We have no idea where our animal defenses end and our dissociative symptoms begin. The more that I immerse myself in this area, the more I am surprised that the dissociation literature hasn’t thought more deeply about animal defenses. Animal defenses are mentioned here and there in the literature, but they are seldom subjected to a rigorous analysis vis-à-vis clinical dissociation. Probably the best existing discussions are those of Ogden, Minton, and Pain (2006) and Van der Hart, Nijenhuis and Steele (2006).
Let’s begin with a central distinction: Animal defenses are survival-oriented; clinical dissociation is not. Animal defenses protect our survival, our biological existence. Clinical dissociation protects our mind and our self. True, there are times when protecting mind or self may result in saving our lives, but biological survival is not what clinical dissociation is all about. Now let’s examine a second crucial distinction.
Dr. Livingstone, I Presume
In 1871, British explorer and national hero, David Livingstone, had been in Africa and out of touch for seven years. The New York Herald sent a reporter, Henry Stanley, to find him. After an 8-month search, Stanley found him. He greeted Livingstone with the famous words, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”
David Livingstone wrote an articulate account of his own tonic immobility during a near-lethal encounter with a predator:
I heard a shout. Starting and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was on a little height; he caught my shoulder as he sprang and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear he shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening.It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see all the operation, but feel not the knife. This singular condition was not the result of any mental process. The shake annihilated fear, and allowed no sense of horror in looking round at the beast. This peculiar state is probably produced in all animals killed by the carnivora; and if so, is a merciful provision by our benevolent Creator for lessening the pain of death. (Livingstone, 1957, p. 12, emphasis added)
The crucial point in Livingstone’s account is that this state of mind took away all pain and fear, but it did not take away his awareness of what was happening. Livingstone remained “quite conscious of all that was happening.”
We saw this same mental awareness a few weeks ago when we examined evolution-prepared dissociation (e.g., what happens during a sudden fall from a great height). During the fall, time slows down and mental and sensory acuity become quite pronounced. Some of you described this sudden change of consciousness as a “hyperfocus” and as “the opposite of dissociation.”
The literature on tonic immobility in animals emphasizes a similar point:
“it is now well established that…subjects in TI [tonic immobility] continue processing information and remain aware of events occurring in their immediate vicinity.” (Gallup & Rager, pp. 59-60)
It takes but a moment’s thought for us to realize that an evolution-prepared, animal defense must PRESERVE awareness and the ability to process what is happening. Your survival is not helped by being unaware of what is happening when you are being attacked by a predator.
Clinical dissociation, on the other hand, does not have the same ‘regard’ for our ability to think while we are dissociating. In Depersonalization Disorder, the disconnect from our normal emotional contact with self, body, and world is so profound that it impairs concentration and thinking. Similarly, many other forms of clinical dissociation impair the person’s ability to reason and problem-solve while he or she is dissociating.
If we were to speak of clinical dissociation as having a “mission,” it would certainly be the opposite of the mission of the starship Enterprise (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”). The mission of clinical dissociation is to avoid, block, or escape from pain and distress. And, because its priority is to escape from pain, both awareness and the ability to think are readily sacrificed when doing so provides an escape from pain.
Freud once said something similar about repression:
The psychical apparatus is intolerant of unpleasure; it has to fend it off at all costs, and if the perception of reality entails unpleasure, that perception — that is, the truth — must be sacrificed. (Freud, 1937, p. 237)
A Plea For First-Hand Accounts
There is much more to consider about the relationship(s) between animal defenses and clinical dissociation, but I think that this is a good stopping place for today.
Our earlier discussion of evolution-prepared dissociation was greatly facilitated by your first-hand accounts. Your personal stories highlighted the clear state of mind that accompanied your falls and car accidents.
Today, I leave you with another request for personal accounts — of dissociation during maltreatment. Specifically, would you be willing to describe (1) the nature of your awareness of what was happening (i.e., clear, fuzzy, unaware, gone away, out of body, etc.), and (2) the extent of your ability to think clearly during the dissociative event(s).
Hello Paul: I’m interested in what you have to say about tonic immobility. On page 178 on my book, Confessions of a Trauma Therapist, I describe my terrified state in telling my mother about the sexual abuse I had suffered in childhood.
“All my senses were floating in a sea of fog…. My heightened senses were acutely aware….”
What do you think? It was an unusual dissociative experience for me.
Please provide more detail about your experiences at that time so that both I and other visitors to this blog (who do not have a copy of your book) can think about this and share their thoughts? Thanks!
