Understand the phases of trauma response to know when something is trauma versus when it’s simply emotionally charged. Start tracking your own nervous system to begin truly healing.
Frequently Asked Question about Trauma
I often get asked how to know the difference between trauma and simply an emotionally charged situation. Understanding the phases of trauma response will answer this question, as well as give you a larger understanding of trauma and how to heal from it.
The Phases of Trauma Response
The Startle Response
The very first phase of a trauma response is a startle. The startle is what triggers defensive orienting. Remember there are two types of orienting: curious and defensive. When we are curiously oriented, we can slowly look around with curiosity because we are safe. When we are defensively oriented, we perceive a possible threat and we act like the little bunny rabbit on the path that sees us coming- rigid, with our eyes fixed on the possible threat.
If there is no real threat, we coming out of the startle response back to a place of safety and calmness. But if we do perceive a threat, we go into the second phase of the trauma response, which is active response.
The Active Response
The active response is the nervous systems telling the body to run or fight. If we perceive we can’t run from the threat, then we may turn and fight. This perception is a subconscious, split-second perception, far below the level of conscious thinking. Both running away and fighting keep us safe and help us stay alive. And if we can get to safety and come down from the stress response, there will be no trauma.
What is a Threat?
Most of us, most of the time, don’t come across life-threatening dangers, so our “threats” are often internal emotional experiences. But it doesn’t matter if the threat is a true “I’m-gonna-die” danger or an emotional response that our brains associate with danger. As an example, in parenthood, the perceived threat is often our own children. Of course they aren’t going to kill us, but since we can’t get away from the “threat” we may naturally go to a fight response like yelling at our children.
If neither running nor fighting will work to get us to safety, we experience a thwarted movement. The thwarted movement is the third phase of the trauma response. This phenomena is something either outside of us or internally that stops our active response. Again, for our own safety and survival, we stop running and fighting in order to prevent further danger.
The thwarted movement is the trigger for the freeze response. When we are in active response, there is lots of energy coursing through our bodies to support a running or fighting response. But at the thwarted movement all that energy must go somewhere, so it goes into the cells of our bodies and toward keeping us from the active response.
The Freeze Response
In the freeze response, the fourth phase of the trauma response, our bodies are conserving and/or collecting energy. In the freeze response, a person will undergo “automatic obedience” which is the fawn response. As a follow up to episode 71, the fawn response is not really a separate response the way fight, flight and freeze are. The fawn response is part of the freeze response.
Why “No” is Not Always Available
An important side note here: if someone is in a dangerous situation, like sexual assault for example, if they can’t run or fight, they will freeze, which may look like going along with what the other person wants. This is adaptive! When you are in this automatic obedience, a “no” response is not actually available to you. So if this has ever been you, please don’t feel ashamed for not speaking up or saying no, because doing so very well may have caused more harm and your body was working for you.
Symptoms of Freeze Response
Other signs one might be in a freeze response is an altered state and body sensations. An “altered state” could look like foggy or fuzzy mind. It could look like someone who bumps into things a lot or gets into a lot of car accidents. It’s a general going through the motions, but not being all there type of feeling.
When you go into a freeze response, you lose access to bodily sensations as a protective mechanism against the intense pain you otherwise would experience. And when you come out of the freeze response, you gain bodily sensations. You may feel sore as if you’ve been hiking with a heavy backpack and you finally get to take it off.
Getting “Stuck” between Anxiety and Depression
We get stuck between freeze response and active response when we don’t have capacity to be with the active response as we come out of freeze. This is important for those of us who alternate between anxiety and depression to understand. The reason we go into the freeze response is because there is an active response that is too overwhelming to our nervous system. So when we come back out of the freeze response, the active energy is still there.
A lack of capacity to be with the active energy throws us back into the freeze response. So as you come out of the freeze, you must s l o w l y build your capacity to be with the energy in your nervous system. This titration, along with the help of a qualified practitioner, will help come to the final phase of the trauma responses: self repair.
The Self Repair Phase
Self repair is the “cool down” part of the stress response. When you go for a run, you don’t just stop running when you’re done. You slow down and pace around or walk for a while before totally stopping. This is what self-repair does for you. It brings you back to a felt-sense of safety in your actual body (not just in your mind). Back to your window of tolerance where you feel a calm-aliveness and an openness to connection. Trauma is healed once the self repair phase is complete. It often does take time and multiple tries to get to the self repair phase, so keep going if it doesn’t work immediately. (And this is also why you may want to hire a practitioner to help you through.)
Understanding these phases of trauma response will help you know that in order to truly be trauma, one much experience a startle, active response, thwarted movement, and a freeze response. The freeze response is what transforms the energy in in your body to trauma. It will remain as a trauma until the perceived threat is removed and self repair is complete.
Journal Questions (download here)
- In what situation do you feel started, on-edge, or like you are bracing yourself?
- Are there memories that you associate with these feelings?
- Where in your life do you externally or internally feel thwarted? For example, you want to say something but you stay quiet, you want to do something but you don’t.
- Is there an ever-present tension or rigidity in your body? Do you have a sense of why?
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That’s enough for now, and so are you.