June Project: Day 10: Stress Response

Now I have a name for what I did when a knife was held to my face, and when a man thrashed at my rental car and no one else was around: dissociation.

"It is possible that dissociation is the mind's attempt to flee when flight is not possible," writes Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers, which, you'll remember, is a book I'm studying throughout the month of June. Fight, flight, or freeze are the autonomic nervous system's responses to perceived threat. Whereas those bunnies I mentioned in an earlier post run when the dogs walk by, the mind, during dissociation, finds its own method of getting away.

The process of dissociation involves a partial or total separation of aspects of the traumatic experience... One person might become anesthetized and feel no pain. Another might cut off feeling emotions. Someone else might lose consciousness or feel as if he had become disembodied. (page 65 in The Body Remembers)

Taken to an extreme, this separation can result in identity disorder. But perhaps worst of all, dissociation can reappear after the traumatic incident, compounding the already debilitating effects of anxiety. Rothschild believes the symptoms of PTSD can likely be traced back to some form of dissociation.

It's the P in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that's the most disturbing, then. The person has experienced effects such as dissociation during the traumatic incident, and then continues in an unsustainable state of hyperarousal. There is no actual fear stimulus, and yet this constant state of anxiety makes everything seem a threat. Sadly, because their built-in warning systems aren't functioning properly, "it is typical for those with PTSD to repeatedly fall prey to dangerous situations" (page 62).

Back to the knife and the rental car: I shut down. I became calm, and where my male friend ran when he saw the knife, I stayed. In both cases, though I wouldn't recommend this to others, I saw it through and was able to diffuse the situation.

But reading about trauma brings back another memory where my stress response surprised me. You could say that the situation was a safe one, and yet certain aspects triggered memories and, also, fear. The details are personal, but I will describe my response, which was first to plot out an escape route. Think Sherlock Holmes narrating each detail of what he sees: my mind went to each door, and to where my children were, and then, Holmes-like, plotted a route to grab them and get out. This took maybe three seconds.

But then my tongue went numb, so my flight response, I guess, was paralyzed. I sat with my flight plan ready but unable to be executed. I thought it was all the weirdest thing until I started reading Rothschild's books.

Had I completely frozen, which is a real response, one way to recover is to just move a finger, according to Rothschild. Just telling your body that you can actually move helps get it on its way. Body awareness is a big part of recovery, and I'll get into that more tomorrow.


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