The Body’s Adaptive Response to Trauma

The pain from trauma runs deep, and its impact lingers in both the brain and body.

And so often, people who have experienced trauma are embarrassed by their body’s response to the event – the way it shut down on them when they needed protection most.

But in the video below, Stephen Porges, PhD explains why that “shut down” may have been the most protective thing their body could have done.

Take a look – it’s about 3 minutes.

This video was taken from the Next Level Practitioner training program where members receive a daily video like this from one of the top 25 experts in our field. That program is not open for new members right now, but if you want to be on a waiting list in case it opens up, please click here.

Understanding the body’s response can be a powerful first step toward healing from trauma.

Now I’d like to hear from you. How have you helped clients understand their body’s response to trauma? Please leave a comment below.

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45 Comments

  1. You have made quality elements in that respect there. Used to do a search on the subject issue and located most of us is going to agree to on your web site. My family and I already went through a your site and even seek out your posts.

  2. Jackie Lavoris says:

    CPTSD
    THANK YOU

  3. Christina Heinl says:

    I found it an excellent tape and give me much clearer understanding of the ways the body works in protecting from adverse experiences. Thank you

  4. Paula says:

    I believe that the information I just heard from you is true, based on my own experience. It is much better to think about your body protecting you then feeling like a failure. Thank you for your insight.

  5. Kathleen Fitzsimons says:

    Thanks, Joan. I found this helpful. I remember a few years ago a woman came to me. Turned out there had been a fire in her house and she froze as the body of her infant daughter was handed out the window. I could have gently taken her through this but she ran out of the office and never returned. It has always been on my mind. Now I am working full time with trauma/torture I am more clued in and find your videos helpful. I bought one of them and watched it many times. Was delighted to see Bill O’Hanlon who came to Ireland a few times. He made a big impression on me personally.
    So thank you. As a retired volunteer, I can’t afford to buy much but I continue to get value from the first ones and enjoy the short ones too that you post.
    Best wishes,
    Kathleen Fitzsimons

  6. Geri says:

    I understand exactly what you are saying. I was raped when I
    was 15 years old. The guy was “high” on speed and had a machete
    at my throat. Everyone turned away like we were invisible. I was extremely terrified.
    The only thing that kept coming to my mind was to concentrate that I was someplace else.
    I figured that it was horrible enough that he was violating my body, I didn’t need to hand him my mind
    also. I received so much shame and guilt because I didn’t fight back. I figured if all of these people that saw what he was doing and made no attempt to intervene, then he must be more dangerous than I thought.

  7. Zoe says:

    Does anybody know of a therapist who can help me heal? I live on Long Island, in NY. That is near Brooklyn, NYC, Queens, NY. Please I have been in therapy for over 30 years mostly on. I am 54 and praying to God every moment for the help I need. I deserve freedom and complete healing, as we all do. Bless you all.
    Zoe

  8. Mary says:

    This helps me make sense of my mother’s passivity in the face of abusive behavior. Thank you!

  9. Maida Moore says:

    Thank You for your very accessible information from experts about very important topics .
    I really appreciate your work and its very understandable and practical application .

  10. ellen says:

    Excellent thank you

  11. Sam Baird says:

    Be-friending the body-this is what it is all about in recovery after trauma. As well as being compassionate in thought toward our psyche and spirit-being present with the mind chatter of accusations of, how shameful, or how stupid, or how slutty or (choose the adjective) and letting it go and letting it go as many times as necessary. The social messages we grew up with are deeply imprinted on our brains and it takes alot of gentle mind talk to disavow some of those old messages that don’t help.Acknowledging within what a tour do force the body is and how it helped protect the self by immobilizing or dissociating or whatever the response was in the moment was intuitively right in the context of that situation.

    • Geri says:

      At some point, I had to make a conscious choice to
      stop giving my power away to people that weren’t there and don’t have my best interest at heart. I have to choose NOT to be a victim of my past and stop tormenting myself
      with the past. I can’t fix or change anything that happened yesterday. But I can learn to love myself and forgive myself for just being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Look at myself in the mirror and treat myself with respect and move on !

