Fight, Flight, Freeze: My Story of Processing Trauma


As I sat with a client at the local public library, deeply concentrating on what was being said, I felt a hand plant on my shoulder. Without a conscious thought about what was happening, I froze. I could not breathe or move as thoughts of panic flooded my mind. My heart began to beat wildly as I felt the surge of cortisol flood my veins. In my mind I imagine this scene followed by me, the bad-ass super-strong fighter, grabbing the person’s hand, standing up, and flipping them onto their back with a flick of my wrist (as they do in all the amazing Kung Fu movies). Yet, here I am, catatonic. Helpless. Fearful.

8 seconds later (yes, only 8 seconds has gone by, my mind moving faster than the speed of light) I hear a familiar soft voice utter, “Hey Caitlin”. Another client of mine interrupts my irrational reaction, enabling me to break out of this fixed, frightened mindstate. “How are you?” she continues.

With as calm of voice as I am able, and a half cocked smile, I reply, “Oh, hi. You scared me.”

Oh the joys of unprocessed trauma.


This is one of many instances when unprocessed traumatic events momentarily take over my nervous system and cause me to become reactive. My on-going mindfulness practice creates pause in these moments, which allows me to act in socially appropriate manners (i.e. not decking a person in the face at the public library), but it does not address and dissolve the root of the problem. For this reason I sought out help in the form of counseling, coaching, meditation and yoga to process the events which lead to this immediate and unnecessary reaction of flight, fight, freeze.

Below are helpful practices, resources, and information I have found on this journey to process traumatic events and situations. Somewhat clinical and cold upon introduction, the process is rich, insightful, and well worth the 5 minutes of scientific explanation. 


When an event or experience takes place, the brain encodes the information and sends in through the nervous system. The nervous system processes the information and decides if the experience should be disposed of or stored. This occurs several times throughout the day and takes place during differing states: level, equanimous states, meaning they are neither overly pleasant nor unpleasant, or during distress. The latter of the two creates a trauma response. Trauma, which is held in the tissues of the body, is defined as an event or situation which occurs and is not processed normally.

During the trauma response the brain and body are flooded with cortisol, activating  fight, flight, freeze. If this occurs, the events are not processed and recorded as usual, creating gaps in memory. If this happens often the amygdala, a gland regulating chemical distribution in the brain, gets sensitive and reactive to this small signals of danger, fear, or elation, releasing abundant amounts of chemicals when it’s not necessarily needed.  

It should be noted that the amygdala cannot tell the difference between physical and emotional distress and when the amygdala is activated, physical symptoms present themselves. This allows one to conclude that to release this trauma one must process it physically, using the body.

To address both the cognitive and physical aspects of trauma, one might find Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or Rational Emotional Behavior Therapy), which supports deactivating the changed thoughts which lead to chemical releases in the brain, along with mindful physical practices, helpful. Mindful physical practices reconnect the present focused mind to the body support the processing of the event. These practices might include yoga, tai chi, qigong, walking, swimming, or any other movement which is done mindfully (meaning paying attention to the movements, on purpose, non-judgmentally and with kindness).

If one is able to watch their thoughts and combat them by coming back to the present moment, checking their truth, rationality, and importance, combined with reconnecting to mind and body, watching the body sensations while processing the trauma, a person can help their mind and body understand it’s not in danger, and therefore can processes the event. Mindfulness practices support this process by means of practicing present minded focus while not in a trauma response, making the present focused awareness more accessible in heightened states. To begin this process, identify the location in the body where the trauma is held, create a visual representation, identify thoughts connected to the sensations, and process with the help of a professional. Below are steps aligned with this process.

Steps to Visualize and Process Trauma

  1. Outline your body using drawing paper, a journal, or large piece of butcher paper.
  2. Get colored pencils, markers, paints, oils, or a No. 2 pencil.
  3. Listen to the the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Body Scan Meditation (optional, but very helpful) https://palousemindfulness.com/meditations/bodyscan.html
  4. Draw what you feel in your body.
  5. Write any thoughts connected to the sensations and their location.
  6. Process with a professional.

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The map outlining trauma held in my body, overlaid with the 7 chakras, represented by the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and yellow.

Remember, the process of identifying and processing trauma in the body is ongoing. Utilizing a professional counselor, mentor, yoga teacher, and/or coach is helpful when moving through this process. After processing a certain trauma, do the activity again to reassess progress, supporting the ongoing nature of healing mind and body.

For questions please feel free to email me personally at Caitlin4Wellnes@gmail.com or leave a comment below.

 

Author: Caitlin Hegwood

I create healthy recipes, share natural self-care tips, provide mindfulness practices, offer private and group yoga classes, and health and wellness coaching to my amazing community of wellness seekers. I hope you'll join me on this journey to wellness by subscribing below!

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