Researchers like Dr Bessel van der Kolk, a world expert in the treatment of trauma, have discovered that the most effective way to allow cortisol to pass through our bodies is through movement.
Cortisol helps us fight or flee from danger, so its basic function is to promote movement - either towards a threat, or away from a threat. Through this movement, your stress hormones have somewhere to go.
If you can move away from a threat, or fight it off, then the fear response has completed its task. It has kept you safe from danger and prepared you for survival, and your system has been able to return to normal functioning once the threat has disappeared.
But for some people, especially children, the power difference between them and their attacker means they become trapped, unable to fight or run away. If you can’t allow your stress hormones to pass through you because you can’t fight or flee, then your fear response can become stuck. Your stress hormones can begin to work against you, fuelling a freeze response. Trauma experts agree that this freeze response presents a third option for survival in the face of threat, along with the more familiar fight or flight.
Typically, the freeze response occurs when there is no perceived avenue for survival through either fighting or fleeing. Experts also agree people are more likely to experience problematic symptoms later on (nightmares, intrusive memories, panic attacks) if they freeze during a trauma. If the body begins to go into a trauma response, and the circuit cannot be completed (including physically moving through the adrenaline and cortisol), then the experience lacks a resolution. This way of responding at the time can form a baseline for future traumatic moments, and the person can become trapped in a constant state of frozen terror.
Over time, if this level of fear keeps occurring regularly, the individual learns that this increased state of terror and anxiety is necessary for survival. The person begins to enter a new ‘baseline state’, in which increased levels of cortisol and hyper-awareness of danger are normal. As American psychiatrist Bruce Perry explains, this danger alarm can then be triggered and retriggered by everyday non-threatening events. A glance, a tone of voice, the scent of an aftershave, a piece of music. Most of these stimuli then enter the brain and bypass the more advanced neocortex, making their way directly to the fear centre.
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