Here is material quoted from Peter Levine’s brilliant book about healing trauma, Waking the Tiger. I blogged about him years ago; it’s time to think about his message again. You can also watch this YouTube in which Peter Levine describes his ideas.
In response to threat, the organism can fight, flee, or freeze . . . When fight and flight responses are thwarted, the organism instinctively constricts as it moves toward its last option, the freezing response. As it constricts, the energy that would have been discharged by executing the fight or flight strategies is amplified and bound up in the nervous system. In this emotional and anxious state, the now-frustrated fight response erupts into rage; the frustrated flight response gives way to helplessness. The individual who has moved into the stage characterized by rage or helplessness still has the potential to move abruptly back into a frantic flight response or a raging counter-attack. If the organism is able to discharge the energy by fleeing or defending itself and thus resolve the threat, trauma will not occur.
Another possible scenario is that constriction will continue until the rage, terror, and helplessness have built up to a level of activation that overwhelms the nervous system. At this point, immobility will take over and the individual will either freeze or collapse. What happens then is that the intense, frozen energy, instead of discharging, gets bound up with the overwhelming, highly activated, emotional states of terror, rage, and helplessness . . .
Why don’t humans just move into and out of these different responses as naturally as animals do? One reason is that our highly evolved neo-cortex (rational brain) is so complex and powerful that through fear and over-control it can interfere with the subtle restorative instinctual impulses and responses generated by the reptilian core. In particular, the neo-cortex easily overrides some of our gentler instinctual responses–such as those that guide the healing of trauma through the discharge of energy. If the discharge process is to serve its purpose, it must be initiated and driven by impulses from the reptilian brain. The neo-cortex must elaborate on instinctual information, not control it . . .
In humans, trauma occurs as a result of the initiation of an instinctual cycle that is not allowed to finish. When the neo-cortex overrides the instinctual response that would initiate the completion of this cycle, we will be traumatized.
Have you ever seen an animal get up and shake itself after pretending to be dead? This behavior allows the nervous system to reset itself, in a sense, and the animal to go on untraumatized. We’ve tuned out the impulse to shake out after freezing from trauma. Instead, the energy locks up inside us, prolonging the freeze. I’m working on releasing some of this frozen energy in my head and internal organs in Cranio-Sacral Therapy, which I wrote about in my previous post. What an amazing journey! Stay tuned.