NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Somatic Experiencing: Overcoming the Freeze Response Related to Trauma

Fight or flight is the response that most people associate with trauma. Most people are less familiar with the freeze response as a reaction to trauma.  But, in fact, freezing in fear is  another typical response associated with trauma.  The freeze response is also known as dissociation.

Somatic Experiencing: Overcoming the Freeze Response Related to Trauma

The following composite scenario is an example of a traumatic freeze response and how Somatic Experiencing, a mind-body oriented therapy, can help.  As always, in my composite examples, all identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality:

A senior manager at Jan's company had shown a sexual interest in Jan for several months.  He called her several times and sent her email to ask her out on a date.  Even though she didn't report to this manager, she feared she would get in trouble if he thought she was being rude towards him, so she always turned him down politely and tried to avoid him.  

Over time, this manager became more flirtatious in his calls and email, and this was making Jan increasingly anxious.  Every time she had to use the elevator, she was vigilant that he was not inside because she didn't want to be alone with him.  She knew about the company's sexual harassment policy and that his behavior would be considered sexual harassment, but she was too afraid that she would be blamed somehow for his behavior.

One day when she was alone in the office pantry, this manager entered the room and he said in a flirtatious tone, "Alone at last.  You've been avoiding me."  Jan was in the corner of the room and she froze in fear.  She wanted to leave the room, but she felt as if she was paralyzed and frozen in place.  Her heart was racing, she felt on the verge of tears, and she couldn't understand what was happening to her.  

Fortunately, a colleague came into the room and the senior manager left.  The colleague approached Jan and said, "Are you all right?  You look white as a ghost."  Jan, finally able to move, excused herself, went into her office, closed the door, and burst into tears.

Jan began therapy shortly after that incident.  She revealed a history of sexual molestation by an uncle starting when she was five years old.  According to Jan, when she told her mother, her mother blamed Jan and told her that she must have done something to provoke the uncle into molesting her.  Jan's response was to blame herself, as children often do.  And, even though her parents severed their ties with the uncle, they blamed her for the problems.

Therapy began with emotional resourcing whereby Jan began to develop enough self confidence that she was able to report the senior manager to the company's Equal Employment Officer.  His email alone incriminated him.  During the EEO investigation, other women also revealed that he was also sexually harassing them, and he was terminated.

There were many parallels between the original sexual abuse when Jan was a child and the sexual harassment she experienced as an adult at work.  So, an important part of Jan's therapy, which was the mind-body therapy known as Somatic Experiencing, was for Jan to learn to distinguish "then" from "now."  

In other words, whereas her initial freeze reaction to the senior manager triggered the original trauma from her childhood, leaving her feeling like a child, she learned to separate (or "uncouple" in Somatic Experiencing terms) her childhood experience from her adult experience.  This alone was an empowering experience.  She not only knew on a cognitive level that she had more power now than she did as a child, but she felt it on an emotional level.  

Somatic Experiencing is a Mind-Body Oriented Trauma Therapy  
Using Somatic Experiencing, over time, Jan was also able to work through the original trauma of being sexually molested.

Overcoming the Freeze Response Related to Trauma With Somatic Experiencing Therapy

In the scenario above, there is a clear connection between Jan's response to the sexual harassment at the office and the sexual molestation that occurred when she was a child.  In other cases, the connection isn't always so clear.  But, unlike regular talk therapy, Somatic Experiencing doesn't require this kind of clear connection for it to be effective.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have a history of trauma that is affecting you now, you owe it to yourself to get help to overcome the trauma so you can lead a fulfilling life, trauma free.  My professional experience as a therapist who uses Somatic Experiencing with clients who have tried, unsuccessfully, to work through trauma with regular talk therapy is that Somatic Experiencing tends to be more effective for most people.

I've included a link below for the professional Somatic Experiencing website, which provides more information about Somatic Experiencing and a directory of Somatic Experiencing therapists.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.