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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.

Freeze happens when both fight and flight have failed as options to protect us. Freeze literally means what you think it does. We lose our ability to move. We are also off-line cognitively and emotionally. Our bodies – not our minds – are sorting out which option will lead to our greatest chance of survival.

Freeze is what you see when a deer is caught in a car’s headlights. Rabbits do it, too.

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 touched 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 from the danger will not be possible.

To envision this state, imagine a mouse that is cornered by a barn cat. The mouse has tried to escape but the cat has caught it. The mouse is in the cat’s jaws but doesn’t appear to be injured. He doesn’t appear to be conscious.

What’s going on? The mouse is in hypoarousal. His level of activation, or energy, has fallen very low. The state he is in is called “submit.” You may also find the words “feigned death” to describe this state. You can think of feigned death as a more extreme version of submit.

Submit is an evolutionary survival mechanism that can serve humans as well as mice well. It is outside of our conscious control.

Why does submit exist? To understand the answer to this 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 likely clamp down on the mouse with her teeth, and it will be game over for the mouse.

So what can the mouse do? One thing he can do that might lead to survival is to faint.

If the mouse can lose consciousness, the cat might put him down for a moment, which may give the mouse a chance to regain consciousness and run away.

Another possibility is that the cat might abandon the mouse because predators won’t eat prey that doesn’t move because it might be diseased.

Another option? Maybe the cat is intent on training 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 escape.

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 the concept of hypoarousal apply to humans? There are several places where going into submit 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 live through the battle.

Another possibility? If you are unable to escape a bad situation, you don’t have to be conscious 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 a trail through the park, close to a man that was carrying a 6-month-old baby on his back, when the grizzly bear emerged. The man and I remained together for about 25 minutes, waiting for the bear to leave the area.  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 baby carrier off his back and plopped it abruptly on the ground.

What was happening? Why did the baby not make any noise? The answer is that 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? Drop into hypoarousal and submit.

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 drop into hypoarousal so that you didn’t have to be present  to experience the abuse.

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 if you pick up a copy.

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 submit.

Everyone can tell you a story about when they’ve been in hyperarousal. Hyperarousal is easy to spot because we are flooded with adrenaline and are highly activated (meaning we have a high degree of energy). Our hearts are pounding. We’re shaking. We’re sweating. We’re also having a great deal of difficulty thinking.

When we’re in hypoarousal, it is tougher to recall. Our entire systems have slowed down. Our energy level has dropped dangerously low. We’re almost not present. So what evidence is there that we’ve been in submit? Maybe we can piece together that we’ve lost time. What happened during those 75 minutes, you may wonder?

The most important thing to know, if you have 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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