Immobilization/shutdown/dissociation/frozen, a trauma response built into the nervous system

Back in March 2012, I posted that I had started reading Peter A. Levine’s latest book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. My post included excerpts from Levine’s description of being hit by a car and his experience afterwards.

His experience serves as a useful model for being and staying present through trauma and recovery. He knew how to allow his body and emotions to process naturally so that he did not get stuck in a traumatic state (i.e., PTSD).

Well, I am still reading that book. It’s very, very rich. Some parts are rather scientific. I’m taking my time to really understand it.

Levine uses polyvagal theory (I just posted an interview with Stephen Porges, who came up with the theory) to explain the states that people experience and can get stuck in from traumatic experiences.

Because Somatic Experiencing Practitioners and other therapists (as well as astute loved ones) who are helping someone recovery from trauma need to know which layer of the nervous system is dominant at any given time in a traumatized individual, I am going to describe them.

First, the primary job of our nervous system is to protect us. We have senses that alert us to danger. We may react to a perception of a threat in our bodies before it ever becomes conscious in the mind. That’s because the autonomic nervous system (which is not under our control) is involved when trauma occurs. We react instinctually.

This is good to know. It means that your trauma reactions are automatic, not something you can control, so there’s no need to feel shame or blame yourself. You were doing the best you could.

There are two defensive states that occur when encountering trauma: immobility/dissociation/shutdown (freeze) and sympathetic hyperarousal (fight or flight).

I’m going to write about them in separate posts to avoid being too lengthy.

The more primitive nervous system state is immobility. (Primitive in that evolutionarily it comes from jawless and cartilaginous fish and precedes sympathetic hyperarousal.)

It is triggered when a person perceives that death is imminent, from an external or internal threat.

Levine also uses the terms dissociation, shutdown, and freeze/frozen to describe this state. Note: If you’re an NLPer, dissociation means the separation of components of subjective experience from one another, such as cutting off the emotional component of a memory and simply remembering the visual and/or auditory components. (Source: Encyclopedia of NLP)

Keep in mind that Levine is talking about dissociation as an involuntary post-traumatic physiological state that trauma victims can sometimes get stuck with. There may be some overlap. According to Levine, symptoms of being in this state include frequent spaciness, unreality, depersonalization, and/or various somatic and health complaints, including gastrointestinal problems, migraines, some forms of asthma, persistent pain, chronic fatigue, and general disengagement from life.

Levine notes:

This last-ditch immobilization system is meant to function acutely and only for brief periods. When chronically activated, humans become trapped in the gray limbo of nonexistence, where one is neither really living nor actually dying. The therapist’s first job in reaching such shut down clients is to help them mobilize their energy: to help them, first, to become aware of their physiological paralysis and shutdown in a way that normalizes it, and to shift toward (sympathetic) mobilization. 

The more primitive the operative system, the more power it has to take over the overall function of the organism. It does this by inhibiting the more recent and more refined neurological subsystems, effectively preventing them from functioning. In particular, the immobilization system all but completely suppresses the social engagement/attachment system.

Highly traumatized and chronically neglected or abused individuals are dominated by the immobilization/shutdown system.

Signs that someone is operating from this state include:

  • constricted pupils
  • fixed or spaced-out eyes
  • collapsed posture (slumped forward)
  • markedly reduced breathing
  • abrupt slowing and feebleness of the heart rate
  • skin color that is a pasty, sickly white or even gray in color

Brainwise, volunteers in the immobility state exhibited a decrease in activity of the insula and the cingulate cortex. In one study, about 30% of PTSD sufferers experienced immobility and 70% experienced hyperarousal, with a dramatic increase of activity in these brain areas. Most traumatized people exhibit some symptoms from both nervous systems, Levine says.

I feel the deepest compassion for people in this state, because I have experienced it myself: the spaciness, depersonalization, sense of unreality, and passive, disengaged attitude toward life. It was many years ago. If I could, I would reach back in time to that injured woman and give her resources she just didn’t have back then.

I feel so grateful for the trauma recovery work I’ve done, both with a therapist and on my own. I haven’t experienced immobilization for years, except briefly.

Next up: sympathetic hyperarousal/fight or flight.

What percentage of the population do you think is mentally healthy?

I came across this quote that I hadn’t seen before, courtesy of Terry. The quote is by Thomas Stone (author of Cure By Crying):

About 10% of the population is mentally healthy. They are confident and full of energy.  They don’t understand why the rest of us have so much trouble.

Another 20% is almost mentally healthy. They may have a few bad habits, but they can overcome them by making a firm decision, “Just do it”.

The remaining 70% struggle with low energy, shyness, headaches, addictions, bad tempers, sleep problems, failed love, sex problems, difficulty reading, talking and selling.  They attempt to solve their problems by positive thinking, astrology, pills, support groups, subliminal learning, and religion, but their lives always stay the same because they never find the real cause of the problem, blocked traumatic memories. This book is dedicated to the 70%, and to their children.

I haven’t read this book, but I’m curious about the statistics. I don’t know the source, but the rounded percentages sound like a guess. Not that it’s untrue! He could be spot on right. I just don’t know. I don’t believe I could imagine a random representative sample of 100 people well enough to be so sure about the percentages.

