How many times have we heard of people who were raped or otherwise violated being accused in their attacker’s trial of not fighting or running away? The survivor, instead of receiving sympathy and justice, is instead bombarded inside the court and out with shame and blame.
This article will examine the phenomenon of freezing during trauma and how the polyvagal theory explains this lack of the ability to escape.
The Neuroscience of Fear
If more judges and juries were aware of the complicated dance done in the human brain when endangered, perhaps the stigma against survivors would end. But, to understand why survivors freeze when confronted with an attacker they would need to know a little bit of neuroscience.
The brain uses a complicated pathway to respond to a threat by first receiving messages from the senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing). The brain gathers information about the environment the body is in by scanning with the senses continuously throughout the day and night.
The gathered messages are then sent to the thalamus, also known as the relay center of the middle brain. From the thalamus, the signals are routed to the appropriate areas of the brain that involve sensation and movement and the limbic system made up primarily of the amygdala and hippocampus.
The amygdala acts as the brain’s alarm system and is important when humans store away emotion-linked memories. When triggered, the amygdala reads and evaluates the emotional content of the sensory messages it receives from the thalamus especially when they are signals of danger. The amygdala also receives sensory input from the locus ceruleus, a cluster of cells located I the most primitive part of the brain, the brain stem, that acts as a warning system to raise the alarm should danger present itself.
If the locus ceruleus senses danger, it sends a neurotransmitter known as norepinephrine which triggers the amygdala to begin a cascade of effects that turns up the heat and revs the body for the fight/flight/freeze response.
How Does Polyvagal Theory Fit Into the Neuroscience of Fear?
Once the amygdala has sounded the alarm, our brain uses the two branches of the vagus nerve to react to the danger.
First, the sympathetic nervous system revs us up by stealing blood from the rest of the body to be used by the legs and arms to run or fight. However, the dorsal (back) branch of the vagal nerve can cause the person under attack to shut down and freeze and become incapable of movement. The dorsal branch affects everything below the diaphragm including legs, arms, and even digestion.
It should be easy to see that because of the influence of the vagal nerve, people who are deeply traumatized from any type of attack are helpless to control how their body and brain will react. They may fight, flee, or in some instances freeze.
Added to this soup of tragedy is the hippocampal response to the traumatic event.
The hippocampus is responsible for remembering events we encounter in our environment and because of this, not only are we haunted by the visualizations of the trauma, but our bodies store away what happened as well.
Why Can’t Survivors Run Away? What’s Happening?
As was touched on in piece one of this series, the nervous system consists of two systems, one that we control like using our hands and feet, and the other that controls all of our unconscious bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate.
The polyvagal theory focuses on the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system over which we have no conscious control. The two components of the autonomic nervous system are the sympathetic nervous system (what gets us revved up), and the parasympathetic system (what calms us down).
The autonomic nervous system is regulated by the vagal nerve which connects the brain to all the major bodily systems so that all parts of the body and mind can communicate. (Porge, 2009)
Freezing is an ancient and deeply ingrained behavior that evolution has set in our brains leaving us at times vulnerable to attack from other humans.
When we humans feel we are in danger, we attempt to first engage our social skills to feel a sense of connection and safety. However, if fawning fails, humans will begin to respond progressively with the use of our survival strategies one of which is to freeze. While this response is in place, not only are can we become dissociated, but we cannot and will not run from danger.
Please, allow me to restate that. Humans cannot run away when in the throws of the evolutionary response of freezing. Our brain simply will not allow it.
Courtroom Drama, Polyvagal Theory, and Destroyed Lives
Any survivor will tell you that the shame one feels because of how society tends to blame them for their attacker’s behavior is tremendously harmful and hurtful. Not only did they need to survive the trauma of being raped or otherwise abused, but they also found themselves struggling because they finally spoke up about what happened to them.
Part of the freeze response may be that the survivor remains quiet for years before telling what happened to them. This is because the hippocampus forces them to remain silent in a frozen state of fear to speak up. How unfortunate that this inability to tell their story gives fuel to the idea that the survivor is lying when they are telling the truth.
All too often, survivors find themselves on the defensive as people doubt their honesty in relating what happened because they waited or didn’t resist during the attack. Some even go so far as to blame children for not running away or hiding when their attacker approached them.
All of the above behaviors are beyond nonsense. The polyvagal theory states that because of our tendency to freeze when attacked, often adult survivors were unable to run or to resist. And, to blame children who are helpless against an adult rapist is so far beyond ridiculous as to cause this author to feel angry at the thought.
Some survivors decide to take their attackers to court for their behavior only to find themselves in a hostile environment where lawyers are questioning them in manners that are abusive in and of themselves. No one likes to be called a liar, and the toxic shame that such treatment causes further traumatizes the survivor and can and does negatively affect lives.
Healing Can and Will Happen
Although the damage done to the brain of a person who has been traumatized is severe, it can be overcome with a lot of guts, determination, and patience.
The facts are these.
If one wishes to overcome the effects of a severe trauma that happened either in adulthood or childhood (or perhaps both), one cannot just sit and complain but action is required.
Seek out the help of a qualified therapist, preferably one who is trained in trauma-informed care. Even if they have no trauma-informed training, ask relevant questions such as have you experience with people who show my symptoms? Are you trained or have you experience with treating severe trauma and complex post-traumatic stress disorder?
Even if the person you are questioning has no relevant experience (which is uncommon), don’t write them off. Most therapists are willing to learn about and treat the disorders that are caused by severe trauma.
Above all else, remember to hold your head up high. You do not deserve to be shamed or blamed because you were incapable of running away, fighting, or telling on your attacker. You couldn’t. The activity of your brain told your body to freeze and that is exactly what you did.
It was not your fault.
I repeat, it was not your fault.
“So change your focus. Instead of focusing on what is causing your misery, try something new: focus on your misery. Focus on the result of what you are doing. Focus on what your pattern and your blame are costing you.” ~ Henry Cloud
Logue, M. W., van Rooij, S. J., Dennis, E. L., Davis, S. L., Hayes, J. P., Stevens, J. S., … & Korgaonkar, M. (2018). Smaller hippocampal volume in posttraumatic stress disorder: a multisite ENIGMA-PGC study: subcortical volumetry results from posttraumatic stress disorder consortia. Biological psychiatry, 83(3), 244-253.
Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 76(Suppl 2), S86.