Tonic Immobility

The trauma is an interrupted process, which is frozen in time and space, which has a natural inclination to be completed whenever this is possible


Sonia Gomes

According to Levine (1999), trauma lies upon the instinctive physiology. Levine does not see the event as a determining factor, therefore trauma is not perceived as deriving from the nature of the event itself, but the determining factors are found in the relationship of trauma with the body and its capacity for neuroplasticity, as well as the level of resilience in the nervous system. In the very time a stressful situation takes place, it is the availability of resources or the lack thereof to deal with and to cope with stressful situations is what shall determine the traumatic potential of the stressing event (LEVINE, 1997).


As defined by Freud, trauma occurs when there is a breach in the organism´s protective barrier against stimulation in the nervous system33 coupled with a lack of available resources to modulate such experiences in which then brings about an overwhelming state of impotence. Trauma is thus not defined by the causing event but rather by the results of an overcharging of stimuli provoked in the organism; when any organism perceives overwhelming mortal danger (with little or no chance for escape) the biological response is a global one of paralysis and shutdown (VAN der KOLK, B., 2015).


Humans experience this frozen state as helpless terror and panic; such a state of shutdown and paralysis is meant to be temporary. A wild animal exhibiting this acute physiological shock reaction will either be eaten or, if spared, presumably resume life as before its brush with death. Humans, in contrast to animals, remain stuck in a kind of limbo, not fully re-engaging in life after experiencing threat as overwhelming terror or horror (SCHMIDT, NORMAN B. and al. 2008, 39: 292 – 304).


A paralysis state becomes a “default” response to a wide variety of situations in which one's feelings are highly aroused (LEVINE, 2010:23-24); for Levine, “Trauma arises when one’s human immobility responses do not resolve; that is, when one cannot make the transition back to normal life, and the immobility reaction becomes chronically coupled with fear and other intense negative emotions such as dread, revulsion and helplessness.” And for him, after this coupling has been established, “The physical sensations of immobility by themselves evoke fear” a traumatized individual, Levine affirms, has become conditioned to be fearful of his or her internal (physical) sensations that now generate the fear that extends and deepens (potentiates) the paralysis.


Fear begets paralysis, and fear of the sensations of paralysis begets more fear, promoting yet a deeper paralysis. In this way, a normally time-limited physiological adaptive reaction becomes chronic and maladaptive. The feedback loop closes in on itself; in this downward spiral, the vortex of trauma is born (LEVINE, 2010:68). Trauma disrupts the organization of the internal experience of internal homeostatic balance, and trauma can be turned into many symptoms as a result of that dysregulation also defined as dissociation.


The events that threaten life can leave a person in a very restricted state by inhibiting the sympathetic and parasympathetic high load, which results in a "locking" of the natural flow of body function; the two systems, the sympathetic and parasympathetic are co-activated at the same time: analogous to accelerating and braking simultaneously in a car. I mean, the individual overload; you're nervous to the point that can trigger the alarm system and paralyze their activity system. Bodily reactions are innate, power-endowed to survive in a state of readiness to act, and if these muscular tensions that are organized by the brain are not used, in part lie in a stream of neural impulses from the spinal cord to the thalamus (headquarters of sensory transmission) and in another part of the brain, the cerebellar tonsils are still signaling the persistent presence of danger and threat, even though the danger and the threat no longer exist anymore.


If the muscles and viscera are ready to react to danger, the mind will say that there is still reason to fear (LEVINE, 2010:169). This hyperactivation causes an irresistible impulse to identify the source of the threat or danger because of the guidance system sensorimotor; and if you cannot find the source of the threat, danger signs, the mind will continue firing warning sensations, emotions, thoughts or repetitive images obsessively seeking the causes in the past and / or future, since the body continues to warn the brain (LEVINE, 2010:170).


When it’s perceived (consciously or unconsciously) that it is in danger, the defensive postures necessary for protection are mobilized in the body; instinctively the body deviates, shrinks, bends down and hardens to fight or flee, and when you cannot use one of these two strategies, the body freezes or collapses, and the energized voltage remains stagnant in the muscles. Trauma can be conceptualized as stemming from a failure of the natural physiological activation and hormonal secretions to organize an effective response to threat, rather than producing a successful fight or flight response the organism becomes immobilized (VAN der KOLK, B., 2006:282).


The trauma, according to Levine, is an interrupted process, which is frozen in time and space, which has a natural inclination to be completed whenever this is possible; if the opportunity is created, anyone can complete this process and avoid the debilitating effects of trauma. This is the approach of SE - Somatic Experiencing.


* Excerpts of Engaging Touch & Movement in Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Resolution Approach, PhD thesis of Sonia Gomes (IUGS, 2014, New York)


Bibliography

- Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, North Atlantic Press, Berkeley, CA.

- Levine, P. (2010). In an Unspoken Voice, How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA.

- Porges, S. W. (2001). The Polyvagal Theory: Phylogenetic Substrates of a Social Nervous System, International Journal of Psychophysiology, v. 42, p. 123-46.

- Schmidt, Norman B., Richey, Anthony J., Zvolensky, Michael J. and Maner, Jon K. (2008). Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. September , 39 (3): 292 – 304.

- Van der Kolk, B.A.; McFarlane, A.; Weisaeth, L. (2006). Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, Guilford Press, New York, NY.

- Van der Kolk, Bessel A. (2015). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2015.


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