The leopard and the antelope
Picture a herd of antelopes on the African Savanna. They’re hanging out peacefully, perhaps nibbling away at some scarce plants under the blazing hot sun. Suddenly, they all stop, their bodies tense, they point their ears and they use all their senses to spot any danger looming in the bushes.
Then, nothing happens and they all return to what they were doing before in a relaxed manner.
And that’s exactly when the leopard takes its chance, leaping out of nowhere with the antelopes shooting off in all directions like fireworks, desperately trying to get away from the silent villain. A young member of the herd trips for a split second and then regains its balance, only to realise that it’s too late.
In this moment the antelope surrenders to death and it falls to the ground, completely still – frozen. It’s not pretending to be dead. The animal instinct has kicked in and there is nothing conscious about the antelope’s actions anymore.
Fight, flight – or freeze
Most people are familiar with the innate fight or flight mechanism present when we perceive danger. Fortunately so, because it’s evolution’s way of making sure that our species survives from one century to another.
The third option – freezing – is just as common as fighting and fleeing (though less talked about for some reason), but it often comes with a cocktail of symptoms that might take weeks, months or even years to reach the surface.
Freezing – also called the immobility response – is involuntary. You don’t choose it. It just happens as a primitive response and as a consequence to a difficult, traumatic experience.
What causes trauma?
Experiences related to (sexual) abuse, natural disasters, illness, death and war are among the most common ones that may cause trauma. But in reality, we could add any highly stressful situation to the list – and it all depends.
What goes in, must come out
No, this is not about poo (which happens to be one of my favourite topics, scroll down and watch this if you haven’t already).
We’re talking about energy.
Trauma is caused by frozen energy that hasn’t been resolved or discharged, and instead, it stays trapped in the nervous system. Here it starts causing all sorts of issues and strange symptoms appear.
Let’s go back to our poor little antelope and the leopard taking its final lunge at 100 kilometres per hour. The antelope appears to be dead when it collapses to the ground, but it’s not. In fact, its nervous system is now supercharged at 100 kilometres per hour. (And that’s a lot of energy.)
Both animals and humans need to actively discharge that energy in some way to escape trauma. Animals often do so instinctively.
When a little bird flies into a window, it falls down and it may look like it’s dead (and sometimes that’s the case). However, after a minute it might start to shake intensely and in no time it’ll be back on its feet, flying away as if nothing had happened.
Humans have the same capacity to shake off excess energy, but it’s not as strong as in animals and we often fail to do so in stressful situations, and because of that we stay frozen and get traumatised.
And if all that energy isn’t released?
Post-traumatic symptoms are incomplete, psychological responses suspended in fear. There are four components that will appear to some degree in a trauma victim’s life when the excess energy hasn’t been properly released:
Hyper arousal – examples are increased heartbeat, sleeping issues, racing thoughts and anxiety attacks.
Constriction is a form of hyper arousal. It alters a person’s breathing, muscle tone and posture.
Picture a mother, whose child is stuck under the tyre of a car that has run over it. All of a sudden, the woman is able to lift the car on her own to save her child. In normal circumstances it would be impossible, but her animal survival instinct has kicked in and this changes her performance capacity.
Disassociation relates to zoning out – a spaciness. Victims of continuous rape are prone to adopt disassociation as a way of living as a result of the horrible experiences they’ve had.
Freezing/Helplessness is the result of the body realising that there’s simply too much energy for a human to handle. And the system is shut down to balance things out. This is completely immobilising and it prevents people from completing the most mundane tasks in every day life.
First symptoms to appear are:
- hyper vigilance
- exaggerated emotional responses
- abrupt mood swings
- reduced ability to deal with stress
- difficulty sleeping
The next stage of symptoms might be:
- panic attacks
- spaciness and denial
- avoidance behaviour
- frequent crying
- fear of dying and going crazy
- amnesia and forgetfulness
- exaggerated startle response
And finally, symptoms that develop last are:
- muted emotional responses
- inability to make commitments
- chronic fatigue
- immune system problems
- psychosomatic illnesses
- diminished interest in life
- exaggerated or diminished sexual activity
- feelings of detachment and isolation
I was barely capable of getting out of bed for many weeks. I didn’t sleep more than 3-4 hours per night for one year. I cried uncontrollably throughout the day for several weeks. I lost my appetite and 10 kg. I flinched every time my phone rang and when someone said my name. I refused to open my post, thinking that a lawyer was coming for me. I had a number of physical ailments (eczema, asthma, heightened allergies, gut issues). I isolated myself. The smallest thing would freak me out.
And I remember thinking – and saying out loud – that I couldn’t possibly think of a way out and I was absolutely convinced that the situation I was in was never going to end.
So how does it all go away?
Trauma is released by quietness, safety and support from friends and family. A traumatised person will slowly begin to trust life again and the body can start releasing all that energy when it’s ready to do so.
It knows exactly what to do if you trust it.
There is no formula that works for all, but going slow is definitely the way forward. There are a number of techniques and therapies that work – and it’s up to the trauma patient to consider what feels right for him or her.
My best friend is a therapist, which was helpful. My mother was also incredibly supportive throughout the whole process, and she often endured daily, hour-long phone calls.
I stopped working with kAAKAO for a while.
I saw three different practitioners (and I still do) regularly. I started reading everything I could find on the topic to understand what was happening (the book below is THE BEST), but more so to be able to have more compassion for my body.
Living in a state of fear doesn’t solve anything in ANY situation, and that’s where I started.
The moral of the story?
Here are the three things I’ve learned:
- A traumatised person doesn’t always know they’re suffering from trauma. It took me a year to get a diagnosis and I thought I was going crazy in the mean time.
- Traumatised people tend to be ashamed of themselves because they don’t function like they used to and they don’t know how to fix it. It’s also really hard to look the truth in the eye – which is necessary for healing.
- Generally, people don’t know what to say when they meet a victim of trauma. 95% of people say ‘sorry to hear that’, walk away or change the subject.
It’s difficult to talk about horrible experiences and resulting mental health issues and illness. But that’s also why we really, really need to do it.
Don’t shy away from the subject. Ask a question. Try to understand. Compassion is the most beautiful thing in the world and we all just want to be seen.