March 17, 2003
Sexual Problems - Part 2: Shock and Abuse
As a result of trial, error, and observation, the primal approach has developed beyond its "feel the pain" origins. We have discovered that some traumas are so severe that they cause a type of dissociative response that is difficult to reach. In some circles, this degree of trauma is being called "shock."
Normal trauma repression works by storing painful feelings below everyday consciousness so that normal life can continue. Shock-level traumas, comparatively, are so extreme that the body cannot deal with them in the same way. Shock-level traumas are usually perceived by the organism as life-threatening. In these instances, we cannot escape the feeling of impending death by fight, flight, or repression, so we go into shock. In the face of death, the organism escapes by dissociating from the body that may be about to die.
In the book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857) Dr. David Livingstone clearly describes dissociation:
"Starting, and looking half round, I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. I was upon 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 dog 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 survived when the lion was distracted by another person. If he had not been saved, he may have further dissociated and perceived that he was "leaving his body" as many near-death survivors describe.
Speaking of shock, author Peter Levine states in "Facing the Tiger: Healing Trauma" that:
"It is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when faced with an overwhelming threat. The other two, fight and flight, are much more familiar to most of us. Less is known about the immobility response [shock]. However, my work in the last twenty-five years has led me to believe that it is the single most important factor in uncovering the mystery of human trauma."
The body is more likely to go into shock when it is vulnerable and developmentally fragile. For this reason, pre- and perinatal traumas (before, at, or after birth) are often interpreted by the body as life-threatening and result in a shock response. At this stage, seemingly innocuous events such as loud noises, bright lights, and isolation can result in shock.
In later childhood and adulthood when the body becomes more resilient, shock will only occur in response to more severe situations such as personal violence, witnessed violence, serious injury, life-threatening illness, life-threatening disasters, surgical interventions, and the death of loved ones.
There is one type of circumstance, however, that often produces shock without a typically life-and-death scenario: sexual abuse.
To a non-victim, an incidence of sexual abuse may be seem disturbing, but not life-threatening. To the victim, however, it may very well feel life-threatening. This is why victims go into shock.
When sexual abuse is accompanied by violence, it is commonly understood as justifying a shock response. But since much sexual abuse is not overtly violent, its seriousness is often downplayed by the male-dominated authorities.
Even when sexual abuse does not have the appearance of aggression and violence, it is a violation nonetheless. The violation is done by a larger, more powerful person who breaches the boundaries of the child's body and psyche. The violator sneaks around with the stealth of a predator. The predator isolates the child within the unknown of the abuser's distant, self-centered sexual obsession. The child is thrust into a strange world she neither understands nor knows the outcome of. It hurts or it feels wrong, but there is nothing she can do. It is as if she is being devoured. Sometimes she is threatened with the worst.
If an animal is powerless, in danger, and thrown into the unknown (death?), the only escape is shock and dissociation. This is what happens to children who experience sexual abuse, whether they are injured physically or not.
Shock-level trauma is essentially a surrender to the entry of death - a harsh exposure to the unknown. The perceived destructive force bursts through the physical or psychological boundaries of the self, causing consciousness to fragment and shift to an altered state. Our perception seems to leave the event and appears to witness from outside the body.
People with considerable shock-level trauma often feel disconnected from their feelings, from their bodies, and from other people. They feel "spaced out," "not with it," and have a hard time focusing and concentrating. They can easily become startled, surprised, stunned, or "frozen." Their sense of self is weak and fragmented, and they often find it difficult to assert or even know their own boundaries and the boundaries of others. They are often hypervigilant and have extreme reactions, as if everything is "life or death." They tend to expect "the worst" and often have a sense of being "fatally" flawed.
Since sexual abuse often results in shock, it should not be surprising that sexual abuse survivors also have these symptoms. Sexual abuse can cause emotional injury of the most severe kind. It is time that this fact is recognized and that the proper respect and healing opportunities are offered to the survivors.
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Sexual Problems - Part 1: It's a Feeling Problem