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When infancy and early childhood are interrupted by sudden shocking experiences for which we cannot be prepared, the body often responds with profound stillness. This freeze reaction is an expression of the Flight, Flight, Freeze Response built into the complex systems supporting human development. Far from being a sign of failure, these automatic reactions to trauma are meant to protect us from experiences we are not yet ready to understand and resolve.
The long-term effects of the trauma induced Fight, Flight, Freeze Response include habits that do not serve our best interests as engaged and confident adults. Because of their ability to negatively impact us emotionally, intellectually, physically, and spiritually, these habits present us with the opportunity to learn and apply skills as we mature, skills to support the replacement of negative habits with positive ones. While addressing our traumas once we have developed cognitive skills and body awareness can feel burdensome, Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) and its power to support the natural process of memory re-consolidation can lighten and even resolve the emotional challenges of early trauma.
The Stillness or Frozen Response to Trauma
Our news is filled with examples of the fight and flight responses to trauma. All responses to natural disasters, shouting matches on television, physical altercations on airplanes, shootings in schools, police chases, and gang violence are just some examples of behaviours that indicate how seriously traumatized we are as a people. Less obvious are people who are trapped in the freeze response to trauma. In schools, children in the grips of the freeze response are often diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD. In general, we call people who cannot seem to meet the daily challenges of life lazy or cunningly milking the system when we should be asking what trauma happened to rob them of their sense of agency.
When we freeze, energies of terror, hopelessness, and watchfulness become stuck in the body, ready to express themselves whenever we are faced with sudden, shocking experiences for which we are unprepared. We may notice an out-sized startle response to ordinary events like wind slamming a door or a friend’s sudden laughter. Or we may find ourselves going out less because venturing beyond our small comfort zone makes us feel out-of-control and vulnerable to an overwhelming sense of threat. How might we address, soothe, and transform these feelings of threat? One answer seems ridiculously simple: We befriend them. But how?
The Emotional Gifts of Movement
Although our culture spends time and money investigating the physical benefits of movement, its emotional gifts are less well known. Researchers investigating the emotional responses of stroke patients have proven regular movement therapies support emotional well being. Without these therapies, stroke patients often fall into a sedentary pattern related to despair and even suicidal thoughts. A less dramatic relationship between movement and well being is termed “the runner’s high.” My personal physician, a strong supporter of movement therapies to address specific health complaints, describes how her family members, in reaction to her “crankiness,” remind her its time to go for a run.
We don’t have to be athletes to enjoy the emotional benefits of movement. Almost everyone has experienced how a simple walk can restore a healthy perspective on a specific problem and provide a general feeling of goodwill. In fact, the ten-thousand-steps-per-day movement is catching on almost everywhere, but especially among busy professionals who know that both joy and efficiency are supported by the simple act of walking. Having a goal of ten-thousand steps helps us to measure our progress toward meeting our goals of regular movement. So why aren’t we all out there walking, feeling good, and with these good feelings, working through the early shocks that prevent us from living the lives we want to live?
When the Freeze Response Supports Resistance to Movement
In my own journey through the lasting effects of early trauma and high Adverse Childhood Experience Score (ACES), I have experienced resistance to movement in a variety of forms. During my teen years, while having no intellectual reason for my passive behaviour, I would come home from school during the winter months and lie rigidly still on the sofa or my bed. To the outside world, I appeared to be lazy. My body, however, told a very different story, one it would take decades for me to understand.
My early trauma was a medical one that included forced bed rest to strengthen my immune system after my exposure to tuberculosis. I hadn’t developed the disease at the time of my medical treatment, and the cage in which I lived was intended to ensure that I didn’t. My cage was moved into the sunshine and fresh air after breakfast and lunch when weather permitted (not often because I was quarantined from October to April), but the normal activities of a two-year old such as running, climbing, exploring, and playing with random objects were not allowed. I lived this pattern of enforced stillness for seven months. At the end of this period, I was pronounced well enough to return to my family.
When I entered adolescence, a period of major cognitive and physical growth, I had to spend every day during the school year in classrooms that were filled with stimuli my traumatized system simply couldn’t handle. I dissociated for most of my high-school education, my defense against anyone’s concerned questions a big smile and the ready response of ‘that’s nice.’ Once I returned home after my classes, I had to recover from the stress of stimuli I was simply unprepared to handle. My rigid stillness, while not addressing my early trauma, at least protected me from the thoughts and feelings I was not yet ready to address.
