Mindful Counseling for Complex Trauma: ‘Stuckness’ / ‘Freeze’ State / ‘Learned Helplessness’
“Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling with the mistaken belief that you cannot bear the pain.
But you have already borne the pain.
What you have not done is feel all you are beyond the pain.”
Our bodies come equipped with natural and effective defensive strategies including fight, flight, and freeze. When fight or flight are not options (as often occurs in childhood when our life depends on a parent that represents threat) then a state of freeze sets in. It may bring a numbness or dissociation from emotions, sensations, memories, or separation from the present moment. It may include a subtle transition from bodily-based living to head-based survival.
In environments of repeated or ongoing threat and submission, the freeze response can become habitual — a form of hibernation — preserving that cherished core sense of of Self for some unknown future time when safety is found or permission to live is finally granted by some imagined authority. One challenge at this point includes decreased tolerance for sensory information from the body, knowing that movement (both literal and metaphorical) brings with it a return to fight/flight.
The numbness of the freeze state as it lingers and contains over years and decades:
From an integrative perspective (Hakomi Therapy, Internal Family Systems), this is the felt experience of separation from parts self: fragmentation. One part develops to contain and preserve the part of self that seems imminently valuable. This is a natural process of preservation initiated in a time of trauma. There is an occasional sense of conflict between the part of self that wants to come out — to be seen and known — and the part you brilliantly developed to contain and protect that core. The entire experience is sometimes graciously/grievously veiled by the comforting diversion of dissocation (losing connection, ‘spacing out’, disappearing from the moment).
“I want to be me, but it’s not safe. I will wait. Stay small. Do not draw attention.”
There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying
When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I have become Comfortably Numb
~’Comfortably Numb’, by Pink Floyd
Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind.
Withering my intuition leaving opportunities behind.
Feed my will to feel this moment urging me to cross the line.
Reaching out to embrace the random.
Reaching out to embrace whatever may come.
~’Lateralus’, by Tool
Well I’ve lost it all, I’m just a silhouette,
I’m a lifeless face that you’ll soon forget.
~Lyrics from ‘Youth’, by Daughter
I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there,
Become so tired, so much more aware.
I’m becoming this, all I want to do
Is be more like me and be less like you.
~’Numb’, by Linkin Park
One way to portray the freeze state is as a revving engine: pressing the gas and the brake pedal at the same time. It’s a lot of energy, and the intensity of it is felt, but the car remains motionless. There’s a pulsing, yelling, raging…and no movement.
We drop back into numb complacency.
- ‘Learned Helplessness’
The path to freeze was found on the other side of fight or flight, after both had failed. Due to our biology, the transition back to life requires reversal of that path. Peace lies not in movement but in return to our bodies, to and through fight or flight. While we may have found some sense of control or security in our heads — in whatever looping, analyzing patterns we have developed to maintain stasis and preserve our core. The head has access to information only through our bodily senses. If we habitually avoid sensory stimulation, we avoid new information; we avoid change. And the head keeps looping and replaying that old painful, paralyzing information.
Related Article by Jeremy: Self-Oppression