Fight or Flight, or… Freeze

Many people don’t know that the instinct to preserve one’s life has a default setting.  When we’re in a life threatening situation, our body gears up for a massive use of energy.  There’s a shot of adrenaline, the heart & breathing speed up, blood flow is shunted away from organs that aren’t essential and pumped into muscle.  If the person can run away, or fight for their life, that energy gets used.  If they can neither flee nor fight — think of a possum threatened by a coyote — then instinct shuts down the body which falls into a death-like state.  This is called “playing possum.” But it isn’t really “playing” at all.  It’s not a conscious choice.  Instinct has frozen the possum.  If the coyote doesn’t eat it, this instinctive response will save the possum’s life.   I’ve actually seen a video in which the coyote nosed the possum & then decided it wasn’t interested in dead meat and walked away.  The possum lay there for a bit, then stood up, shook itself off, and walked away.
After studying the behavior of animals in the wild, Peter Levine answered the question: “Animals in the wild, prey animals especially, risk death every day.  Why don’t they get traumatized?” He found that shaking themselves off afterward discharged the energy that wasn’t used to fight or flee, but was frozen in the body.  Humans however, have largely lost touch with this instinctive release.  We are also faced with situations that our biology never evolved to handle, like the swiftness of modern automobile accidents or the horrors of modern war.  The symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress are the result of the energy built up in the body that was never released.  Peter Levine developed Somatic Experiencing as a way to allow the body to release that energy, to in his words “re-negotiate” the trauma.  There is a page on “Somatic Experiencing” on this blog.

For more information, see Peter Levine, Waking the Tiger.

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