If you find yourself frozen in immobility, what should you say – and what should you not say – to yourself?
What can you do to help yourself get out of it?
Today I Felt Paralyzed
This morning I felt like I didn’t want to get up. It wasn’t voluntary. I didn’t decide I wouldn’t get up. I was just stuck. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t move. I felt like I had to stay very still. I felt totally unmovable.
I didn’t realize until later that I was in immobility.
When You Become The Blue Screen of Death
Immobility is the freeze response to trauma. In animals, the freeze response is a literal paralysis of their muscles called “tonic immobility” that they enter for a period of time, usually a few minutes. Playing dead in this way helps animals defend against threat since many predators follow motion. When I speak of immobility in myself, I am talking about the feeling of going into a paralyzed state and being unable to emerge from it, not the literal inability to move muscles that animals experience.
The freeze response to trauma can reappear even many years after the traumas, in the event that one is being triggered by a reminder of the original traumas that appears in one’s environment.
When you enter the freeze response, you appear still and unmoving but your internal experience is far from still; the exterior stillness masks a state of internal chaos. The unconscious mind, nervous system and body in general are being flooded with too much information and become overwhelmed. It’s like having insane jumping beans and fires and fire engines and a circus that all just kind of glom together internally to create a feeling of confusion, overwhelm and cacophony.
If the amount of chaos becomes too high, it can create a sense of static or unreadable data. Because of this static, it may not feel chaotic but just strange and confusing. Another reason it may not feel chaotic is because a large percent of the chaos can be a off the radar and not directly experienced. This portion of the chaos is in the unconscious mind because the system is protecting itself from the information held there.
At the same time this confusing mess is going on on the inside, on the outside you are like a frozen lake – completely still. This is because the overwhelming nature of whatever is being triggered flatlines the computer; it freezes the computer. If you’ve ever experienced your computer freezing, it’s usually after opening too many programs that consume more memory than the system can handle. Every new action adds a greater burden which requires more actions to resolve which then add even greater burdens until everything freezes and you see a blue screen. There is a point in immobility where the chaos cannot be felt because the system has become too burdened until there is a collapse – and at this point you yourself have become the blue screen of death.
My mind had buried the original trauma, so I didn’t know what was going on with my body.
The fact that the weather had suddenly gotten so cold was triggering a giant bundle of traumas that happened in the late fall and winter, but I wasn’t making the connection because I had forgotten about these traumas and the weather at the time. Forgetting about trauma is a defense mechanism. The act of forgetting buries the trauma, placing it beyond our ability to access it. This is a blessing because it protects us and allows us to function during our daily lives. But it can be terribly confusing when the body responds dramatically and we do not have access anymore to the reason behind the group of symptoms we are experiencing. It creates a crazy-making state of experiencing disabling bodily conditions that seem to come out of nowhere, and don’t, therefore, make any sense. So, from my perspective, this morning I could no longer move for no reason.
These are all the things I felt when I was in immobility:
Totally disorganized inside
Unable to move
On some barely detectable level, terrified
On some barely detectable level, angry, resentful, hateful
I tried to say some things to myself to get myself to move.
These statements had no effect on me:
“You’re a good person.”
“It’s a nice day.”
“There is sunshine.”
“What is wrong?” (I don’t know)
“Why are you like this?” (I don’t know)
“Are you sick?” (I don’t know)
“Stop being tense.” (I can’t)
“Are you sad?” (I don’t know)
“Why can’t you move?” (I don’t know)
“Are you depressed?” (I don’t know)
I didn’t know the answers to any of the questions.
I felt at a loss. I didn’t know why I couldn’t move, and nothing I said to myself had any effect.
Then I began to discover things that worked:
Blending Intent – going with the body’s current state, not against it.
I remembered something I used to do a lot around 2010 when I was still very ill from the injuries, frequently in severe physical pain and was in immobility a lot of the time. I used to tell myself to be very still. I would say, “How still can you become? Be very very still. No moving. Complete and total stillness.”
This is a little bit of reverse psychology.
See, this morning, even if some of my self-talk sounded nice, behind it I had been telling myself, “Something is wrong with you, you need to snap out of it and get up! You have stuff to do!! What is wrong?” In other words, I was pushing against the stillness and trying to change it. And the stillness wouldn’t budge. It just pushed right back. What would happen if instead of trying to change it, I did the opposite? What if I tried to get myself to be even more still?
Well, it worked. I said, “How still can you be, body? Can you get even more still than you are now?” When I changed what my inner voice was saying and aligned it with what was happening in the moment, the stillness realized it could stop resisting the harshness and demands from my mind and so my body relaxed.
I kept going further with it by saying, “Be as still as you can be… Be as still as you can be.”
This Opened Naturally to 7 More Healing Steps that Made Immobility a Door into Healing Past Trauma:
This “blending of mind’s direction with body’s direction” practice opened the way to some additional steps, which successfully got me out of immobility and also made immobility a pathway into healing, in some small but significant ways, by bringing empathy to the past trauma that was being triggered (it takes many journeys, I find, to heal past trauma; each one gets a little bit of it). I compiled the steps into “The 8-Step Immobility Healing Exercise.”
