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Fight, flight or freeze: Adult responses to childhood trauma

A significant number of people I work with have experienced developmental trauma (meaning neglect and abuse as children). In many cases they were born to a family where their parents did not adequately care for them. They experienced neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and/or sexual abuse.

People with trauma histories may have had parents with drug and alcohol problems, serious mental health disorders, or both. As a result, their parents failed to attach to them when they were born, and they, as children, had no one safe to attach to.

In a previous posting, titled Must I provide care to my unhealthy or aging parent when that parent abused me as a child, I wrote about “the most basic contract,” which is an unwritten contract that new parents enter into when a child is born. In this contract, they agree to be “good enough parents” until the child reaches adulthood. This is where the bar is set by evolution, to ensure the human species survives.

When you have good enough parents throughout your childhood, you learn to regulate your emotions so that you remain in what is called “optimal arousal” most of the time. You grow up feeling confident that the world is safe, and that your needs will be met. You are happy and feel valued and loved. This confidence continues throughout adulthood.

When you do not have good enough parents, however, which is often the case for people with trauma backgrounds, you appropriately learn as a child that the world is unsafe. To protect yourself when you are in danger, your primitive brain sends you into “fight or flight,” or “hyperarousal,” so that you can defend yourself to the best of your ability.

In hyperarousal, your thinking brain goes off-line and your emotional brain runs the show. You experience tremendous “activation,” which is the result of an adrenaline rush. In this state, you are highly triggered. You’re ready to face a predator, like a grizzly bear or a cougar. Your body anticipates that death is imminent.

(I have simplified things in this blog post for the sake of brevity. Your primitive brain actually activates the “fight, flight, attachment cry or freeze” response, which you can read about in a related blog post.)

Repeatedly being in hyperarousal as a child helps you to survive if you don’t have good enough parents. It prepares you to high-tail it out of there, for example, if an alcoholic dad is looking for you with his belt out.

Sometimes, however, escape is not an option for children and neither fight nor flight works. Remember that children are small and adults are big. When this is the case, your primitive brain drops you into the “freeze” response. The freeze response is exactly what you think it is. You can’t physically move and you can’t think. You are literally frozen.

From freeze, your brain moves you into “hypoarousal,” where you “submit.” In hypoarousal, the amount of activation, or energy, in your body drops quite low, and your thinking brain shuts off.

The term “feigned death” is used sometimes to describe an extreme submit response.

This is what happens, for example, if your abusive dad is looking for you and your escape route is blocked. Your only option is to hide in the back of the closet and not make a sound. If you are found, you have to endure your father’s wrath. Either way, evolution has been kind. If there’s no escape from danger, you don’t have to be present cognitively or emotionally for what happens next.

People who have good enough parents will experience periods of fight, flight, freeze and submit in their lifetimes because they will face dangers, too. But these experiences do not occur with the frequency and intensity that a child who lives under constant, unremitting threat faces.

As a child whose parents are not good enough, moving constantly between optimal arousal, hyperarousal and hypoarousal, but spending little time in optimal arousal, serves you well because you survive. Your constant hypervigilence helps you at times to evade danger, and at other times to endure the ever present dangers in your environment.

As an adult, this over-learned, automatic habit of moving from optimal arousal to hyperarousal or hypoarousal no longer helps you. It undermines your mental health. This is because you are no longer dependent on, and vulnerable to, other adults.

You no longer need to perceive the world as dangerous because it isn’t. For example, you no longer have a drunk father storming through the house, threatening you. And if you do, you can leave. You can change houses and jobs when someone abusive appears in your life.

But here’s the problem. The primitive brains of adults that were abused will continue to flip them into hyperarousal or hypoarousal whenever they perceive a threat to be present until they get help to retrain their brains.

If you are one of these adults, your primitive brain reacts without your having any conscious awareness that you are in a “trauma re-enactment,” (see posting about trauma re-enactments titled Why do some adults who were abused as children allow themselves to be abused as adults?) rather than because you are in real danger.

When an adult with a trauma background is in hyperarousal they may experience anger or rage, even though the situation doesn’t warrant this response. When that same person is in hypoarousal, they may withdraw or shut down to avoid conflict, even though, again, the situation doesn’t warrant this response.

Until they get the right kind of help, two-thirds of people with trauma backgrounds describe their go-to place as hyperarousal, while one-third of people say their go-to place is hypoarousal. Both groups may flip several times a day, without conscious awareness they are doing so, because the response is so over-practiced.

The good news is that people with trauma backgrounds can learn to remain in optimal arousal in the same way that people who never experienced trauma do. They can learn, with the help of a knowledgeable and experienced psychologist, that the world is safe, and that they are safe now, too.

They can learn to stop experiencing the responses that they needed as children. When this happens, their lives become calm, and they become happier.

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta.

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