Fight or flight. We are all familiar with the body’s response to stress. But there is a lesser-known primal response called the freezing or immobility state seen in the animal kingdom, specifically mammals. Chances are most of us have seen the wild animal programs where a predatory lion is closing in on a herd of water buffalo and a younger water buffalo isn’t quite quick enough to escape with the herd and ends up falling prey to the lion. We watch as the lion drags off the limp little water buffalo leaving it beneath a tree. When the lion momentarily turns away from the lifeless water buffalo the scared little water buffalo seemingly comes back to life and runs as far and fast as it can from the lion. The young water buffalo was effecting the immobility response; an instinctive and involuntary altered state of consciousness all mammals share when death seems inevitable. It’s a survival instinct and not under conscious control, much like the more familiar fight or flight response. In the case of the water buffalo, the little one is able to shake off the immobility response and the energy the body temporarily stored for escape is released and the water buffalo gets away. The body, in this altered state of consciousness, also is unable to feel pain. So, if there was a significant injury, for the time being, the water buffalo would not feel the pain while escaping. Likewise, if it were the water buffalo’s last moments of life, it is theorized there would be no pain either. The stored energy and the associated trauma upon escape are released.
In the case of humans, ofttimes we are not so blessed. The immobility response for us may be more psychological in nature, as in the case of abuse, in times of war, or in the all-too-familiar active mass shooter scenarios we have experienced lately. The aftermath for humans is not shaking off the stored energy and trauma through escape, rather post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sets in.
As a survivor of domestic abuse, I had a lot of soul and spirit work to do once away from the abusive environment, like finding my voice again, and understanding how I went from being a strong, independent woman to an automaton going through the motions of life. The automaton feeling was akin to a psychological immobility response, protective in nature, yet causing a great deal of guilt.
Abusive environments always leave behind casualties. The worst part for me was knowing my kids had suffered at the hands of their father and I was helpless or believed I was helpless, to intervene or leave. Abusers strip away at the soul and spirit of their victims. Their victims believe any response other than rolling over and accepting the abuse is futile or impossible, and the immobility response takes over, psychologically speaking. On the other side of the immobility response, when the mind regains consciousness, the reality of surviving the abuse sets in. I felt helpless, powerless in the face of the abuse my kids and I experienced at the hands of my husband, their father, but the reality was I wasn’t powerless; I had temporarily misplaced my power, my voice, the ability to take my kids and leave.
The spirit and soul work done since that time has taken me from blaming and punishing myself to understanding and forgiveness. The immobility response is a protective, life-preserving response in the midst of abuse. At the time, it is what we are capable of, no more, no less; survival of mind, body, and spirit. On the other side of the abuse and survival, there is life, a time to begin the soul and spirit work needed to understand and heal, and a time to forgive.
To become whole again forgiveness of the abuser is necessary, but the deeper, more significant forgiveness is the forgiveness of self. We need to see ourselves through the eyes of love, Divine Love, the Love that teaches us bad things do indeed happen to good people and there is no need to accept the blame for another’s actions. Each of us chooses our actions and reactions. In my case, the immobility response did protect my children in its own backhanded way. I quickly learned the abuse my husband wielded toward the kids had a dual purpose; to hurt me and to break them. In retrospect, I saw the immobility response lessened both of his efforts. When I tried to intervene the abuse worsened for them. The more I protested and tried to stop him, the more intense and longer the abuse lasted for the kids. Becoming immobile protected my kids; he was deprived of whatever perverse pleasure he derived from his abuse.
Why didn’t I leave? Why doesn’t anyone leave abusive situations? The answer is much more complicated than learned helplessness, “they must like it or they wouldn’t stay”, and myriad other trite and uninformed reasons offered by people who are on the outside looking in. I do know that God, Divine Love, endowed His creation with protective survival responses for which I am grateful…..