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  • Susanne Thomas

THE SPECTRUM AND USES OF HUMAN SURVIVIAL RESPONSES


  1. May 28, 2019

  2. I recently read an article about trauma and PTSD where the author explained the ‘survival reactions’ eg. fight/flight and (in case the fight/flight response cannot be employed) freezing, flooding and dissociation. He went on to say that these responses are a remnant of our animal past and should actually ‘be overcome’ by the mind. I disagreed with a slight shiver…. Thinking further about this topic, here is another viewpoint, based on my own experience  : LEARNING TO LIVE The survival reactions, what they ‘feel like’ and their expression in the body and mind are often described negatively – they are to be avoided and the aftermath to be overcome. At best, we are made aware of the fact that they have actually SAVED LIVES; survivors often agree that the price of grappling with the ‘side effects’ of survival was worth it. Nevertheless – there is a public ‘fear of being out of control’ and a mainstream assumption the ‘being in control’ is how everyone should function. At the same time people do their utmost to temporary ‘lose control’. They are taking risks, throw themselves into alcohol and drugs, jump from cliffs, engage in casual sex and swallow pills they know nothing about. They die and kill for hours in virtual reality games, in a dissociated state of vicarious trauma. What are they doing ? Are they training themselves out of the old, archaic survival reactions ? Are they trying to resolve their own stresses and traumas ? There must be a ‘fun’ factor in those states, otherwise people would not choose to go on a rollercoaster, skydive or spend hours on end in a battle game. Notwithstanding the fact that some of these activities are socially accepted and some are not; some are regarded as courageous while  others as weakness, there seems to be a deep need to experience them. I think that the states of freezing, flooding and dissociating have a SPECTRUM of uses. They can be – and are – used for totally wonderful and positive experiences. It depends on culture and conditioning more than individual decision where to draw the line between ‘positive ‘ and ‘negative’. FREEZING, FLOODING & DISSOCIATION HAVE A POSITIVE EXPRESSION

    The positive use of the freeze response is expressed in ‘self-discipline’. We need a level of self-discipline that allows for routine and conformity to the socially acceptable standards of the environment. Everywhere in the world, children are trained to ‘freeze’ – eg. to use the body’s ability to contain emotions and stall them. Everyone has experienced the initial ‘shock’ of being threatened and shouted at while at the same time being told to ‘withstand the fight/flight reflex. We learn to ‘freeze’ at will – to discipline ourselves. ‘Be quiet’ , ‘look at me’, do it anyway’, stop crying’, ‘stand still’ etc. It is a ‘keeping it in’ way of dealing with emotions. In Military training, this is of utmost importance and widely used to prevent the disaster of flooding or dissociating in the face of danger. We learn and teach others to suppress emotions in an effort to adhere to the social standard. Self-discipline is a survival skill, the positive use of the ‘freeze response’. There are big differences between cultures with regard to the value placed on this life skill. If discipline it is over-emphasised, if the social environment demands it on every level from everyone, neglecting or scorning other ways of ‘dealing with emotions’, a perpetuation of stress and trauma in those who tend to flood or dissociate takes place. If self-discipline and the mastering of the freeze response is given undue emphasis in the social context it might foster extreme adherence to ‘duty’ and ‘obedience’. The result is a conservative culture of ‘everything must stay as it is’, a fear of strangeness and change and a tendency to look to rigid structure and routine as a means of feeling safe.
    The positive use of the flooding response is expressed in exuberant joy and spontaneous outpouring of empathy, hugging, dancing, jumping and tears of joy. Just as painful emotions can be overwhelming, joyful ones can do that, too. Using our senses in connection with movement is a way of healthy flooding. Music, animals and nature, non-competitive sports and the creative arts can all be used with the flooding response. It is a ‘letting it out’ way of dealing with emotions. We are trained to let it happen or suppress it, again, the threshold between ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ is based on culture and conditioning, giving the individual a frame of reference. Flooding is a life-skill, a means of communicating our interior to the outside world. To be overwhelmed by joy – and the powerful activation of the vagus nerve and the ‘gut’ that goes along with it – make it attractive and acceptable. But there are cultures and social contexts in which positive flooding is discouraged or suppressed at the expense of those who naturally use this way of dealing with emotions. Ritualizing positive flooding to bring it ‘under control’ can be observed in many cultures. The negative expression of a ‘letting it out’ way of dealing with emotions is obvious – anger, rage, violence and destruction prevail, the levels of self-discipline and dissociation is low. The catharsis of flooding leads to violence as a self-expression. Is it possible that the very same cultures and social environments that allow for the positive use of ‘letting it out’ have a high level of  the negative expression. What is deemed ‘normal’ behaviour – on either side of the spectrum is definitely different from environments that emphasize freezing eg. self-discipline or dissociation.
    The positive use of dissociation is innovation and creativity. It would be impossible to think up a story and write it down to the detail, if we were not able to temporarily dissociate from our body and send the mind into another world. Playing needs dissociation, every ‘pretence’ of being someone else and doing something else as what we are actually doing requires dissociation. Innovation and creativity spring from this. In a social environment where dissociation is accepted as being the norm when dealing with emotions we can observe ‘egal’ on every level. Doesn’t matter, dream away, its not real, reality and illusion may mix within a person’s mind to such an extent that they dream their life instead of living it. Endless hours in front of the TV or playing computer games, being out of touch with their own body as a permanent state – and feeling separate from everyone else to an extent that is not based on reality. Living next to each other in different worlds. Needing stronger and more extreme kicks to actually feel emotions – the whole range from exuberant joy to blind rage. Being prone to mental manipulation because ‘Interospection’ is poor – the ability to sense and interpret physical promptings from the body. Great ideas and insights might spring up in this state but the ability to manifest them is impaired. THE JOY OF LOSING CONTROL  AND  THE  NEED FOR BALANCE If I tell people that they naturally dissociate, they often frown and sigh. They wish they would be safe from freezing and flooding – if that would ever happen, they would lose half of their good life, too. Is that what people are seeking when they follow their need to  ‘lose control’ ?  Is it possible that – if we widen the spectrum to the one side, we gain depth on the other side, too ? If that was true, it would explain why survivors feel more joy. Formerly self-disciplined people dance and sing. Dissociated people use their hands to build a house or dig the garden – and they love it. I have seen the expression of ‘exuberant joy’ from people killing a virtual enemy on the screen. I have witnessed leaps of innovative thought in dissociated people. I have seen people change from anger to laughter in a split second AFTERTHOUGHT Considering all of the above I can see an emphasis or high social acceptance on the freeze response in Western culture, emphasis/ acceptance of the flooding response in Africa and an emphasis/ acceptance on dissociation in the United States. While every person is basically able to use the whole spectrum of all responses, the social conditioning either supports or suppresses their natural reactions and people have to adapt. Deliberately fostering the positive use of the neglected or suppressed responses might be a way to help many people. I also see this happening - in a more or less conscious way. Thank you for reading. I appreciate comments and feedback. © Susanne Thomas, 23.01.2018

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