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February 24, 2021

Why Survivors of Abuse Can’t “Just Leave”—How our Nervous System Keeps us Frozen.


On February 18th, on “CBS This Morning,” Singer-songwriter FKA Twigs gave her first television interview since filing a lawsuit against actor Shia LeBeouf for intimate partner abuse, including sexual battery, assault, and infliction of emotional distress.

During the conversation, FKA Twigs refused to answer one of Gayle King’s questions. Here are her words:

Gayle King: “Nobody who’s been in this position likes this question, and I often wonder is it even an appropriate question to ask. And you know the question is, Why didn’t you leave?”

FKA Twigs: “I think we just have to stop asking that question. I know that you’re asking it out of love, but I’m just gonna make a stance and say that I’m not gonna answer that question anymore because the question should really be to the abuser, ‘Why are you holding someone hostage with abuse?’ You know?” People say, ‘Oh, it can’t have been that bad because or else she would’ve left. It’s like, ‘No. Because it was that bad, I couldn’t leave.'”

Her answer perfectly nails the situation. Because it’s not that the victims of abuse don’t want to leave or never think about it. It’s that their nervous system keeps them stuck where they are, and here is how it happens.

When we perceive a threat, we have several mechanisms of protection that can get activated based on our physiology and how our environment impacted us when we were growing up. One of them is a freeze response; it immobilizes us.

And there’s nothing wrong with going to immobilization from time to time. Our nervous system dances between three states:

1. Feeling safe and connected. Here, we can be present and relate with other beings.

2. Being mobilized. Here, we take action.

3. The freeze response or being immobilized. Here, we collapse.

The journey from freeze back to safe and connected looks like this: three, two, one.

When we find ourselves in freeze mode, we have to go through step two, mobilization, to reach state one.

When we freeze, we experience a fog and lose touch with clarity. But usually, we will be able to take action to find our way back to feeling safe and connected.

An example from everyday life:

I am about to drive to work where I will present an important project to my colleagues. The car doesn’t want to start. I panic because this presentation matters a lot to me. After 10 times of trying to start it, I am experiencing a fog, a “what to do?” moment. Eventually, I will accept I can’t use that car. I will take actions like calling someone to drive me, switch to bus or train if it’s possible, call my workplace to apologize and explain I’ll be late, reschedule the meeting…

Let’s imagine here a positive outcome that leads me to do my presentation, in time, or later. My nervous system will enter the safe zone once again.

But it could be also hijacked from no one being able to help me that day or my boss yelling at me on the phone. In that case, let’s say I have a friend I can call to share my experience, feel supported, and regulate my nervous system despite the fact I won’t be able to share my work with my colleagues today.

I give you the two scenarios because my point is not that you will always have a happy outcome in life when you take action, but that you can find your way back to a regulated nervous system despite common annoying circumstances. And that’s what’s important—because we are actually more impacted by how we felt in certain circumstances versus the events themselves.

Abuse victims can’t do that—because their circumstances are not common.

And here is how the downward spiral goes:

Their abuser is such a constant threat, they are placed almost constantly in the freeze response area. So much so, they get stuck there. And that’s the problem.

When you spend a lot of time in one of the three zones, your brain will follow up and create narratives that suit that zone. You will have stories running in your head aligned with the state of your nervous system. Stories about yourself, about others, about the world around you.

It’s logical. When you feel safe most of the time, you have more of a tendency to think you can always find help or protection and that people will be there for you.

When you mobilize easily and often, you think there is always a way to figure it out.

When you freeze, you think the world is a big, lonely place—or even worse, everyone and everything is against you. And the more you stay in that state, the more that story feels true to you.

To go from three to two, or from freeze to mobilization, you need to be able to switch from reactivity to presence. Because your freeze is a defense mechanism, it’s an automatic reaction, so the only way out is to participate consciously.

The tool to come back to presence is to be intentional. An intention can be as simple as: “I want to walk away from that room.” As soon as you bring an intention to your awareness, you are out of pure reactivity; you are unstuck. That’s an important first step, even if you don’t physically move yet.

To keep your body moving and actually walk away, you need to regulate your nervous system first.

Your best chance to regulate your nervous system (because you are a mammal) is to coregulate. It means you can reach out to someone else or feel supported at that moment.

And guess what? Abusers are always good at preparing the field for their perpetrations; they find ways to isolate the victim before an even more dramatic, vicious cycle starts.

To wrap it up, this is the combination that keeps victims’ feet glued to the floor when they want to walk in the opposite direction (or stop their nervous system to switch from freeze to mobilization):

>> The constant overwhelm due to someone scaring the hell out of them, keeping them stuck in freeze mode.

>> The brain adapting to freeze mode because it feels like the place to stay in order to survive, and creating stories like, “It’s dangerous if I step out of this.” The victim believing the stories created by the reactive part of their mind.

>> The isolation.

To get out, here is the process:

>> To be aware of this being an abusive situation versus some variations of: “The world is like this,” “Men/women are like this,” “ I deserve this.”

>> Get out of nervous system autopilot mode to be present here and now, bringing an intention to their awareness, “I need to get out of this situation,” “ I want to find help,” etc.

>> Find a way to coregulate with someone else to be able to move/take action: join a support group, hire a coach or therapist, talk to friends or colleagues.

>> Take action, move.

You can help a victim and be the catalyst for the change to occur.

If you have access to them during the abuse:

>> Let them know they can reach out to you anytime, and give them tools for that.

>> Reframe with them that what happens is not okay. Give them evidence and stories of people who managed to get out.

>> And refer to them a professional, a group who can be as well the coregulator who supports their nervous system to shift.

And stop asking that question.

~

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