EFT and the Return to the Physical Self
I worked through much of my early trauma through therapy and education during my young and middle adulthood, but the physical piece, the sense of enforced stillness, took far longer to address. It took me decades to realize that during late spring, summer, and early fall I felt ‘normal.’ By this I mean I moved freely through my days, studying, working, walking, running, biking, hiking, swimming, and best of all, dancing. But in late fall, some part of me went deathly quiet, and I would find myself on the sofa feeling strapped down and unable to move.
At first I assumed this was a sign of Seasonal Affective Disorder and I did what I could to get out into the sunshine as often as I could. I replaced living room and kitchen light bulbs with full spectrum bulbs and invested in Ott lights to make sure my work station supported my energy. While these strategies helped somewhat, they didn’t prevent the sudden feeling of being captured and confined during winter months when in other seasons I was highly energetic.
My very first EFT session shifted my thinking about what might be happening in my body during the winter months. I suddenly “got” that my physical sense of imprisonment exactly coincided with my medical quarantine at two. The pains I experienced in my rib cage, dismissed as stress from using free weights, became the first voices of my early physical confinement. Daily, during my early morning ritual of journal writing and personal work with EFT, I saw images, heard voices, and felt the sorrows of my growing body as I moved from toddler into childhood, and on into adolescence. Each stage had something for my adult self to grieve, to bless with my attention and my tears. EFT empowered me to undertake this work and to do it safely.
EFT’s Gentle Techniques
Because early trauma leaves us with a persistent sense of helplessness in the face of challenges, forcing us to “face the truth” of our experiences often leads to deeper retreat into dissociative patterns and behaviours. We cannot bully ourselves well. What we can do is begin a respectful dialogue.
Asking curious questions, tapping through emotional responses, and slowly reclaiming all the moments in which we felt unable to move because of imminent threat is a process requiring infinite tenderness toward the young, vulnerable self. Witnessing tiny fragments of the trauma as we tap through the points, stopping when intensity builds, returning to the beginning of the piece (as a story or movie of past events) we are working through, and tucking the process away when we feel we’ve reached a safe place of peaceful completion make our return to our physical strengths and challenges a truly joyful process.
Think Trauma Rather than Blame and Judgement
As I read the news and hear of the ‘obesity epidemic,’ I often translate those unhelpful words into a very different story. I see obesity and addictions of all kinds as the urge to heal, to return to peace, to find our way out of our early traumas and into a joyful present. In the grips of unhealed trauma, our bodies know that if we consume enough food, heroin, or alcohol we are returned to the freeze response meant to protect us from trauma when we were so young we had no other strategies. Kindness toward the actions of this desperate, traumatized part of the self, not judgement, is always more effective at creating a peaceful and loving approach that leads to lasting change.
Trauma is always challenging to recover from, and early trauma, with its unvoiced stories, is more so. And yet trauma is also a gateway to creativity. After a few simple tapping rounds of – “I’m in such pain. I wonder how I might change this situation? I wonder what stories my behaviours are trying to tell me? I wonder what this hunger, this urge to escape, might be telling me about myself and my journey?” – we find the space and the grace to look at what is happening within and without through the more loving lens of possibility and even hope. Another way to say this is that we – the sum total of all we are and have experienced – begin to move – emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, and, ultimately, physically.
We Find Our Feet. We Find Our Legs. We Move Forward.
The above bold heading reminds us of the words we use to describe a shift in consciousness. Movement isn’t just about moving the physical body. Movement is about changing beliefs, embracing new stories, carrying our past with us as we would a treasure box filled with resources that help us live the lives we long to live. We all have the potential to move forward. EFT empowers us to do so safely, with respect, confidence, skill, and, best of all, self love.
Until next time
Jane Buchan, MA Accredited, Certified Trainer NQT
Jane is an EFT coach, writer, and educator specializing in neutralizing the long-term effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) as well as the cultural limitations that interfere with our ability to imagine, create, and live the lives we desire. To engage Jane for individual or group coaching services, AAMET Acredited, Certified Mentoring sessions, and EFT Level One and Two Training for your group, call Jane at (802) 533-9277 or email email@example.com . Visit www.winterblooms.net to learn more about how Jane supports and inspires individuals, groups, and communities.