  12. Kelly says:

    They don’t help at all. But the drama in my life started very early I have a schizophrenic multiple personality mother. Who beat herself lblid. I have no memory is F under 10 years of age

  13. Mark says:

    There are other deep emotional levels due to trauma in addition to shame and guilt. After being tormented and tortured for years in my teens, I’ve been unable to develop any close emotional relationships. During that horrible time there was no one I could trust. Even friends turned on me. I had to emotionally distance myself from others to protect myself. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that all too well. When the world slowly became a friendlier place I didn’t know how to change. For the past 50 years I’ve been unable to let down my guard, my mind just won’t let me, I don’t know how. I’ve never felt any shame or guilt about the past. I have a good self image. Yet I can’t get past the emotional trauma inflicted many decades ago.

    • Kelly says:

      I know how that feels my heart goes out to you

  14. Nia Innes says:

    Thanks Ruth, and Dr. Porges. this is important stuff!

  15. Susan says:

    Staying frozen is definitely a survivor’s defense mechanism. Forget trauma itself, I learned to voluntarily stay frozen when being threatened. When fearing a bee encircling you or when a ferocious dog charges towards you, it is best to freeze. If you shoo the bee with your hand, the bee would feel threatened and defend itself with a sting. If you fight or flee from the dog, it would increase the dog’s stressor and its need to attack. When standing still, you are no longer threatening. You will be observed, perhaps sniffed. When these scary animals see you as non-threatning, they will be content and fly/walk away. Let’s not forget people do tend to hide and freeze in a threatening situation. This is our body reminding us to stay calm and alert, but mostly out of danger.

  16. Elaine Dolan says:

    Boy oh boy, does this bring up my continuing emotional rejection and victim blame (of me)by my family members!!!! Those who have NEVER *defaulted to the primitive vagas* or DISSOCIATED do not believe you–that you could not have fought back–YOU were not THERE!

    I refused my brother-in-law at my sister’s and his home when I visited them in my later 20’s….he says and my sister has believed him for thirty-plus years, that I seduced him. In fact he raped me and I FROZE because this is what I have done since babyhood….my body takes over (at least it has until I came out of shock).

    But you say–and sure it’s true—this *saved our lives* in babyhood—but it also wrecked my life in adulthood, because my sister has never asked me what happened (she heard only her ex-husband’s account), would never believe that I left my body if I told her that account of the story, and therefore has never forgiven me for what she THOUGHT I DID. Perpetrating males USE this default to blame women who don’t fight them off.

  17. Cathy Camp says:

    This was a tremendously insightful and educational short summary that brought much clarity of how people view themselves after experiencing a painful trauma event, thank you for providing this information.

  18. Becca Jon Cerveri says:

    Let’s talk about sex! I really need to throw this into the conversation because I’m not seeing it come up in the conversation about shame and this seems like the most appropriate place. I will do my best to keep it short (never happens) and to the point. Let me try and explain…we know that shame is deep, dark, painful and debilitating to the mind, body and soul. If all that isn’t enough, it really messes with a victims sexual (being? Confidence? ability?). I would think any client who experienced sexual assault will experience 1 if not all of these situations. Here’s the scenario wrapped in 1: girl, youngest of 3 kids is raised in a physical, mental, emotional and sexual abusive home. As a child she masturbates AND orgasms as far back as she can recall. Since the sexual abuse is in home, it reaccures and there comes a time she (her body) reaches orgasm during the trauma. She gets older and begins to need to fantasize about rape (sometimes getting sometimes giving) to reach orgasm in her sexual relations. Then there’s those rape ptsd nightmares she wakes up from and discovers she’s all turned on AND goes ahead and finishes because…i don’t know… could one get back to sleep in that condition? Each scenario in itself generates shame, humiliation, embarrassment… (the list goes on) to an unspeakable (literally) depth. She thinks she’s disgusting, crazy, perverted and because it’s all that AND about sex. How could she get turned on by something that was so painful and causes so much chaos on her life. She never discusses it. She’s approaching 30, comes home one day, flips on tv and leaves it on in the middle of Ophra. She focuses in just as this upset rape victim says “i was so disgusted with myself for being turned on.” BINGO I’M FINALLY AT MY POINT! I want to recommend to all therapists fresh out of school to those marinated in it… find a way to just get it out there…”You know, the body responds… that’s what it’s designed to do”… hear it… like freeze, the body is once again trying to protecting itself. So please, just carefully get it out there. Slap it on the table early… they’ve carried that crap around long enough. Thank you for hearing me out.

    • Elaine Dolan says:

      Thank you for this comment. It does need to be discussed and put on the table sooner than later.

  19. Catharine Jones says:

    Yes, his work is vital!

