Thawing from the Freeze of Trauma
I’m floored. I’m shell-shocked. The world has changed color, taking on a dusky hue, a war-torn look discoloring everything and everyone, including myself and sometimes even God.
Nothing is as it seemed. Not my partner, or our relationship—and not even me, at least not any longer. Who am I? Where am I now? Can I ever feel safe again? These are questions that seem to lack answers.
This is what it feels like when the functional-freeze state caused by prolonged trauma starts to wear off and we begin to admit the truth that yes, this is abuse. The frozen numbness we’ve endured isn’t a purposeful tuning-out of emotions; rather, it’s a survival tactic that has enabled us to keep living day-to-day amidst great chaos and unrelenting abuse.
Years ago, when one of my clients was describing the mistreatment she’d endured in her life, I gently yet curiously observed that she’d just narrated her account as if she’d been reading a newspaper article. This took her aback, yet she at once recognized the truth of my words. Matter-of-fact, very practical and without much emotion—that was indeed how she’d told her story.
She also recognized why: not because the trauma hadn’t impacted her, but because it had been so severe her mind simply hadn’t been able to take it in, and her nervous system had been locked in a nearly perpetual freeze mode. Sure, it was a functional freeze—she’d still managed to keep up with daily chores and life obligations—yet she’d done so in an internally stilted state, unable to feel the compounded trauma because it was simply too much to bear. However, as a consequence she was also unable to feel joy, gratitude, happiness …
Yet there’s one thing we all need to remember: Lack of hope leads to despair, and despair is the enemy of healing. We allow despair to infiltrate our souls when—so stuck by the horror, anxiety, and the shock of our chronic situation—we can’t imagine a way out.
“Potentially traumatic situations are ones that induce states of high physiological arousal but without the freedom for the affected person to express and get past these states: danger without the possibility of fight or flight and, afterward, without the opportunity to ‘shake it off,’ as a wild animal would following a frightful encounter with a predator.”
(Gabor Maté in the forward to Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice)
In an abusive relationship, there is no escaping the predator because predator and prey live together in intimate household.
And that’s terrifying. To put it mildly.
Yet it’s a constant state of terror that—as strange as it sounds—begins to feel so “normal” that it becomes an unacknowledged, permanent state of being. This terror becomes frozen inside until the time it can finally be released. And it always will be released, in one way or another.
The first baby steps in thawing from emotional abuse, psychological trauma, verbal assaults, and chronic mistreatment are painful, like fingers warming up after near frostbite. Yes, it hurts. The nervous system can’t go from frozen to calm in an instant—there’s a natural progression, like climbing down the rungs of a ladder.
After freeze, we have to feel. This means stepping into our sympathetic nervous system—what’s commonly called the “fight/flight” reaction. We may feel burning anger or debilitating anxiety, which soon swerves toward crushing grief. We may experience a desire to run away, especially from our own selves. It’s too painful to live within our own bodies.
When we’re constantly in dysregulated chaos, we may go up and down the rungs of the ladder, from freeze to fight/flight and back up to freeze, down and up again, one rung at a time—all while never reaching the peaceful bottom, a place of firm grounding and safety.
When the fog of prolonged trauma wears off and full reality sets in, often the result is an increased sense of terror and anxiety. Panic attacks aren’t uncommon, nor are symptoms such as migraines, heart palpitations, frustration and agitation—as well as continued chronic fatigue.
It’s tough to go through this, to put it mildly. The first reaction is often a desire to hide back within our shells (Song of Songs 2:14). In the words of pop-singer Seal, “I want to get away, I want to fly away …”
Yet we can’t fly away from our own selves, nor should we try. We have to move through the pain, to process our trauma, in order to reach the other side.
Often when we begin to feel again, our despair increases. As the brain fog created by trauma slowly dissipates, emotions return—yet we don’t yet experience joy, peace, or hope. Instead we feel those very difficult emotions of extreme anxiety, grief and despair.
“Grief allows you to let go of something you’ve lost only when you begin to accept what you now have in its place. If the mind clings to the familiar, to our established expectations, we can become trapped in feelings of disappointment, confusion, and anger that create our own internal worlds of suffering.”
(Dan Siegel, Mindsight)
As we begin to heal, it’s important to process and acknowledge all our reactions, especially justified anger and other emotions we may have been taught are “bad.” Yet no emotion is “bad”—only unbalanced and unhealthy reactions are, such as a desire for toxic revenge.
When it comes to despair, it’s important to acknowledge its presence, and then to understand why it has shown up. I’m not talking about a surface “why” (i.e. because my relationship isn’t what I thought it was, because my partner has betrayed our vows, etc.). I’m talking about the deeper despair behind the obvious “why.” Often our despair has hidden roots that date back to childhood injuries, such as the reopening of a wound of feeling unloved or rejected—by those closest to us, by ourselves, even by God.
Once we’re able to reach the core of despair, we can then learn to reject hopelessness in favor of future hope. Our Lord has promised that He will make all things new (Isa. 43:19, Rev. 21:5). He holds us in the palm of His hand (Isa. 49:16) and protects us in His embrace (Song of Songs 2:6).
Facing despair helps us reclaim our birthright of hope—hope in ourselves, in God, and even in our future. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for woe, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:22).
But here’s the sticky point: the disruption of despair and beginnings of hope lead us along the process of mourning. After we reject despair, we have to embrace grief. We’ve endured a tremendous loss. In fact, it’s a death: the death of what we thought was true about our relationship, our future plans, and even our past memories.
But this grief, although excruciating, can be grand and glorious—if we allow this grace to flow into our lives. Grief can open the doors to a beautiful new beginning, a thawing from the minimization of our situation and into reality, a shift out of fight/flight and the beginnings of lasting peace.
My next article will be a continuation of this one, focusing on the stages of grief after recovering from a toxic relationship. These stages closely resemble those outlined by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross as she described the stages of grief after the death of a loved one, yet with a few key (and Christ-centered) differences.
I’ll be accepting new clients again beginning the week of January 15, but I only have a few slots available. If you’re a Catholic woman in need of extra support as you heal from betrayal trauma or domestic abuse, please feel free to reach out and ask me about my trauma-informed coaching services.
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