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Are you in Burnout? 10 Important Questions and Answers

Feigned death: An alternative to fight, flight or freeze responses

In a recent blog post, I wrote about fight, flight or freeze. These are our body’s hard-wired responses to danger and operate outside of our conscious control. They are invaluable to have when we find ourselves facing a grizzly bear on a trail, as I did two summers ago while hiking in Waterton National Park.

When I write “freeze” in the context of fight, flight or freeze, I am referring to “high freeze.” High freeze happens when we don’t know whether we should fight or run yet. Our bodies are sorting out which option will lead to our greatest chance of survival. High freeze is what you see when a deer is caught in a car’s headlights. You can almost watch the deer thinking… Should I run? Should I bolt? Where is my safety?

When I wrote about fight, flight or freeze, I said that these states are accompanied by adrenaline. I collectively called these states hyperarousal.

In that blog post, I didn’t touch on a second state that we can enter when we perceive that we are in danger. This state is called hypoarousal. We enter it when we perceive that escape will not be possible.

To envision this state, imagine a mouse that has been cornered by a barn cat. The mouse has tried to run but the cat has caught it. The mouse in being carried in the cat’s jaws. The mouse appears to have fainted. He doesn’t appear to be conscious. What’s going on? The mouse is in feigned death.

Feigned death, also called “low freeze,” (the term “high freeze” makes sense now, yes?) is an evolutionary survival mechanism that is outside of our conscious control. Why does it exist? To understand the answer to that question, let’s return to the mouse in our example. The mouse doesn’t have much chance of survival, right? If he struggles, the cat will simply clamp down with her predator’s teeth and it’s game over for the mouse.

So what can the mouse do? One thing he can do that might lead to survival is to faint. He can lose consciousness, and hope that the cat puts him down for a moment, which may give the mouse a chance to run away. Another possibility is that the cat will abandon the mouse because predators won’t eat prey that doesn’t move because it might be diseased. Maybe the cat will leave the mouse alone.

Another option? Maybe the cat is carrying the mouse home to train her kittens how to hunt. Maybe the mouse, when he regains consciousness, will face unskilled hunters rather than the mother cat and will have a chance to get away. However you look at it, the mouse has potentially increased his chances for surviving by losing consciousness.

Another thought? If it really is game over for the mouse, does he really want to be present to experience it?

So how does this apply to humans? There are several places where going into feigned death might prove to be useful. One might be on the battlefield. If you lose consciousness while those around you are fighting, maybe your opponent will overlook you, laying prone on the ground, and you will survive the battle.

Another possibility? If you are unable to escape a bad situation, why be present to experience it? This is where childhood trauma comes in.

When we are little, we are unable to fight or to run when we are in danger. I can give you a good example if I return to the story I started to tell earlier about meeting a grizzly bear on a hiking trail in Waterton National Park. I was on the trail near a man that was carrying a 6-month-old baby on his back when the bear emerged. He and I were together for about 25 minutes, waiting for the bear to leave the area. There were five adults and one baby in total that gathered in a clearing. What was remarkable about the baby’s behaviour was that it didn’t make a sound. Not a peep. Not even when the father swung the carrier that his baby was in off his back and landed it abruptly on the ground.

What was going on? The baby had sensed his father’s fear. The baby was aware that there was danger. He had heard it in his father’s voice, felt it in his father’s movement as he bolted up the trail, and smelled it on his father’s body. The baby’s natural response to maximize his chances of surviving? Go into feigned death.

The same thing may have happened to you if you experienced developmental trauma (meaning neglect and abuse during childhood). Maybe you couldn’t fight or run, but you could hide in a closet and not make a sound. If you were physically abused or sexually abused, you could collapse in an effort to minimize your exposure to the abuse, too.

Jan Krakauer published a book called Missoula in 2015. In it, he wrote about several women that were sexually assaulted while attending the University of Montana. I will warn you that the book is difficult to read.

In Missoula, Krakauer described several incidents in which woman that were being sexually assaulted didn’t call out for help, even when a roommate was sleeping in the same room. Defense lawyers asked these women why they didn’t scream if they were being assaulted. The answer? They couldn’t fight or run. They were in hypoarousal. They were in feigned death.

So far I have introduced the ideas of low freeze and feigned death. Another term you may hear to describe this state is “collapse.” The word collapse sounds a lot like feigned death, right? Which word is used to describe the state of being in hypoarousal depends largely on which writer’s work you are reading. The terms all mean pretty much the same thing. They mean the person (or the animal) is in hypoarousal.

In my experience, it’s more difficult to recognize when we have entered hypoarousal than hyperarousal. Hyperarousal is easier to spot because we are flooded with adrenaline. We’re shaking. We frequently can’t tell that our thinking brains are off-line, but we can sometimes spot this after the fact. When I was hiking in Waterton National Park, for example, I told my friend to “get up” after she fell down on the trail less than 10 feet from the grizzly bear. Doesn’t look like my thinking brain was working very well, does it?

With hypoarousal, it is tougher to tell. What are the signs that we’ve been in feigned death? Maybe we can piece together that we’ve lost time after the fact. What happened during those 15 minutes, you may wonder? With the 6-month-old baby, I was able to piece together what had happened after the fact. After I was out of hyperarousal.

The most important thing to know, if you have ever found yourself in hypoarousal, is to be kind to yourself. You were in danger, and your body acted automatically to protect you. You did the best you could.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychology, Calgary, Alberta

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