Martin Katchen posted this on my LinkedIn page, but gave me permission to repost it here:
It would be good if you could tell us more detail about the evolutionary dissociation that was apparent in Captain Sullenberger’s account. Do you have his account ready to hand?
Dr. Dell, you asked:
“Specifically, would you be willing to describe (1) the nature of your awareness of what was happening (i.e., clear, fuzzy, unaware, gone away, out of body, etc.), and (2) the extent of your ability to think clearly during the dissociative event(s).”
From what I recall either from personal experience or information from another part of me, the dissociation many times during an abuse event resembled an “out of body” experience of floating above what was happening. The only thinking seemed to be just basic survival until the maltreatment was over. There were “night people” and “day people”. They behaved as total opposites.
I apologize for my slowness in responding to your post from 4 days ago. It is another conference week for me — International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. I am in Montreal and have been doing preparation and playing catch-up all week. You said that many times during the abuse event you had an out-of-body experience where you floated above what was happening. These two points are clear to me: (1) many times, and (2) out-of-body experiences. I would like to ask about your third point: “The only thinking seemed to be just basic survival until the maltreatment was over.” Would you be willing to describe that ‘basic survival thinking’ in as much detail as possible? Please demur if that is too uncomfortable. Thanks!
Hi Dr. Dell,
You asked, “Would you be willing to describe that ‘basic survival thinking’ in as much detail as possible?”
I typically speak in generalities to encompass most abuse events since there were so many. Number of abusers x number of years x distinct individual parts of me who were the objects of the abuses = hundreds and hundreds of separate events. Also, the responses to the abuser who struck during the night were different than those to the abusers who were more active during the daytime. Some abuses I personally recall and have body memories of, some I only have knowledge of, and I’m fairly certain that there are still countless abuse events that I have no knowledge of. Also, the survival behavior changed through the years, and finally culminated in our being able to force an audible sound out of this mouth, which eventually halted the abuse from one of the three abusers.
That being said, during some of the ones that I, Susa, personally have memory of, the “basic survival thinking” seemed to be more of a “getting through” the abuse by whatever means available. That is, if I didn’t just dissociate and leave which I believe happened most of the times.
During that era, (mostly the 1950s) many children were taught to do what their “elders” asked of them without question, and that played a large part in our doing what we were told to do even during the abuse attacks. We did it also to get the event over with as quickly as possible.
I remember that the feather pillow played a huge part in survival, and much thought was concentrated on that object during the abuses. I didn’t have stuffed animals, so I suppose the pillow may have always been a substitute. The specific smell of the feathers… the feel of the ends of the feathers poking out of the pillow covering… some semblance of a feeling of safety in hiding under the pillow, and this face being covered by it. A means to detach from the rest of the body.
I’m not sure if I answered your question or not. Please let me know if I didn’t elaborate enough.
Thanks for hanging in there with my request for a bit more detail about what you mean by “basic survival thinking.”
You said: “the ‘basic survival thinking’ seemed to be more of a ‘getting through’ the abuse by whatever means available. That is, if I didn’t just dissociate and leave which I believe happened most of the times.”
OK, this is the state of mind that I am looking for details about — when you don’t leave, but, instead, are just trying to ‘get through’ what is happening. If you can bring yourself to put it into words, I am asking: “What is going on inside you during that ‘getting through?’ Are you thinking? What kind of thoughts? Are you feeling? What? Are you saying or doing something internally? Are you doing something externally (e.g., with your feather pillow?)? Anything that you can add to the description of your experience, coping, and enduring during those times would be helpful.
The feelings were a big steaming pot of fear, panic, shame, terror, hate, anxiety, and self loathing.
What I remember was just wishing to be somewhere else, and I suppose what we were practicing, was being able to escape through dissociation. But…. we never really escaped, did we? It was still there.. just hidden in another part of me.
There is a part of me who thinks that she can actually fly, so that was another escape. Thinking about, and going through her steps of actually becoming airborne.
There was also the self-soothing/diversion of tongue sucking. We were not allowed to do anything overt like actual and noticeable thumb sucking, so to keep it a secret, the art of bending the tongue backwards, and doing sort of a non-visible thumb sucking of sorts was learned and practiced. This served as some diversion and self soothing as well as a gateway to dissociation, I suppose.
Also, there was making a tiny fold in the sheet, and sliding the edge of the sheet fold in between a finger and the fingernail until the pain of doing this would take us away from the abuse that was happening. The sheet was covered with markings of our doing this which resembled images of wheat.
Some coping by the diversion of feeling the stickery ends of the feathers, and pulling them out of the pillow while things were being done to this body. Concentrating on scratching the pillow until finding a feather sticking out, and pulling it out of the pillow. Eventually, after a few years, the pillow was nothing more than a vacant, flat pillow ticking cover filled with very few feathers.
