Tag Archives: panic attacks

Paralysis – Frozen by Fear, Part 1

Tiny mouse frozen in fear, Author Madhur D’silva (PD)

Abuse victims can experience anxiety so severe we are literally paralyzed with fear.  Berating ourselves for lack of nerve, for cowardice, for weakness and – worse yet – a lack of faith does little or no good.

That the situations which cause us such extreme anxiety do not always, on their surface, appear threatening only makes matters worse.  We can add to our list of faults childishness and irrationality.

None of this criticism is justified.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Most of us are familiar with the “fight or flight” response.

The body responds to perceived danger by preparing either to fight or flee.  The nervous system releases adrenaline and norepinephrine, increasing brain activity, blood sugar level, heart output, and blood flow to the muscles.  This response is automatic.  It is not under our volition.

Science has learned that freezing behavior is an aspect of the fight or flight response [1].  It is not uncommon for defenseless prey animals to freeze in place, when a predator is nearby.  Some may feign death, in a last-ditch effort to stop an attack.

Specific areas in the brain (the amygdala and hyppocampus) control freezing behavior.  Freezing is characterized by immobility, and measurable changes in blood pressure and heart rate.  It may, also, involve shortness of breath, perspiration, and/or a sensation of choking.

Trauma and the Freeze Response

I am losing all hope; I am paralyzed with fear” (Ps. 143: 4 NLT).

Human beings rely on freezing when the threat facing them is overwhelming, but it is clear they cannot escape.  This assessment is, for all practical purposes, unconscious; arrived at in a matter of milliseconds.  Freezing behavior is the result.

A form of dissociation, freezing acts to numb us against the horrors about to be inflicted on us.

Children are, by nature, vulnerable.  They have few, if any, defenses.  Freezing behavior may well be their only recourse.

For the freeze response to “thaw”, the perceived danger must pass.  However, in situations of chronic abuse, the danger is real and unrelenting.  The child is not afforded an opportunity to decompress, to let his/her guard down.

And the victim who freezes as a child is more likely to freeze as an adult.

“…such ‘paralyzing’ psychological phenomena as phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and various anxiety states can frequently be understood as symptoms of a freeze response that never had the chance to ‘let go’ or ‘thaw out’ once the original experience was over.  And many features of post-traumatic stress disorder directly relate to this kind of unrectified trauma.”

-Leon Seltzer, PhD

[1]  Psychology Today, “Trauma and the Freeze Response:  Good, Bad, or Both?” by Leon Seltzer, PhD, 7/8/15, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201507/trauma-and-the-freeze-response-good-bad-or-both.

Strategies for coping with anxiety and the freeze response will be addressed next week in Part 2

FOR MORE OF MY ARTICLES ON POVERTY, POLITICS, AND MATTERS OF CONSCIENCE CHECK OUT MY BLOG A LAWYER’S PRAYERS AT: http://www.alawyersprayers.com

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Anxiety, Phobias, and PTSD – Part 1

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1893), National Gallery, Norway (Accession No. NG.M.00939), Source WebMuseum (PD)

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea
…” (Ps. 46: 1-2).

Most people have experienced anxiety, in one situation or another.

The death of a loved one, divorce, serious illness, job loss, and moving are recognized as major stressors [1].  Other anxiety producing occasions include public speaking (always a favorite), waiting on approval for a mortgage, meeting a girlfriend’s parents for the first time, and having the in-laws over for Thanksgiving.

Then, of course, there are a host of phobias.  As a general rule narrowly focused, phobias are no small matter for those suffering from them.  Phobias include the fear of heights, spiders, snakes, birds, tight spaces, bridges, flying, and blood [2].

Purpose of Anxiety

Anxiety is intended to alert us to potential danger, and prepare the body for it.

A part of the brain called the amygdala releases neuro-transmitters that initiate the so called “fight of flight” response, producing the sensations of anxiety [3].  The heart rate climbs; blood rushes to the muscles; the lungs work harder.  This process is largely autonomic.  We have, by design, very limited control.

For most, the panic associated with stressful situations quickly subsides.  Shallow breathing deepens and slows.  Rapid heartbeat subsides.

The audience does or does not throw tomatoes.  The in-laws smile or grimace – it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference – and swallow their turkey.  We eventually get the mortgage.

In short, the body figures out we are going to survive.

Anxiety Disorders

About 40 million Americans, however, suffer from anxiety disorders [4].  Severe anxiety, whatever form it takes, is debilitating and can be crippling.

A. PTSD

The severe anxiety resulting from traumas such war, rape, or child abuse is better known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) [5].

Whatever its origin, PTSD can cause recurrent, powerful, panic attacks, with or without an identifiable trigger.  These attacks are typically accompanied by heart palpitations, chest pain, the sensation of being smothered, and a feeling of dread.  A panic attack can, also, be experienced as paralysis and overwhelming fear.

PTSD sufferers may, in addition, experience flashbacks (vivid and disturbing memories, re-experienced involuntarily).  I have discussed these elsewhere [6]. Continue reading

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