In the Trauma and the Primitive Brain video, we talk about Flight, Fight, and Freeze responses. Let’s go into a bit more detail here.
Say you are a 5-year-old kid on the playground swinging. You’re enjoying the day and the warm breeze. You are all alone, lost in your own daydreams. Suddenly, the 8-year-old school bully pulls you off the swing and threatens to hit you. You have three instinctive responses.
You could try to escape (Flight). Running away makes a lot of sense if someone is bigger than we are! We are often surprisingly strong and fast when we feel threatened. The primitive brain pumps adrenaline and other chemicals through our body, giving our muscles lots of power. The chemicals also cause us to be more resilient to pain so we can function, even if we’re wounded.
If you escape, your primitive brain will define your successful flight as “proof” that you can take care of yourself… that you are empowered and capable… that you can handle what the world throws at you. While you might be appropriately wary of going to the playground by yourself now, you most likely will not have developed a strong negative associations (fears) with swings, daydreaming, or being alone.
Because you were “successful,” the details of the event do not get “trapped” in the primitive brain and get passed to the cognitive brain (our modern “thinking” brain). That means you can make logical decisions about what happened and decide how to keep yourself safe in the future.
If flight is not an option, you could attack the bully (Fight). Again, the chemicals surging in our bodies when we are threatened give us increased strength. You might win, or at least startle him enough so that you can get away. If you do fight and get away, the primitive brain sees a positive outcome, and the cognitive brain processes the experience in a way that is likely to leave you more resilient rather than “irrationally scared.”
If you can’t get run away, and you can’t fight, (or you had previous traumas that precondition you not to even try!), your primitive brain will cause you to Freeze.
Freezing is a useful survival mechanism. Just as the bobcat might lose interest in the frozen rabbit, but kill it if it sees it moving around or struggling, a frozen child might be boring or frightening to the bully. He might just decide you’re not worth it and leave you alone.
Whether freezing causes the bully to back off, or you receive some swift kicks while frozen, you still have an overload of survival chemicals in your system that must be purged! How?
Wild animals will normally shake, tremble, run in place, or do other activities that discharge the effect of these chemicals on their body. The natural human process is to do the same thing. We also have the option of receiving comfort and support at home (which releases counteracting chemicals). Unfortunately, of us are trained out of allowing our body to release this energy in a natural way. We are told to “calm down,” “pull it together,” “stop overreacting,” and the ol’ favorite, “big boys don’t cry.”
And for many frightening experiences, “home comfort” is not available because it was at home the trauma occurred! Or, our response is trivialized. We are told to “get over it,” “it’s not a big deal,” and another ol’ favorite, “it’s your fault… you should have known better.”
When we naturally purge the survival chemicals, it shows the primitive brain that we did survive, and we are safe and resilient. This allows the cognitive brain to start processing the information and throwing out the irrelevant associations. Studies show that you can actually feel more empowered and capable after you’ve faced challenges and survived… as long as the trauma is discharged in a healthy way.
However, if we do not discharge the trauma, the primitive brain never releases the event. It stays frozen. Since the cognitive brain doesn’t get to process what happened, strange associations may occur. We might become terrified of daydreaming, swinging, or being alone out in the open… whatever the primitive brain grabbed onto as the “cause” of the helplessness.
Since helplessness and disempowerment are intensely frightening emotions, we may go to extremes to avoid those feelings. If we never unfreeze, the primitive brain may also decide that we are not good at handling life events… or even that the whole world is unsafe. This leads to an underlying feeling of fear and inadequacy. When we are not sure we can survive, we feel more insecure in our skin… whether we show that by walking around with shoulders slumped or hiding it behind false bravado.
So how do we release old frozen memories? How do we allow the primitive brain to relax and feel good about life and our capabilities?
We tap on the memory. This seems to allow the primitive brain to “update its files” and realize that the event is truly over. The part of our energy that was frozen and trapped in the event can finally be released. Strange associations are cleared out. We get relief, and this relief gives us a sense of renewed well-being and re-empowerment.
In our group coaching program, we teach Inner Tapping to release such traumas. For example, we’d start by tapping on our 5-year-old self to bring our inner child relief using our imagination (as we also physically tap on ourselves). Other subjects for the inner tapping process could include tapping on the bully, or tapping on our mom for not protecting us better. Whatever holds emotional intensity gets tapped on. The intention is to unfreeze the trauma so we can see it differently. This can bring a profound sense of peace and relief.