What do you think about these percentages?

Which category would you place yourself in? I’ve been in all three categories in this lifetime. I feel like right now, I’m struggling between the 10% and the 20% categories.

Do you believe that blocked traumatic memories are the real cause of poor mental health? I know firsthand that blocked traumatic memories caused my poor mental health. I just don’t know (or know how anyone could really know) that they cause poor mental health in 70% of the population. Especially since the memories are blocked…

That said, if you don’t feel mentally healthy, would it be worth your while to examine (with skilled support, of course) whether you have blocked any traumatic memories?

It might take getting acquainted with yourself in a new way, but if the payoff was better mental health, would you do it?

Just curious.

How to have good boundaries: the third energy

In the energy of being grounded, you learned that you have a space, a position on this planet. You fully connected your energy with the earth’s energy and felt the strength and power of that.

Then you learned about being centered in your own energy, further strengthening your felt sense of yourself.

Having boundaries involves knowing where you end and not-you begins, and knowing when and how to protect and defend that space and give others their space. This is the third energy.

Have you ever experienced someone’s bad boundaries? Perhaps they stood too close when they were talking to you. Perhaps they got in your face or stepped on your toes. Or someone touched you inappropriately, or worse. Connect that to how you felt in your body. Uncomfortable, crowded, resistant, fearful, violated, powerless, worthless, what else might someone feel whose boundaries have been crossed?

We’re often not really aware of our boundaries until someone violates them. This can distort our boundaries. Think of all the incest, physical abuse, emotional abuse, rape, molestation, sexual abuse, child abuse, and more-power taking advantage of less-power stories that you’ve heard, seen on TV, or read about. There’s a lot of suffering in this world because of this type of behavior.

When someone’s boundaries have been violated, their sense of their own boundaries can easily become distorted, or maybe it wasn’t that strong to begin with. Part of recovery is restoring those boundaries and strengthening them by learning how to better protect and defend your space. Without doing this, people can suffer for years, by being distant and isolated, by violating others’ boundaries, or both. Having a good sense of boundaries has a positive impact on social and intimate relationships and your trustworthiness in general.

This energy is important for feeling like you can be yourself in the world and be safe, for trusting life. This is a huge component of well-being, and most of us have no real training in it.

Here’s how you begin to experience your boundaries:

The first boundary is your skin. Everything inside is you; everything outside is not you. Stand up and get centered and grounded. With your hands, pat yourself from head to toe and back up again. Feel your skin with your hands, your hands with your skin. Take your time and really notice. Appreciate your skin.

Did your skin notice the rhythm of your hands patting? Did you notice changes in sensation as you patted different areas of your body? What does your skin do for you?

Close your eyes and imagine the distance where you feel comfortable when talking to another person. Imagine them walking up to you. How far away do you want them to stop? (Or if you’re with someone, talk to them and notice the distance.) Notice if the distance is different with different people. Imagine your mother, your best friend, a lover, a stranger.

Next: If a growling wild animal were to slowly walk toward you, and you couldn’t run, how would you set a boundary? Think of the length of your leg. You could kick the animal if you had to. (But hopefully you can avoid hurting any animal.) So the length of your legs creates a boundary.

The length of your arms forms another boundary. You can use your arms to push someone out of your space. If they got even closer, you could bite them to get them out of your space.

This next experiment requires a partner. Stand several feet apart, grounded and centered.  Extend your arms and notice that boundary. You may feel that arm’s-length space as a column that extends from the ground to over your head. This is an important boundary.

Now face your partner and slowly walk toward them, arms extended. Stop with your palms against your partner’s. Notice how you feel. Determine who is Partner A and who is B.

With palms still together, A steps into B’s space and tries to get closer. B pushes A back to the comfort zone. A: Really push! B: Tell A “This is my space. Get out of my space!” as you push them back. Feel the effort.

This is going to feel uncomfortable at first. It’s not so hard for children, so pretend you’re on the playground if that makes it easier. I hope you’re breathless from the effort and laughing when you’ve each done it!

Boundaries are a lot more complex than centering and grounding because they’re relational and situational. Maintaining good boundaries requires your attention, especially in new relationships, when someone’s behavior changes toward you (or yours toward them), in new situations, when meeting people from other cultures.

Being able to say “no” without alienating someone is also part of the art of setting good boundaries. Have you ever been roped into doing something you didn’t want to do? That could be a whole blog post or maybe even a book!

Quickly, here’s how I like to do it: I appreciate the other person’s intent, and then tell them no. I may tell them why, but I don’t have to.

Other person: MaryAnn, we’d love to have you on that committee.

MaryAnn: I appreciate you thinking of me, but I cannot take that on at this time. I have too much on my plate already, and I doubt I could do the job as well as someone with more time. Have you thought of asking Lucy?

You get the idea! That’s the nice way. If someone is persistent, don’t hesitate to get tougher. “Absolutely not!”

Good luck with sensing your boundaries and making them real. Thanks to Brian D. Mahan, SEP, for inspiring me!