After I went through the entire exercise, I ended up recovering my body’s access to natural movement – which seemed a bit miraculous to me because during immobility the links – all the internal links between the impulse to move and the muscles – are completely broken. My experiencing the connection to natural movement of the muscles didn’t last all that long. My body frequently enters immobility on a subtle underlying level – it’s like a barely detectable sense of being arrested in a moment of shock and alarm – because of how many traumatic experiences I have had in my life. In other words, the links to natural movement are permanently broken. But just having this small opening to an experience of the natural movement of my body was really helpful – and gave me hope for my recovery.
I also had a lot of insights and realizations as a result of doing this exercise. What happened with me this morning is I was re-experiencing a combination of three separate traumas, all complex and multifaceted, all coming up at once because they happened when the weather was cold (late fall or winter). Doing this exercise helped me identify this connection between the weather and these three traumas, and helped separate them from one another which helped make my symptoms make logical sense as a natural nervous system response rather than seem “crazy” and like I am, by extension, a crazy person. It also revealed some ways the three traumas are similar, some threads weaving through all of them. For example, the sense of feeling invisible and feeling like there is a wall up to any communication was a common theme in all three of them which I had never realized before. This means that this thread is probably an actual trigger itself as well, which I need to watch out for recurring in my life and triggering symptoms.
OK now I will describe all the steps I went through to make immobility a door to healing my past, restore natural movement (for a little while) separate out facets of the chaos and find more insights and understandings about my body’s reactions.
The 8-Step Immobility Healing Exercise
Synonyms (Alternate Titles): Presence and Self-Empathy Immobility Healing Exercise, 8-Step Healing Exercise for the Freeze Response, Self-Empowering Response to Immobility, Using Immobility As A Pathway to Healing Past Trauma, Paralysis Melting Technique
Healing Mechanisms: Blending Intent, The “Welcoming” of an emotion, Changing the Inner Voice or Part Speaking (“Parts Psychology/Parts Work”), Self-Empathy, Nonviolent Communication, Self-Listening, Presence (with One Aspect of the Felt Sense, and with a Part – Parts Psychology), Active Imagination, Self-Holding
Source: Heidi Hanson
Note that there are many ways to heal from immobility. This sequence of steps happened to work for me this morning, so I’m sharing them. But there are numerous additional ways to handle it such as breathing, felt sense, pendulation, guided meditations, music, ways of moving the body and self-holding. Also, the main healing tool used in this exercise, empathy, may not work for some traumas so if it doesn’t work for you realize there are many other things you can do.
You may do any number of steps – you don’t have to do all 8. Each step is its own healing exercise. So you can do just #1 if you want, or #1 and #2 only. It’s best to do them from the beginning and in order though.
Because this exercise can bring up a lot, I recommend writing all of this stuff out and then later bringing it to therapy to do further work on. By writing it down, it externalizes it from yourself. By bringing it to therapy, you get additional support around handling, processing and eventually integrating all of it.
This is a pretty involved exercise; you may want to go through this exercise with a therapist’s guidance for the emotional support.
The goal of this exercise is to restore the body’s feeling of being naturally inclined to move.
Additional goals are:
To learn how to consciously change an unconsciously operating inner voice over to a different, conscious, inner voice.
To practice Presence with one aspect of the Felt Sense in the body.
To practice Presence with one Part of the Self.
To learn to notice subtle thoughts of the past, images, pictures or visions that might be clues to what trauma is the underlying cause of the immobility.
To piece everything together in order to understand the cause of the immobility; to identify the trigger.
To practice Self-Empathy for a Past Self.
To practice Self-Empathy for the Present Self.
The Beginning State of being paralyzed, frozen and immobile is very complicated:
- Welcome the Stillness
Repeat to yourself, “Be as still as you can be.”
Welcome stillness. Embrace stillness. Allow your body to be still.
You may also say, “You are welcome here, stillness” and “I love you stillness.”
- Be Present with the Stillness
Say to yourself, “Go into the stillness.”
Repeat this sentence for a while.
The stillness is one aspect of the Felt Sense. See if you can do the Felt Sense with the stillness. Sense if it has a shape, color, location in and around the body. Put your attention on it in different parts of your body and notice if it’s different in one part than in another.
- Be Present with the Part of You that Needs to Be Still
Just say, “Whatever part of me needs to be in stillness, I am with you. I am present with you.” Say this until your body relaxes.
- Watch for Memories
Because you are tuning into the Part of You that needs stillness, you’re tuning into the Part of you who was traumatized in the past and is being triggered now. Because your body is relaxing, you may more easily fall into a trance-like state. This can open up your mind to see different pictures, or think different thoughts related to experiences in your past. Just watch whatever comes to you. The memories don’t have to be visual, you can just have a memory come up about something. Don’t question what comes up – even if it looks like a completely non-traumatic scene, pay attention to it and make note of it, there could be something unfinished about that scene even if it doesn’t fit your idea of negative or traumatic. If nothing comes up, just focus on relaxing your body and being present with the Part of You that wants stillness. It’s OK if nothing comes up.
