Stuck Survival Responses in Attachment Trauma

By | 2017-05-18T10:11:21+00:00 May 18th, 2017|

As parents and professionals working with children and adults with Attachment Disorder, we work with stuck survival responses all day long!

One of the features of a stuck survival response is the lack of conscious planned action as the immediate reaction to a situation. This response is one that is wired into the system; it has become an automatic way to survive a perceived threat to one’s survival.

Image Summary: Survival Responses: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic through Dorsal Vagus Nerve

Thrive Response: Parasympathetic through Ventral Vagus Nerve

The brain is constantly receiving information from the external and internal (body) environment and deciding whether cues are of threat or safety.

Any cues of threat trigger first a sympathetic response, and if the threat is overwhelming, a freeze response.

In fact, when the effects of an event linger and it continues to influence one’s behavior or thinking, that is a diagnosis for an event having been traumatic. The essence of trauma is the lingering effects due to a stuck survival response.  

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is one of the more obvious forms of a stuck survival response.  A helicopter flies over a veteran and he drops and runs.  A loud noise startles him.  With former inmates, I have seen some people punch or strangulate as a response if they are startled from behind.

In the same way that a veteran or former prison inmate will automatically respond to a specific situation, attachment trauma will lead to automatic ways of responding to relationships that remind them of past events.

In both cases, shame often gets strongly imprinted into their belief system because after the event, they realize that their instinctual response is not how they would have liked to respond.  They are ashamed of their stuck survival responses, and also ashamed that they can’t seem to break the cycle.

“Trauma can become the central defining experience that determines patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting; patterns that persist after having been originally designed to navigate an unsafe world. Trauma-related patterns are held in place by automatic, non-conscious physical and psychological habits.”

As part of every survival response that gets stuck, the effects will manifest in one’s psychology or belief systems and one’s behaviors.  The acute impact in the mind and body will be felt with every triggering event, and there are long-term physical, mental and behavioral effects as well.

As Bessel Van der Kolk states: “Traumatic events confront people with such threat that it may temporarily or permanently alter their capacity to cope, their biological threat perception, and their concepts of themselves.” 

When people are triggered, they immediately behave on instinct and their behavior will look very similar to their original survival response in the original trauma event.  Their immediate behaviors will give us a window into how their brain and nervous system survival response are wired.  It will also give us big clues on where their survival response did not complete and got stuck.

A Complete Survival Response

In order for a person to return to a place of calm and health after a stressful event, the full cycle of a survival response needs to play out.  This prevents the survival response from getting stuck, prevents stress from accumulating, and also prevents trauma if they have had prior traumatic events in which the nervous system was also not able to complete the response cycle.

A completed survival response contains the following sequence

  1. Startle

2. Defensive Orienting

3. Fight or Flight

4. Discharge of Sympathetic Energy By Successfully Overcoming

An incomplete survival response happens when instead of successfully overcoming through fighting or running away, the individual freezes.  This is depicted in the image below as taught to Somatic Experiencing practitioners. An incomplete survival response has the following elements:

  1. Startle
  2. Defensive Orienting
  3. Inhibited Fight or Flight
  4. Freeze
  5. No Discharge of Sympathetic Energy

An incomplete survival response results in a freeze response, and the nervous system gets stuck trying to complete it.  The freeze response will become the default wiring of the system, strengthening it over time until there is immediate freeze response with sympathetic activation to a perceived threat.  

Freeze Response and Attachment Trauma

The freeze response has all the energy and charge of the sympathetic response within it.  The freeze response is both the gas and the brake pedal on at full capacity.  It is the ultimate confused state because it is simultaneous activation of both up-regulating and down-regulating nervous system components.  Both the active fight-or-run response and passive collapse of the body and spirit are on at the same time. The drive to survive then becomes the stronger force.

Attachment Trauma is also referred to in terms of Attachment Dilemma.  The Attachment Dilemma is the conundrum that a young child is placed in when their primary caregiver is not providing adequate emotional engagement and nervous system regulation, or causing physical harm through neglect or abuse of any kind.

The child’s internal conflict is this:

“I need this person for my physical survival as I cannot provide for or protect myself yet. Therefore, above all, I need to maintain the relationship and adapt myself to be what they want. While my natural response would be to become activated and show anger, this could push them away further, making things worse for me or they might leave me entirely.  The best survival response in this moment is to be become passive, cue into their emotional state to know how to act, and get through this by disconnecting my body and spirit so I don’t care as much and don’t feel the hurt as much.”

