala sits down and folds its legs beneath itself. Our lizard brain resets and our ego expands its awareness into recognizing the soul and allowing the missing pieces to come home. When we finally heal our consent comes from a place of wholeness and as an expression of our restored will. To thaw from freeze is to find our personal authority again, to reclaim our power and to reclaim our word. It is to restoring the ability to define appropriate boundaries, to say no, and ultimately it is to feel safe enough to say yes.
© Christina Allen 2022