Paralyzed by Fear; Numbed Out and Powerless

Fight and flight responses are generally recognized and accepted as the norm when it comes to fear.  We are all familiar with them.  Just like the boys in the 1983 classic movie “A Christmas Story” so comically portrays, a bully pops up and we run as fast as possible to get away.  But at some point, perhaps when enough is enough, just like Ralphie, our rage becomes a fight for our lives.

But fight and flight are not the only behaviors that follow fear.  A kind of numbing paralysis known as freeze is more common than we recognize. Often mistaken as cowardice, apathy, laziness or even collusion, this third survival response has gripped so many people in our times of increasing fear.

When we cannot seem to defeat or outrun the predator a ‘deer in the headlights’ freeze response can be life-saving.  Helpless to do anything about a horribly dangerous situation, we dissociate from what is going on. Over the years in my work as a clinical counselor, kids and adults showed up completely numbed out in my offices. They had been diagnosed with a variety of anxiety disorders when more often than not were actually showing symptoms of the freeze response.  

It manifests in those who are sexually abused, those suffering from substance use disorders, PTSD, and in battered spouse syndrome to name a few. Chronic dread, panic, and terror rob them of the ability to stay in the present.  Available resources become impossible to access.  Being paralyzed allows them to not feel the horror of what is (or seems to be) happening. This can go on for years, long after the menacing situation has disappeared.

“They’re used to self-medicating. They’re used to escape. They want to find that place where they can’t see their pain from.” ~

Fr. Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries

In ever more anxious times, the tendency to numb out is also increasing. It seems quite likely that our over-reliance upon screens, drugs, alcohol and other ‘addictions’ are freeze responses to chronic fear exposure.  Mass shootings, threats of terrorism and a cacophony of negative talk coming from everywhere including the pulpit have created a sense of helplessness and a need to disconnect.

We must begin to understand this if we are to empower ourselves to change what is happening.  Our power has not been taken away even though it may appear to have been. This is a time to encourage action in those who are isolating.  Together we can overcome the powerlessness caused by fear and fear mongers.  The solution is not complicated.  Here is the message; Bring an abundance of love to the table. Fear cannot coexist with love. Do something to help and do it now. 

Ask for Help

NOTE: It cannot be emphasized too strongly that those who are suffering from trauma and clinical dissociation caused by fear must seek the assistance of professional helpers to get relief and to return from being missing in action. They cannot pull themselves up by the bootstraps nor can they just get over it.  Trauma resolution is possible using such therapies as Trauma Informed Care among others.

How to Crack the Negativity Code

It is so easy to slip into the doldrums.  This seems easy to understand when cabin fever sets in during bleak midwinter, but can also happen for most people on a sunny summer day. 

Negative thoughts are seductive. In fact, scientific research tells us that the brain has an automatic survival default to negative over positive.  We have a kind of bad news bias built into our DNA that keeps us out of harm’s way.

Studies show that we need almost a five-to-one ratio of positive over negative in order to hang onto joy. With the easily accessible barrage of negativity available, it seems like a long-shot that we would be able to resist the depressive lure of distressing and grim conditions. But perhaps our powerlessness holds the key to joy after all.

In order to crack the five-to-one negativity code, we must accept that we are emotionally powerless over the way our brain is constructed and let go of trying to out-think it. 

Like the folks who practice 12 Step Recovery, we must come to believe that a power greater than ourselves will hold us in loving arms regardless of our shortcomings.  Then we have to engage in the work of changing our bad news bias into something positive. 

The same research which identifies our default brain confirms that we can tip the scales towards happiness and override the tilt to negativity with frequent small positive acts of kindness and compassion…again with a ratio of about five-to-one.  In other words, we need to be actively engaged in being nice if we want to have a life of sustained peace, joy, and love. It sounds like we better get busy.