This internal collapse becomes the dominant survival response and covers up a lot of anger that leaks out in many places and in many ways.  It is often displaced to others and can show up as aggression at school or with siblings. This type of anger often shows up as a tendency to hurt people and animals who are smaller and more vulnerable, in which they are able to feel like the powerful one in the relationship.

They are also really afraid of their inhibited anger inside, and often refer to a monster inside that is so big and unmanageable. They are very hesitant to uncover all that emotion and often are resistant to therapies for this reason.

Since they instinctively know that they freeze and can’t protect themselves, they are so afraid of being in that vulnerable position again, that they often stay really activated and violent as a protection against being triggered into their freeze response. They try to control everything to be in a position of control, where they hope to feel safe.  

They also hate themselves for having a freeze response and not standing up for themselves.  This leads to a deep sense of shame and self-hatred.

They also don’t trust themselves due to their patterns of response, and so even while controlling people, places, and things around them, they still don’t feel safe. To them, giving up that control feels to vulnerable and scary.

Thus, a child with insecure attachment or Attachment Disorder has a nervous system stuck in the freeze response, which is represented by both intensely active and dissociative behaviors.

How to Recognize a Stuck Freeze Survival Response

A person with a nervous system stuck in the freeze response will have some pretty noticeable behaviors that just don’t make sense to people around them.  At different times, they will have behaviors that reflects both the sympathetic charge and freeze paralysis.

A person in a stuck freeze response will frequently shut down or even dissociate. This would be the kids who seem to go away, a distant look in their eyes, or go off into another world where they talk or play with themselves or other people in this world.

This pattern of freeze and dissociate can become such a strong response that it is utilized even in times of no strong trigger. This could look like frequent daydreaming. They won’t remember what you said; they may not have even heard what you said!

Some of the key features of the freeze response are disorganized thoughts, poor memory access and storage, compromised senses and proprioception leading to clumsiness and inability to feel where they are in space.  

A person may even become detached, eyes glazed over or absent, and their perception of their surrounding environment is compromised.  These features have been noted in cases of child abuse and neglect, and emotional abuse and neglect demonstrate more effects on relationship anxiety patterns than physical abuse.

Sympathetic Activation As Part of a Stuck Freeze Survival Response

Yet underneath all of that freeze (dorsal vagal) response, is the gas pedal on max.  As the person comes out of freeze or attempts to keep themselves safe while in a freeze state, they can be very activated.  The underlying anger, fear, and pain show up intensely.

This sympathetic charge will often appear abruptly with no warning. These are the kids or adults who go from 0 to 60 mph in a flash.

This is because just underneath the freeze response is the high sympathetic activation that is uncovered while a person is coming out of a freeze.

These children are also called “Dorsal Dominant,” referring to the Dorsal Vagus freeze response.  What this is describing is the observation that these children are always shut down both in relationships and engagement with other people.  It is in the Ventral Vagus state that social engagement occurs, and so as long as a person is “Dorsal Dominant,” they will have no capacity for attunement.

In a typical threat response, the initial survival response is social engagement and you have both the sympathetic and ventral vagal responses active.  Let’s look at that graph again of the autonomic response to a threat.

At the point indicating “Active Threat Response, the sympathetic nervous system is increasing in its activation level, and you still have some ventral vagus on board.

However, a key feature of the Dorsal Vagal freeze response is a loss of the ability to be attuned to your body or other people.  

So we see this mixture of both paralysis and aggression in relationships in a chronic and stuck freeze response. This mixture has been imprinted and strengthened over time in the nervous system, so the system’s default wiring is set to freeze.

Interestingly enough, babies in-utero can also go into a freeze response.

Infants under 12 months of age or in-utero fetuses who experienced a freeze response and have this imprint on their nervous system are able to go really deep inward and become very aware of their body sensations (typically hard for someone stuck in a freeze response who generally is not aware of their body much), but hardly able to orient to others and the outside environment in an organized fashion.

Maggie Kline, a Somatic Experiencing practitioner who works a lot with children, writes in her book with Peter Levine, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes that “Trauma is imprinted on the body, brain, and spirit, resulting in anxiety, nightmares, depression, physical illnesses, addictions, hyperactivity, and aggression”.

