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Trauma, Stress and the Body

Today on the Sage Advice Podcast, my friend Rachael M Belliveau LMT (Moonstone Healing Arts and True Bleu Healing Arts of Richmond, Virginia) spoke to us about the effects of stress and trauma on the body.  As Rachel mentioned our body is broken up into the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).  Both are part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which covers all the involuntary functions of the body.  The PNS restores the body to its calm state and prevents it from over exertion.  The SNS refers to how the body perceives and responds to a threat.

Trauma and the Body 

When we talk about abuse, we are not only talking about physical or sexual abuse, we are also talking about various forms of emotional and verbal abuse.  In any abusive relationship, the body has a response.  In physical abuse the wounds are easier to see and the fight or flight response is typically immediate.  With mental forms of abuse, however, there is a perceived threat, now or in the future, that can cause the same fight or flight response.  Let’s take a closer look into how our body responds to real or perceived threats.

What is Fight, Flight or Freeze?

As mentioned above, the Fight or Flight response is the body’s response to a dangerous situation.  Over the past decade or so researchers have added a third type of response, freeze.  The website Anxiety Canada, refers to Fight, Flight or Freeze as the F3 (kind of makes it sound like a superpower).  F3 has been instilled in humans since the beginning of time.  It is our biological defense system and is intended to keep us alive.   If you’re confused at all about F3, just remember back to when you have been afraid.  What did you do?  How do you handle haunted houses, for example?  Some people scream and flee, others may stay and fight.  Simply put, F3 is our brains mode of self preservation. 

What is Freeze?

The concept of fight or flight was presented in the 1920s after research studies into anxiety and the brain were conducted.   More recently scientists have added the freeze response.  As is explained in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry (ncbi.nlm.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2489204) :

            “freezing—or tonic immobility—may overwhelm other competing action tendencies…Similar to the flight/fight responses, a freeze response is believed to have adapted value.  In the context of predatory attack, some animals will freeze or “play dead.”

The article goes on to describe the loss of motor function, as well as vocal abilities.  It is also somewhat perplexing to compare oneself to a dead animal but in the end, we are all animals, and our responses are often biological in nature. While the freezing response has garnered far less attention than its counterparts fight and flight, there is one area in which freezing has received much attention, cases PTSD and Rape.

            “One exception is the PTSD/rape literature wherein several studies have described rape induced paralysis that appears to share many of the features of tonic immobility (Galliano, Noble, Travis & Puechl, 1993; Mezey & Taylor, 1998; Scaer, 2001; Suarez & Gallup, 1977).  This literature suggests that a relatively high percentage of rape victims feel paralyzed and unable to act despite no loss of consciousness during the assault (Burgess & Holmstrom, 1976; Heidt, Marx & Forsyth, 2005).  Since fear, predation, contact and restraint are common in both rape and the induction of tonic immobility in animals, it has been concluded that these phenomena are essentially isomorphic (Suarez & Gallup, 1979).”

Stress, Anxiety and the F3

What happens if our F3 survival instinct is triggered but there is no present threat or danger to our physical body?  As we learn more about anxiety from a scientific perspective it becomes clearer that anxiety can cause are body to enter its F3 mode when there is little to no physical threat of danger.  Being in a physically abusive relationship puts you in very real danger, there is no argument there, but verbal abuse or stalking cases can cause immense levels of anxiety and have been known to trigger the F3 response inside the body.

When I say inside the body, I mean that sometimes our muscles and/or our musculoskeletal parts can feel the effects of stress and anxiety before our conscious thoughts get there.  Our muscles can hold trauma and memories, just like our minds.  Think about a time where you have been in constant and sustained stress.  Did your muscles stiffen up?  Did you suddenly develop tension headaches or migraines?  These can be signs that your body is holding on to something your brain is not ready to deal with yet.

Dealing with emotional, verbal, physical or sexual abuse is extremely stressful and taxing on the mind, body and soul.  It is important to listen to all three components.  Of course, no one can live completely stress free but often we neglect what our soul or common sense tells us.  It can be easy to turn a blind eye but when the pain becomes physical, it is hard to ignore.

What happens to the body?

When you are in an abusive relationship the chronic tension begins to affect you physically.  You might have constant shoulder pain where you never had it before.  You may be carrying stress in your feet when they have never bothered you.  The barrage of insults and attacks wear on your body as much as they wear on your soul.

According to the Cleveland Clinic when your body enters the F3 mode, or stress response, the following can happen:

  • Your heart rate and blood pressure increase
  • You are pale or have flushed skin
  • Blunt pain response is compromised (aka pain is delayed)
  • Diluted pupils
  • You are on edge
  • Memories can be affected
  • You are tense and trembling
  • Your bladder might be affected

Do you remember the last time you were cut off in traffic and had to slam on the brakes?  Do you remember the instant panic and frustration you felt?  That is exactly what it feels like to start fight, flight or freeze.

Can you imagine having that same feeling for days, months or even years?  Intense isn’t it.  That is what a lot of abuse survivors feel both when they are in the relationship and when they are trying to leave

How Can I Help Myself?

  1. Time: Did you ever notice that once you were finally done with a stressful project you got sick? My body experienced what I called the ‘rubber band effect’ after leaving my abusive relationship. My body was so happy to release all that pent up cortisol and serotonin that I ended up feeling sore and sick to my stomach for days. Once you remove yourself from the stressful situation, it still takes time for your mind and body to build back up.  The more removed from your relationship you are, the less chronic stress your body will have to endure.
  2. Exercise: For some people exercise is their lifeline.  Running can be therapy and moving your muscles is always a good boost for mental health.  To be honest though, for me exercise was an additional stressor.  I decided not to put more pressure on myself to be in the gym and that made me feel better.  After a few months I took up a hot yoga and it was perfect for my mind body and soul.  Remember whatever you decide to do, that’s ok.
  3. Talking: Whether you talk with friends and family, a SAGE mentor, participate in a group and/or find a specialized therapist, talking about your feelings to an understanding ear can help ease stress. Plus, you learn better coping skills and have supportive people around. 
  4. Massage: Massage can be beneficial for the mind, body and soul.  If you haven’t listened to the podcast with Rachael, you can find it here.  There are so many different types of massage and energy work that can help you relax and work muscles.
  5. Meditation: Guided meditation helped me get reacquainted with my inner self, that’s why I run the guided meditation class. It was essential to helping me learn what I needed and where to focus my healing.  Frankly, it helped me find myself again. At the very least, taking a quiet moment in a comforting place can be all you need to reset and refocus.   

Whichever way you find healing just remember these two things; that the fastest healer doesn’t win and what works for one person may not work for you.  Healing takes time, energy and effort but someday you will find yourself again only this time you will be a stronger, wiser and happier you.   

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