Trauma: Fight, Flight, or Freeze

In an emergency situation, we learn in biology class, an animal or human can fight or flee. Adrenaline is called up and the organism prepares for action. The thing they don’t tell us is that the “freeze” response is just as basic. Think of a rabbit freezing at the sight of a predator it can’t get away from. Think of a mouse playing dead in the jaws of the cat, waiting for the chance to dart away.

For those of us who were abused as children, it’s often the freeze response that we experienced. We couldn’t run away if we were small. We couldn’t fight back while we depended for our very lives on the adults who were abusing us. So we froze, with our tender nervous systems at high alert, adrenaline pumping, but unable to act.

Some brave souls among us learned to fight back, whatever the cost. I admire them. I learned helplessness and it’s taken years to learn that I now can fight back. I’ve found out how to yell, pound pillows, stomp around the room, or draw angry red and black pictures. I’ve experienced how cathartic and empowering it is to give bodily expression to anger and outrage in a safe place - not aimed at anyone, just venting. Then I can respond as a grownup from a position of strength and some calm. What a difference that makes!

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Recovered Memories, Truthful Memories

Many people are suspicious of recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse. I know I was suspicious before such memories came back to me—and after they came back, too. How could something so earth-shattering be forgotten? Actually, how could it be remembered? As a child I had to suppress the knowledge that my father was molesting me, in order to survive in the closed family system. My mother told me to forget it.

Jennifer Freyd, a cognitive psychologist who does research on traumatic forgetting, says there is no relationship between truthfulness of memories and whether they are continuously remembered. False memories (like that trip you took with your cousin to the Everglades when you were five—only it was really when you were seven and it was with your aunt) can persist. True memories can be lost. And vice versa. Freyd’s web pages contain a wealth of information on betrayal trauma and recovered memories.

It’s a crying shame that people who unearth memories of traumatic abuse are then made to feel shame and fear all over again because of the outcry about “false memories.” Recovery from abuse is hard enough without that added burden.

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