Psychology Of Stuck Freeze Survival Response

Up until now, we have focused mostly on the behaviors of a preconditioned and stuck freeze survival response, but as Kline brings up, the trauma also becomes imprinted in the brain and spirit.  So, in addition to the behaviors, the psychology is also imprinted and both affects and is affected by the biology and behaviors.

The psychology of a stuck survival response in attachment trauma represents the core beliefs that are formed about oneself because of the trauma (someone’s hurtful actions towards them) or because of their response to the trauma (not responding in the way they would have wanted).

These belief systems revolve around one’s unworthiness and shame, and include the following belief systems:

  • “I must be unworthy of love if they treated me like that.”  
  • “I am a loser to let them do that to me.”
  • “I don’t want to.”
  • “I hate who I am and I can’t change myself.”

Shame is such a powerful feeling, that by itself, it will trigger a survival response because if it is strong enough, shame is a psychological threat to our survival.

When this happens, you can see all of that self-hatred turn outwards towards other people.  It is very common to hear children with Attachment Disorder talk about hating themselves, hating you, killing themselves, or more often, killing you.

Bessel Van der Kolk writes, “Depression, increased aggression against self and others, depersonalization, dissociation, compulsive behavioral repetition of traumatic scenarios, as well as a decline in family and occupational functioning.” They “Suffer from a variety of psychological problems that include affect dysregulation, aggression against self and others, amnesia and dissociation, somatization, depression, distrust, shame, and self-hatred”.

What You Can Do To Help Your Child Repair?

1. Focus Your Observation

The first and most important thing you can do is become an acute observer of your child’s nervous system. This is more than observing their behaviors or trying to understand their psychology.

This is about becoming really curious about the underlying nervous system physiology of what is fueling their behaviors. This is cueing into the finer aspects of their body, subtle changes that happen in a second and then are gone.

What you are looking for are the changes in the different states of the nervous system. I guarantee you that they are going into both freeze and sympathetic responses, and your job will be much easier if you know their nervous system pattern like the back of your hand.

This curious study of their nervous system will involve engaging them in the process and asking them questions.

You may ask questions like, “What you are feeling inside in your body right now?”  “Do you feel more relaxed or tense right now?” Then follow that question up with, “Where in your body is it the most tight or most relaxed?”  

You may also ask questions that give you clues about the sensations and the location of those sensations inside their body. If they can’t feel their body, you know they are in freeze and likely a part of them dissociated.

At first, you may need to give them options for sensations.  Examples of qualities of sensations to include: cold or hot, racing or slow, tingling or numb, heavy or light, tight or relaxed, closing in or open, and dead or alive.  

2. Repair the Nervous System

Repair of the nervous system is done through somatic or work directly involving the body. The most effective activities to repair a nervous system stuck in freeze response is Somatic Experiencing therapy and yoga.

Many of these exercises can be done at home, though working with a Somatic Experiencing practitioner experienced in working with Attachment Trauma and children can be very helpful if your child is at a place they are willing to be engaged in the work.

Kathy Kain is one of the teaching practitioners for Somatic Experiencing for early childhood trauma, and here is a helpful video on the topic of Healthy vs. Toxic Developmental Shame.

3. Prevent Further Trauma Burden

The more the freeze response is utilized as an effective survival strategy, the more ingrained the pattern becomes, and the greater the trauma burden becomes on the nervous system. It prevents them from going into a freeze response when triggered will be impossible until the nervous system is repaired.  

However, when they do experience a startle or go into a freeze response, you can help their system discharge the underlying sympathetic activation and prevent further accumulation of trauma burden on their body.  

Once they are activated or are startled, it is so important to pause and give their system a chance to fully complete the cycle, discharge the sympathetic activation, and repair the relationship.  

It is so easy to quickly move on to the next thing, but the most important thing is just sitting with them and be an emotional or physical presence until they are fully present and calm again.  

What Experience or Questions Do You Have About Becoming An Astute Scientist of Your Child’s Nervous System??

I would especially love your thoughts on the topic of “Doing Everything Possible to Prevent Your Child From Being Triggered.” I have my own thoughts and experience, and of course we have no scientific studies on this, but I would love to hear your thoughts and experience!

Encouraging You On ~

Dr. Aimie

Related: How ACE’s Manifests in Child Attachment Disorder


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