We still have a feather pillow – we still pull feathers out.
Susa — wow!
You really laid it out. All your different efforts to distract yourself, to get lost in something else. And the massive press of feelings: “fear, panic, shame, terror, hate, anxiety, and self loathing.”
I have one more question. I know (at least I think) that you are describing a collage of many occasions. My question is whether you were able to move. Moving would have been inadvisable. It was safer to just hunker down and endure. But do you think you could have moved if it was safe to do so? Or were you substantially paralyzed? What do you think?
OK, this is the state of mind that I am looking for details about — when you don’t leave, but, instead, are just trying to ‘get through’ what is happening. If you can bring yourself to put it into words, I am asking: “What is going on inside you during that ‘getting through?’ Are you thinking? What kind of thoughts? Are you feeling? What? Are you saying or doing something internally? Are you doing something externally…?
I’m going to answer this from a slightly different angle than Susa’s reply. Susa and I seem to have a lot of reactions and perceptions in common, but on this one I’m noticing some interesting differences.
In situations I can access (where I didn’t “go away”) I don’t recall experiencing the more complex emotional responses such as shame, humiliation, hate, etc, until much later. Years or decades later, actually. At the time of the actual event, mainly what I feel is confusion, fear, sometimes unreality but mostly shock.
As for the physical sensations, I remember holding my breath, tightness in my chest, throat, and other areas, extreme pain at times, weakness, shaking, nausea, light-headedness, sometimes an odd sense of numbness. Usually the last 2 symptoms mentioned above happened later in the experience or during repeated experiences.
What little thought process I can recall is very basic like, “Don’t make him/her angry (or angrier),” or, “No… no…” I don’t recall being able to formulate a conscious decision to “go away” let alone any plan for physical escape. No one asked for my opinion or permission, or ever indicated that I had a choice… not even me.
New insight for me: I just realized that as a young child I was looking to the adults in the situation to indicate what I should do. What they wanted was absolute submission and compliance, so that’s what they got from me. They treated me as if I were a mere toy whose thoughts and feelings (physical and emotional) either didn’t exist or rarely entered the equation other than to be criticized and dismissed.
That’s what “getting through it” meant for me, although I couldn’t have explained it at the time. I had to put my feelings aside and do whatever was expected of me. No time to wonder why. Just do or die.
You know, I have sat with survivors of abuse and listened to them for about 25 years, but I still feel sad and distressed as I read what you and Susa experienced. What an overwhelming and confusing situation for you:
1. At the time of the actual event, mainly what I feel is confusion, fear, sometimes unreality but mostly shock.
2. I don’t recall experiencing the more complex emotional responses such as shame, humiliation, hate, etc, until much later. Years or decades later, actually.
3. holding my breath, tightness in my chest, throat, and other areas, extreme pain at times, weakness, shaking, nausea, light-headedness, sometimes an odd sense of
4. What little thought process I can recall is very basic like, “Don’t make him/her angry (or angrier),” or, “No… no…” I don’t recall being able to formulate a conscious decision to “go away” let alone any plan for physical escape. No one asked for my opinion or permission, or ever indicated that I had a choice… not even me.
5. New insight for me: I just realized that as a young child I was looking to the adults in the situation to indicate what I should do.
6. That’s what “getting through it” meant for me, although I couldn’t have explained it at the time. I had to put my feelings aside and do whatever was expected of me. No time to wonder why. Just do or die.
Thank you for your willingness to put this into words, your willingness to write it down, and your courage to say it to us.
And to underline one important point — this is what it was like when you didn’t dissociate and go away.
Dr Dell, if it weren’t for the compassion of people like you, I’m certain that I wouldn’t be alive today. Regardless of my struggles, I consider myself fortunate because certain people were able to help me along the way even if they knew nothing about dissociation. Just knowing they actually cared made a difference. If there’s any way I can make it easier for someone like you to help others like me in the future, I’ll do whatever I can. I ache for those who’ve yet to find someone like you to help them heal. You may never know how much I appreciate the careful thought and countless hours you put into this subject. Thank you.
Specifically, would you be willing to describe (1) the nature of your awareness of what was happening (i.e., clear, fuzzy, unaware, gone away, out of body, etc.), and (2) the extent of your ability to think clearly during the dissociative event(s).