  20. Debbie Davis says:

    Very validating. I have been educating clients about this for at least 10 years and learned about Stephen Porges about two years ago…I have his book. This information is very empowering for clients. Thank you for your validation of this.

    Debbie Davis

  21. Joseph Izzo, LICSW, Psychotherapist, Washington, DC says:

    By understanding how the ventral & dorsal branches of the vagus nerve function to mobilize or shut down our reactions to dangerous situations, I’ve been able to help client’s self critical-shaming reactions to how their bodies reacted at the time and free them from this added burden of a traumatic event. As Bessel van der Kolk states, “trauma is in the body, not the event.”

  22. Fi Blyde says:

    The freeze reflex we see in rabbits when faced with strong headlights which to them mean danger is reflected in people too! The dissociation that acours during a traumatic event is the brain’s way of saving our sanity,very often is necessary as part of a recovery program to work with” parts therapy” to retrieve those parts that have become so dissociated that they no longer belong to our body,we need to gently encourage the parts back and make the body complete once again.
    Trauma is so complex that no one technique can resolve all the issues, we need to take a panoramic view in our quest for a way forward where trauma is concerned!

    • Catharine Jones says:

      I agree and consider all the opportunities to help ourselves and our patients.

  23. Carol says:

    I was incested and beaten.. I dissociated in order to stop the pain of being beaten… I would fly out the window
    like an angel.

    I would go through the wall next to my bed when I was being incested.

    I still don’t remember what was done to me when ( my father or brother) came into my room at nite but i wake every morning in a panic and terrible feeling which disappears after 1/2 an hour.

    I am 75 married with children and grandkids, had years of help.I still go into an altered state sometimes
    thinking I am abandoned as I was as a child.

    • Rhonda J says:

      Oh Carol, so strong & trusting of you to share with us.
      Thank you for your honesty.
      So appreciated. Rhonda

  24. M. Dillon says:

    This is a great perspective shifter. Thank you for this I will use this great example and insight. Perhaps it can also be applied to help those who withdraw from society to isolate themselves another protective mechanism ..could be a way to help both them and others view this behaviour differently and open up avenues of help. What do you think ?

  25. L says:

    Thank you, this essential message was nicely and neatly framed for me – which I guess is the essence of the work in building a new message/narrative for our clients too.

  26. Pamela F. Lerman says:

    I am a Board Certified Dance/Movement therapist as well as a licensed mental health counselor and licensed creative arts therapist. Central to my work with people in recovery from trauma, is the connection between the body and mind. We begin with body awareness, as well as gentle breath that allows for awareness, but not over stimulation. All work is taken from the client/participant’s cues, and is aimed at allowing client’s to regain trust in their body and learning to identify what feels safe.

  27. JOSE NAVARRO says:

    Regulate breathing using to address HRV and setting up the physical environment to optimize safety. Bring aware of self and use of non verbal to help invite the social engagement systems.

  28. Bern says:

    Personally and professionally I believe Stephen Porges should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. It opens doors into the psyche of and for people who fall out of the ‘norms’ of society for no reason other than they were unlucky in their life situations. I have seen people including myself feel heard for the first time in their life as the wisdom of freeze is explained. But the real gift is that between sessions they can use this knowledge to change not just their cognitive understanding but also their physiology – and this is the key to transformation – it breaks the feedback loop. I now offer clients pyscho-education sessions before contracting for therapy. For many this new understanding of their mind body is enough to support self regulation and go the next distance with a new understanding of life and themselves. What a gift. When they decide to engage in therapy they are less frightened of their traumas and more open and curious about the impact on their life.

    How can we nominate Stephen Porges for the Noble Peace Prize !!!!! ?

  29. Thank you. It’s part of the psycho ed I use with clients. so helpful.

  30. Barbara says:

    When one dissociates in the throws of a physically life threatening event the shame is often (as per the story of the woman who survived rape and strangulation) created by the story being created for us by others who simply do not know what it is like to have this experience. Given that (in my case), the brain did it’s job beautifully and by body, I was unable to piece ‘myself’ back together again afterwards. I was continually being told I was lucky (to survive) and that was true but I struggle to make piece with the stories being provided for me until I was able to do some work with a wonderful somatic practitioner in Vancouver BC who took my body and mind to an understanding of how everything I did was both normal and heroic. I never felt lucky…actually I felt proud. When I started focusing on what my body and mind were able to accomplish in my telling of the story….a new respect was created for me and in others about me. I still had to feel safe to return to my body however and that I accomplished through Trauma Sensitive Yoga :)
    In my case, I had to force myself to immobilize (stay still), so that I would not be completely in flames, while part of me was. My body was heading in the direction of full shut down which would not have been helpful so I froze, fought and dissociated all in one very heroic move. I was able to scream for help and take care of all the rest at the same time. And now I can be amazed at what ‘we’ were able to do. Thanks for this article and to Stephen for his work.

