Trauma and PTSD, and all of their associated symptoms, have their roots in the ancient biology of our body’s nervous system. In some ways, it could be said that persistent symptomatic trauma and PTSD are the product of overloaded survival software. It could also be said that biologically speaking, we are hard-wired for trauma, yet we are not hard-wired for trauma to get ‘stuck’ the way it so often does in humans.
To understand the biology of trauma, it is necessary to understand the survival needs of prey animals living in the wild.
When a prey animal (like you and so many of your direct ancestors) is ambushed by a predator, there are three options that come up on the nervous system’s dashboard. ‘Fight’, ‘Flight’, and the seldom acknowledged ‘Freeze’.
Flight is just about the most obvious and most ideal scenario for any prey animal when a predator shows up. Successful ‘Flight’ is also by far the most common outcome for most predation scenarios in the wild because most prey animals have become very good at it, which is why they are still here after a gazillion years of tooth and claw. Early detection of predators and quick evasion is nature’s Plan A for escaping predators.
The purpose of Fight is pretty obvious. Fight is predation plan B. There are certain instances where a prey animal is simply unable to escape, and the best course of action is to fight off a predator. Maybe the predator is just a juvenile, and you stand a chance of fighting it off. Sometimes fight offers the best chance of survival.
Freeze is nature’s Plan C. It’s the program that initiates when there is no hope of escaping or fighting off a predator. If a prey animal is totally overwhelmed by a large predator, freeze makes more sense than you might think. Predators tend to bite a lot harder when they feel their prey struggle, and the freeze reflex overrides the instinct to escape. If the predator believes the prey is dead, there is a reasonable chance that it will release its bite and open the possibility of escape.
Above all else, understanding that the unprocessed freeze response is the cause of chronic trauma and PTSD in humans. While animals have retained the ability to fully unlock and process their freeze responses with physical actions like shaking. We modern humans have unlearned these tricks, along with so many others. The good news is we can relearn!