Neuroscience of Trauma: Fight, Flight & Freeze
Many of us have heard of fight & flight, but not many have heard of the ‘freeze’ response and how it leaves trauma stuck in our bodies. Essentially we are mammals, and share the same nervous systems as other mammals. When threatened, our sympathetic nervous system becomes automatically aroused, releasing adrenaline & cortisol into the bloodstream so we can fight or flee. But if we can do neither and are forced to suffer pain or helplessness, our nervous system takes it to another level – cortisol levels rise, but our muscles relax as though we are sleeping (playing dead) and we float above the scene of our bodies, so as not to feel the trauma of the experience. If we live through this, recovery is difficult as the high levels of adrenaline & cortisol are trapped in the muscles. The action of fight or flight was not played out, and still simmers below the surface, causing discomfort and imbalance deep in the body. Many, if not all of us, live with some form of freeze inside. Some people are crippled by it.
There is a way to thaw out the frozen “stuff” held in our bodies. There are many ways in fact. Deep crying, wailing, singing, dancing, breath-work, and mobilizing the body into action (while staying in touch with feeling) are some examples. Tribal people were very knowledgeable about the need to release the ‘charge’ from the body before it got ‘stuck’. An example was told to me by David Berceli (founder of TRE®) at his level 2 workshop: David was teaching TRE® (Activating a tremor) to villagers in Africa, and he was laughed at by the women. They said something like: “You Western men, you don’t know anything! After a mother gives birth we hold her upright while she trembles and shakes, and we don’t let her rests until it stops. Then, and only then, she will recover fully” They knew from experience and observation that the tremor itself was releasing the charge/ sympathetic NS arousal after the ordeal of labor, and to halt the process would be detrimental to her.
The practices of TRE® & Yoga help to develop sensory awareness in the belly-centre (enteric nervous system), calm negative emotions, and encourage connection and trust in the instinctual self. Kali also includes heart-centred smiling practices, which seem to rewire the brain to think more positively, and create strong neural connections between the belly and the heart. Regular practice generates a feeling of deep self-acceptance and a coming home to ones self.