The discussions here on Family Arrested about dissociation and how we cope with trauma and stress got me to thinking about the things I have observed in others and also observed in myself.
My first memory of discussion occurred when I was working in Africa as a wild life photographer and we were in a game reserve where they had some captive raised cheetah that they were trying to teach to kill prey. The area was fenced off, maybe 5 or so acres, and the captive cheetah were enclosed within this area.
At night the game rangers would go out and use a spot light to catch live antelope, which the next day they would drug up so that they were sort of wobbly, and the cats would chase and capture the antelope Much the way a mama cat brings nearly dead rats for her babies to learn to kill. Then as the cats got better at killing the rangers would give the antelope less and less drugs until the cats had learned to capture the animals.
Because the cats were not very adept at capturing with a throat kill, many times they would bring the antelope down by grabbing it’s haunches and then starting to eat the living animal from the back end. I observed that the antelope would “freeze” (actually disociation though I didn’t know the concept or the word then.)
Since the cats were very tame and I could approach the antelope while the cat was eating it from the back end, I realized that the antelope was “not there” mentally. Later, in working with animals who are “prey” animals such as cattle, sheep, goats, etc. I saw that same behavior. In fact, Dr. Temple Grandin who developed modern facilities for holding cattle designed a chute that would capture and HOLD a cow so that it could be given shots or other medical care without it fighting and hurting either itself or the handler. I bought one of these for my own cattle and it was “amazing” to me how well it worked. As soon as the chute “squeezed” in on the cow she would stop struggling, kicking and would remain that way while any procedure was done to her, even if that procedure was painful. It was almost as if she didn’t actually feel the pain.
Later, as I became more educated in psychology during my education as an advanced practice nurse, and worked with patients who dissociated, I realized (eventually) that I too would dissociate in times of stress. I would FREEZE in an emergency situation like a car wreck or other traumatic events. I looked back and saw several instances of me “freezing” when suddenly scared. I also learned that this is not an uncommon or rare event. It is a defense mechanism employed when reality is more than we can bear. It is sort of like denial on steroids!
Wiki has a very good article on dissociation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dissociation_%28psychology%29
Looking back on my own life, and even the lives of others I have known, I’ve seen discussion on one level or another, some so severe that I believe now that they had the full monte of “multiple personality disorder” from an abusive home situation with a hyper controlling father. Dissociation was the only way they knew to cope.
Learning not to freeze in a traumatic situation may actually save a person’s life or the lives of others. If we tend to dissociate, becoming aware of this coping mechanism which, at times, is counter productive to survival and many times leads us to deny what is going on in our lives, and therefore fail to find a more productive way to cope.