Well hell… I’ve had all of the above, and now you have me puzzling out why there would be one reaction or another under any given set of circumstances. This is not an exercise for the lazy, obviously =)
One experience in particular keeps coming to mind to comment on here. It was one of the first sexual contacts with my now ex-husband, which turned into a gut-wrenchingly horrible and painful situation. I won’t go into details of what happened, but will focus on what was going through my head at the time.
I really don’t know how it all started as I sort of “woke up” in the middle of this nightmare. I was in pain, frightened, confused, humiliated… and utterly lacking in any sense of direction or will that might have urged me out of it. I just froze and totally submitted to whatever he wanted to do. I didn’t lose awareness. What I lost was a sense of autonomy. I felt at his mercy, under his control, and any form of resistance was unimaginable until sometime later.
It seemed that I was perceiving clearly, but the *planning ahead* part of my mind was offline. I do remember thinking things like, “This hurts. I can’t believe he’s doing that. What am I supposed to do? He’s older and has been with lots of women… he knows what to do. It’s my fault it hurts. Just do what he wants…”
So I can’t say I wasn’t thinking. I just wasn’t thinking *ahead* very well. My focus was more on getting through each split second of what felt like an impending death, in a way. In retrospect, I did seem to die a bit that day, or at least went into a sort of psychic coma that lasted for many years.
The more I think about it, the more I have a sense that there are some discernable patterns as to which effect (i.e., clear, fuzzy, unaware, gone away, out of body, etc.) I might experience under different circumstances. I need to mull this over for awhile. One thing that really just clicked with me is that the “fuzzy” thinking/feeling times seemed to occur more frequently with subsequent similar experiences rather than the initial maltreatment. It would be interesting to see if others notice something similar.
I love the thought that you left us with:
I think that you have put your finger squarely on an important point: “the ‘fuzzy’ thinking/feeling times” don’t come with the first incident of maltreatment, but they do come more and more with each new incident of maltreatment. I wonder if other ‘insiders’ will recognize this pattern.
The incident that you describe, seems to have much in common with the incident (in your psychiatrist’s office) that you described in your previous Comment.
Let’s enumerate the salient points: (1) you ‘woke up’ in the middle of it (sounds like an alter had been ‘out,’ and left you to deal with what was happening; (2) utterly without will or a sense of direction about what to do; (3) pain, fear, humiliation, confusion; (4) frozen submission; (5) you retained awareness but lost your ability to plan or think ahead; (6) you lost your autonomy; (7) you felt powerless and and helpless (any form of resistance was unimaginable — until sometime later); (8) “It’s my fault”; (9) your focus was on getting through each split second; (10) this event had a lasting deleterious effect on you (you went into a sort of psychic coma that lasted for many years).
Again, I don’t think that this is tonic immobility. Instead, it seems to be a conditioned fear/defeat reaction. Maybe your words are something like the words that Seligman’s dogs might tell us if they could speak. I will write about Seligman’s work in my next post.
This is by far one of the best sites that has explained what I have experienced on and off since childhood.
Child emotion physical abuse I can remember but only one incident of sexual abuse that the details I cannot recall. Again as a teenager, not able to remember but I do remember freezing. I have always understood the fight, flight freeze. The freeze part anyway. Probably conditioned.
When it happens to me, usually under threat, ( Abusive relationship) Other times under stress, usually abusive, I feel like a phrase I hear or someones behavior reminds me of something but I can not remember what. Its like it means 2 things, the now and before. Is this splitting?
When it happens, its like pow there I am, confused, what is going on, absolutely unable to comprehend what it was that scared me so bad. Its like watching, through a foggy tunnel, knowing there is some threat but not sure what. I used to think it was panic. Its not really though. I am aware of being frozen, thinking what is happening, stop this, stop. Its not really panic but I cannot move I can only watch. I get bits and pieces of things that I wouldn’t remember except its like a chain reaction. Remembering bits that I usually can’t recall but not enough to make sense of things.
I’m not really frightened anymore but am frustrated that it happens to me. Before it happens I think I get kinda foggy, feel frightened, and stare at the threatening person. It affected me so badly at one point that I hardly went out as anything might set it off. My anxiety and blood pressure were through the roof and I had horrible dreams.
I think it is behind me but I do wish I could figure out how to snap out of it.
Thank you for this website, you have made things much clearer with your articles.
Is this string still an active discussion? I have quite the experience and need insight. This is one if few sites that ice seen that is helpful. Thanks.
See email correction abvoe
. Is this string still an active discussion? I have quite the experience and need insight. Thanks.
I would love to see this thread re-activated too.
Looks like it went into Tonic Immobility in August 2011 and hasnt come out of it yet 🙂
I would also like to read about your experience barb.
I’ll keep checking in …