- Give Empathy to Past Self
In a way, you have been giving empathy by just being present with the part of yourself that needs to be still. But now we will take this a little further. If you did not sense any past experience or trauma during Step 4, just pick one past experience that you think might need some empathy. Anything that comes to mind. Now give empathy to that past person who went through those things. Say to them:
You must have felt __________ because you didn’t have ___________
Examples of feelings and needs I identified when I did this exercise:
overwhelmed…time to process everything
emotional sense of being scalded with pain…the ability to slow things down and make them less sudden
shock…time to understand
helplessness…place, space, openness and ability to communicate freely and openly
pain, extreme sensitivity…filters to protect me from strong emotions (previous traumas destroyed filters filtering out environment) and strong sense of identity/sense of self that creates protective emotional separation and boundaries (previous traumas destroyed identity/sense of self)
- Identify the Trigger
During this process, you may suddenly recognize the element that is connecting the present moment with that past experience.
For example, when seeing a memory appear in your mind’s eye, you might see some place or object or something in the scene that is also in your current environment.
When I did this exercise, I saw a scene that was in the cold of winter. Then I suddenly understood it was the weather that was the trigger. I also saw large windows, lots of people in winter clothes, a kind of whitish light coming through the windows, having cold hands. Any of these things could have been the trigger.
When doing the empathy part, I saw emotions – the feeling of wanting to be able to communicate but not being able to. The feeling of overwhelm. The feeling of not being understood. The feeling of being overly sensitive. Any of these emotions could be the trigger.
If you make a connection and have that Aha moment of perceiving what the trigger is, make a mental note or write it down. Fill in the sentence, “What is triggering me is ________________.” You should feel a sense of settling because of now understanding why your body was reacting the way it was.
- Give Empathy to Yourself Now
Now come back to your present self. We’re going to do the same thing we did with the past self with you now. Say to yourself:
Right now you must feel __________ because you need ___________
What came up for me in this step:
terror…to know I am safe now. To know that even in cold weather I can be safe and OK. I won’t be raped. I won’t be harmed. I won’t be used. I won’t be taken advantage of. I won’t be invisible…
sadness…to process and slow down feelings of grief, shame, sorrow, guilt etc. that I wasn’t able to slow down then.
sick/ill…to process and slow down the shock
anger… to process all the anger at not being seen, heard, protected, cared about.
terror, sick…need to escape being harmed in current life.
disgust…need to be seen, need to feel my values are in alignment with the values of the people I care about
- Do The 5-Step Self-Holding Exercise
All of these steps move energy that is in the body. The body might need some holding now – to integrate and settle the experience of looking into your feelings and needs in the past and present and making connections between the past and present. I found doing the 5-Step Self-Holding Exercise to be very soothing and healing after going through all this inner stuff. Click here to go to the article with the instructions for that exercise.
Your body should naturally begin to move again. If it doesn’t, that’s OK. It just means you need to try some different techniques. Not everything works for everybody.
Here is an image of the entire exercise:
This Exercise may seem long and involved. Again, you can do just one or two steps from the exercise; it is not necessary to do all 8 but it is a more comprehensive healing that comes from doing all 8 steps.
Note About What to Do When You are Immobilized and Need to Get Stuff Done
To be honest, most of the time I will force myself out of immobility because I have to get up and do things, but this is not therapeutic. It’s practical but it doesn’t solve anything going on internally and the next time the trigger comes up I may react again with fight, flight or freeze.
If you struggle with immobility due to trauma, and have 5-15 minutes available, I would recommend doing 1 or 2 steps of this exercise or the entire exercise (or another similar exercise) rather than just pushing yourself to get up. Even only doing the first few steps is healing.
Forcing yourself to repress what’s going on and breaking yourself out of immobility also sadly repeats, in a tiny way, some aspects of trauma itself, for example, overriding and pushing aside inner emotions in favor of an agenda. This says, “The expectations and demands for behavior I have for myself right now are more important than my true inner experience, emotions, heart, self-love, and self-care.” In that moment, you override your inner child with your inner mean and demanding parent or adult. Sometimes, it’s good to make a few minutes to have quality time with your inner child or inner traumatized person and then address practical demands of life. Of course, doing all practical responsibilities honors the needs and values of your inner adult, so is also healing in a different way. A healthy co-habitation between the inner child and inner adult can be created by spending time honoring one and then the other without letting one override the needs of the other.
Of course, it is definitely necessary sometimes to just force yourself out of immobility to take care of the physical aspects of life like work and family. If it’s necessary for you to break out of immobility, a kind and compassionate thing to do would be to tell yourself that on X day at X time you will come back and spend some time being attentive to the Part of your Self that feels it needs to be in immobility (usually the Part is an inner child but it can be part that experienced an adulthood trauma as well). Then write the appointment with this Part of You on your calendar. This gives that Part some assurance that at some point it will be heard. This is the conscious way to break immobility and go take care of life.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the very, very best on your healing journey.
(I wrote this article November 15, 2015 but I finished the drawings February 2017)
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
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