  31. sharon priest says:

    In response to the comment about F words I use another F word when dealing with abandonment and that if fornication because sex is one of the ways we attach even if it is dysfunctional and for a brief interlude. We can abandon ourselves in sexual encounters when we are afraid of being alone. So in my world it is fight, flight, freeze, faint or fornicate.

  32. sharon priest says:

    I have been doing this with myself and clients for many years. Very freeing. Only way to compassion and self forgiveness I think. From cognitive awareness and understanding to emotional compassion to spiritual forgiveness and freedom

  33. JOHN T. SHEA says:

    When speaking or writing about ‘Fight’ and ‘Flight’ responses let’s make a point of including this third ‘F’, the ‘Freeze’ response.

    • Donna Marold says:

      JOHN
      Think you are spot on. I view Freeze (as in meditation) as an adaptive response to danger-perceived or real. Freeze calms the the body systems that activate in order to flee or fight.

      It is well known in the stress literature that it is the constant changes (up and down) that produce unhealthy changes in the body ie blood pressure.

      There is a recent study out of John Hopkins in which the author has suggested there is one gene -responsible for cortisol.regulation. ‘If this gene has been damaged due to prolonged unusual stress in the prior generation
      (epigenetics) Unregulated coritsol impacts the frontal lobes and can lead to suicidal thinking and behavior.

      When training soldiers how to withstand the stress of captivity, exercises involving mental concentration are introduced ie to mentally build a house step by step. Soldiers are also taught the practice of mindfulness.(Freeze)

      Atheletes in many sports need to go into a state of freeze in order to perform at their best.
      ie golf, basketball.

      Would love to hear what you and others think.

  34. having practiced pathology/neuropathology before i became a psychotherapist. i have been teaching Brain anatomy ,physiology, besides psychology to my patients and how creatively wonderful it is in keeping us alive first.
    i love dr porgies explanations ( and Charles Darwin)
    it helps free the patient of irrational Guilt which is the real killer of life and vitality.
    thank you.

  35. Brenda says:

    I wonder if there is a cautiously waiting/sense-making response when a therapist focuses on, let’s say, shame as the focus of the problem and the trauma patient knows they are off-base? What if the patient is put in a ‘bubble’ such as the old psychiatry traing facilities with a see-through mirror, and therefore senses something really weird and is a very intuitive individual, and feels danger? A wait while assessing approach is very healthy for that person.
    Those viewing through the bubble may think that all those wires and sensors are detecting data they can validly interpret to develop or support their theories and treatment approaches, but the patient wonders if the mass viewing through the window isn’t simply a source of trauma itself and therefore a form of torture itself. Of course, if the patient was read the informed consent, and consented during a discussion, not just blessed by some law where their human rights were violated, that sense-making phase would be short and healing would be expedited. Good work!

    I have participated in some of your training and think that you are a very competent group. Taking this to schools to give children resilience tools is an opportunity to prevent problems.

    • April says:

      insightful!

  36. Elsa says:

    This is so important for me. Not the part about shame. The part about shutting down. There are areas of my life – paperwork comes to mind – where I have shut down over and over, instead of doing even simple things. Doing the things has taken so much struggle for me. Yet I handle so much in other areas. Polyvagal theory explains a lot. Both by needing to do things alone when I would have needed help, and by being terrified when my father raged at my mother, I have, from infancy on, often shut down. As an adult, I’ve often felt silly. And I’ve kept thinking: I just need to do this – and have ignored the papers for another couple of months. It’s made quite a bit of mess. Now I have someone do the work with me – and in a couple of hours she has gotten through what I’ve repeatedly put aside for a couple of years.

    I also think about this in relation to the way many people – many groups – in our society react to difficult situations. Some people rage when it doesn’t fit the situation (if the facts are looked at). Others are quiet when it doesn’t fit the situation (again, if the facts are looked at).

    I am passing on the link. Thank you.

    • Rebecca Goodrich says:

      Thank you so much, Elsa, as your experiences with paperwork mirrors my own. I had never even thought of this I just knew it was a problem of mine.

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