The following piece was written to summarize some of the experiences I've encountered in providing ten years of one-on-one buddhist mentoring, as well as to pay homage to the wisdom found in the works of Bessel A. van der Kolk's The Body Keeps the Score, Joseph LeDoux's The Emotional Brain, Peter A. Levine's Waking the Tiger and other classic texts on trauma and its healing.
Let's suppose a situation occurs during which you feel threatened by an aggressive individual or animal...but you feel confident enough in your strength to overcome whatever danger they represent. In such a case you may well go into fight response: your sympathetic nervous system will activate excitatory, stress-response hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn will create emotional and physiological conditions allowing--even impelling--you to fight off the attack. You'll start to gulp air, your heart will pump blood, which will be diverted to your limbs, while shutting off digestion, your focus will fixate on the encounter.
Once, while walking down a New York City street, a friend of mine found that her head was chosen as a landing spot by a confused pigeon, perhaps with poor eyesight; while the story was quite funny to hear, during the event she reported instinctively going into frantic and automatic fight mode, running in circles, her arms flailing at the bird sitting atop her head, while passersby found the scenario hilarious.
Now, if you perceive a situation in which you're attacked as too powerful to defeat, you will probably experience an impulse to run away from the threat, which is known as the flight response. In this case as well, your midbrain will activate essentially the same stress hormones, providing you with the oxygen to escape the threat. Packs of wild dogs have been known to activate my flight response.
But what about threatening situations that you can neither conquer nor escape? Perhaps while taking a walk in the desert, a flash flood appears, moving at a speed and force at which you have no chance to outrun. Or you're a young child at the mercy of an abusive, violent, alcoholic parent. Or, while hiking, you've been attacked by a grizzly and you are completely overpowered. Or you're a soldier in a vehicle which has run over a powerful land mine... any situation that in which you feel suddenly defenseless.
In circumstances where the brain is flooded with fear and panic, and all natural impulses to defend ourselves are utterly doomed, we're provided with a third alternative: the freeze response. In such emergencies, instead of activating the sympathetic nervous system and its fight-or-flee impulses, the parasympathetic nervous system will be activated and 'deactivate' all neural functioning. Freeze is essentially a state of "playing dead" -- think of an animal that becomes limp when caught by a predator. (Read more about freeze here.)
During such responses our conscious awareness is largely 'switched off,' meaning we'll be left with little, if any, accurate memories of the trauma. Yet the midbrain's amygdala, an unconscious region of the brain, remains active, even during awareness has fled, recording the traumatic event, memorizing the flooding sensations, emotions and events, so that future threats can be detected quickly.
Yet the amygdala is not a particularly discerning recording device; it will record any random, completely benign sensations during the trauma and tag them as 'dangerous' for future reference. So the soldier, safely returned from war, may perceive the sudden backfire of a van as another landmine explosion and duck for cover at such sounds; the rape victim might well perceive the innocuous touch of a friend as an assault, and fight for their life. So freeze responses, initially appropriate, may, in the future, trigger survival activations during which no danger is present.
Freezing can turn into a form of emotion suppression: during traumas we not only tag external events as dangerous, but internal emotional sensations as well. So the adult, fully grown child of abusive parents will keep the traumatic emotions, associated with fear, repressed by 'freezing' during situations wherein adults express conflict. Other children of abuse will numb their feelings of anger -- for as children they cannot express their frustration to their abusive parents -- and seek, as adults, heroin or other painkillers to tranquilize their rage, which is too 'hot' to feel safely.
Freezing, also known as shutting down and dissociation, creates a block between what is actually being felt (in the body) and what we're allowing the brain to perceive. The mind essentially wanders away from felt experience, and the body becomes lifeless. When disjunctions between the body and mind occur, adults without the emotional support of therapy or mindfulness based spiritual practice will often experience destabilization and eventual addiction to 'numbing' supports.
Habitual freeze activations not only 'numb' painful emotions, feelings and sensations that originate in early traumas, but they also deaden our positive experiences as well. Wonderful, life affirming states such as loving connection, joy, appreciation of nature, gratitude will eventually feel hollow; the brain that becomes frightened of the emotional body will tune out every intense state, positive or negative.
Fortunately awareness centered meditation--what the Buddha called sati--is useful in allowing practitioners to stay presently cognizant, in a non-reactive manner, while experiencing sensations that would normally activate the freeze response. In sitting quietly while noticing the arising and passing of sensations, without being activated by the racing thoughts that would normally create the experience of overwhelm, the practitioner learns to stay present during the very emotions that activate overwhelm. Partially this approach is possible as the practitioner actively turns towards their triggers, rather than waiting for activations to occur in situations where they are caught off guard.
This is where the greatest possibility of healing occurs: as Joseph LeDoux at NYU has shown, when people experience a memory, the memory circuits that 'maintain' the memory becomes active and unstable while we're 'replaying' them, during which time we can actually add new information to the memory. In other words, our past is active, not static, in that we can subtly rewrite past experiences during each subsequent recall.
Suppose you go out on a blind date, and during the experience you feel somewhat anxious and uncertain about the stranger sitting across from you; yet later on you learn something very positive about the individual: they've won a pulitzer for fiction; they are a member of Doctors Without Borders, they volunteer every week to feed the homeless, etc. The memory of the stranger will be subtly changed by the information and the new perception -- the stranger was safe -- will be incorporated into the memory.
So the combination of one-on-one counseling and mindfulness can provide a potentially healing mechanism: while re-activating a memory that triggers a needless 'freeze response' we can disrupt the fear activated by the memory if we keep the breath and body calm while the triggering images flash across awareness.
For example, a therapist may ask a trauma survivor to visualize a triggering experience -- being stuck in an elevator or subway -- while asking the client to breathe calmly and describe each emotion as experienced (For LeDoux's explanation, check out this interview.). Eventually, the safety of the therapist's office will allow the triggering memories to be 'deactivated.' In the future, being stuck in an elevator will not be pleasurable, but the freeze response will not be activated. As LeDoux notes we're not simply updating memories; we're actually creating new memories that don't activate dissociation.