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bessel van der kolk

Understanding the freeze/collapse trauma response can improve our response to survivors' stories

FIGHT / FLIGHT vs COLLAPSE Trauma is expressed not only as fight or flight but also as shutting down and failing to engage in the present. A different level of brain activity is involved for each response: the mammalian fight-or-flight system, which is protective and keeps us from shutting down, and the reptilian brain, which produces the collapse response. You can see the difference between these two systems at any big pet store. Kittens, puppies, mice and gerbils constantly play around, and when they're tired they huddle together, skin to skin, in a pile. In contrast, the snakes and lizards lie motionless in the corners of their cages, unresponsive to the environment. This sort of immobilization, generated by the reptilian brain, characterizes many chronically traumatized people, as opposed to the mammalian panic and rage that make more recent trauma survivors so frightened and frightening. Almost everyone knows what that quintessential fight/flight response, road rage, feels like: A sudden threat precipitates an intense impulse to move and attack. Danger turns off our social-engagement system, decreases our responsiveness to the human voice, and increases our sensitivity to threatening sounds. Yet for many people panic and rage are preferable to the opposite: shutting down and becoming dead to the world. Activating flight/flight at least makes them feel energized. That is why so many abused and traumatized people feel fully alive in the face of actual danger, while they go numb in situations that are more complex but objectively safe, like birthday parties or family dinners. When fighting or running does not take care of the threat, we activate the last resort-the reptilian brain, the ultimate emergency system. This system is most likely to engage when we are physically immobilized, as when we are pinned down by an attacker or when a child has no escape from a terrifying caregiver. Once it takes over, other people, and we ourselves, cease to matter. Awareness is shut down, and we may no longer even register physical pain.-Bessel van der Kolk, MD | #thebodykeepsthescore #ptsd #cptsd #emdr #anxiety #did #addiction #hypervigilance #abuserecovery

Ah, yes. The reptile brain response to trauma: collapse AKA freeze. Many people may have the fight or flight trauma response, but many people with histories of trauma will freeze.

This is why saying, "I don't believe her bevause I would have fought him off." is unhelpful and dangerous. You're dismissing a common trauma response and condemning everyone who has that sort of response to not being believed.

Considering that people do not choose their trauma responses, critiquing how someone responds to danger feels like a special kind of victim - blaming. This is why I resist the idea that someone's behavior proves they weren't victimized; oftentimes a perfect full common and normal trauma response gets pathologized.

This in turn makes us less likely to believe survivors and signals to assailants what kind of person to target (yes there are ways to pick out potential victims who are likely to have a freeze response) or situations under which potential victims CAN'T fight back (lots of drinking/drugs).

We all end up less safe as a result.

Get your own copy of The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, MD.

Originally posted on my Facebook here.

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