One of last week’s lessons from trauma concerned dissociation – a term many of you may not have heard of before, or fully understand. I made the statement that “surviving can mean dissociating” and then went on to say:
“Dissociating is the capacity to distance ourselves from present-moment events and feelings. Our innate, built-in survival mechanisms include the ability to dissociate during highly dangerous and traumatic moments. This concept is valuable to a real understanding of trauma and the process of healing from it, and so I want to devote my next post to a fuller explanation of this aspect of our human nature.”
As human beings, we each have built into us a survival mechanism called the trauma response. While everyone responds to crises in somewhat individual ways, the basic progression of our response follows a common pattern. When a crisis event occurs, or we feel threatened, we first become acutely, extraordinarily alert. This part of the trauma response is called hyperarousal. The purpose of hyperarousal is to get ready, to mobilize the energy we’ll need to handle the crisis, whether it’s real or anticipated.
The next step of our response to crisis is called constriction. Constriction is the way we prepare our body to deal with a threat, in much the way a fighter prepares for a boxing match. The bell rings and he advances out to meet his opponent with his arms flexed and ready to strike, his chest tightened against a punch, his legs tensed and ready to move in any direction necessary. Constricting our bodies into certain patterns prepares us to focus on and meet a threat with the best chance of protecting ourselves, or someone else.
Now we come to the time for dissociation. We’ve put ourselves in the “ready position” as best we can, but we anticipate that painful events may still happen. So we put some distance between ourselves and reality. If we were to feel all the effects of the pain which may occur, it could incapacitate us and prevent us from fighting effectively or running away, whichever would make more sense in the situation. Staying strong and doing what needs to be done may require us to not feel certain things that may happen, both emotionally and physically. Our bodies are capable of numbing both physical sensations and emotional perceptions.
The ultimate dissociation response is a complete numbing or freezing, such as happens to an animal when it plays dead. When a mouse is caught by a cat, it senses that death is imminent and may be unavoidable. To protect itself from experiencing the overwhelming sensations of being killed by the cat, it completely dissociates by becoming unconscious. Human bodies can also respond this way, in moments of complete panic and terror.
At any point in this progression, if the threat goes away, we can reverse our way back to a relaxed state. We can unthaw, reconnect with our emotions and physical sensations, loosen our tensed muscles, and lower our high mental alert status. We can “stand down”. Because we’re human, however, and have a rational mind that can override this process, there’s no guarantee that we’ll always fully back off from a trauma response, even when the present danger is past.
Why is this? Much of it has to do with our history. The more trauma we’ve experienced without being able to let go of it, the more we continue to carry it around with us in our bodies and minds over time, and the less able we are to let go of the effects of our current responses to crises. New responses pile on top of old ones. We never really left our previous dissociation, restriction, and hyperarousal, and now we’re cementing all those states even further in place with more of the same.
Have I lost you? I hope not. This post has been more of a lecture than usual for me. But I want to help you gain some awareness of how our bodies and minds work in a crisis to protect us. There’s a real need and purpose behind the trauma response. There are also ways that we can sabotage ourselves by not dealing with the aftereffects of our trauma stored in our minds and bodies. I’ll have more to say about this process and its effects in upcoming posts.