When exploring sacrifice in sadomasochistic play, sometimes we end up sacrificing too much. To understand the impact of this I must start by emphasising that the nervous system does far more than help the body survive extraordinary experiences. The nervous system’s most recent evolution is its social design which we share with all pack animals. It subconsciously processes information about our social situation to help us to conform to norms and fit in. It also uses the behaviour of others to interpret incoming stimuli. For instance, when we see smiling faces, we might assume that we’re in a safe situation. Conversely, if we see eyebrows raised in shock, we may anticipate trouble. Alternatively, if we sense danger, we might scream for help to alert the people around us.’When exploring sacrifice in sadomasochistic play, sometimes we end up sacrificing too much. To understand the impact of this I must start by emphasising that the nervous system does far more than help the body survive extraordinary experiences. The nervous system’s most recent evolution is its social design which we share with all pack animals. It subconsciously processes information about our social situation to help us to conform to norms and fit in. It also uses the behaviour of others to interpret incoming stimuli. For instance, when we see smiling faces, we might assume that we’re in a safe situation. Conversely, if we see eyebrows raised in shock, we may anticipate trouble. Alternatively, if we sense danger, we might scream for help to alert the people around us.
In today’s world, modern society is constantly manipulating the social design through advertisements, emotional intelligence, and social media likes. These actions are embodied by the release of hormones in the brain long before we are consciously aware of what’s happening, resulting in a physical response like a shiver down the spine and an internal feeling of ‘something doesn’t feel right.’
More common and less specialised than the social adaptation design is the fight or flight design, which we share with most animals that have a spine. It controls homeostasis and helps us know whether to rest and digest, hunt for food – or become food. The most ancient of all the designs, one likely shared by every living being, is the freeze design, whose function is to shut down the entire body in order to feign death or, in philosophical terms, stop existing as a being. It is nature’s last resort. It helps us preserve resources during long, challenging periods, or looking dead to avoid predators.
What Is Traumatic, Extraordinary And Dangerous?
Finally, we need to distinguish between an extraordinary circumstance, a trauma, and a trigger. The nervous system is constantly fine-tuning itself to understand its surroundings, and it reacts when something pops out of the ordinary. Think about the jump scare in cheap horror movies or a rollercoaster ride that floods the body with adrenaline. But also the butterflies in the belly before that first kiss or the second before stepping onto a stage to deliver a speech. The nervous system starts running through different designs to deal with the situation. Is this dealt with by social adaptation, by fighting or running away, or through shutting down?
When a situation is dangerous or extreme enough, it can become traumatic. If the problem can be resolved, and the nervous system returns to baseline, no harm is done other than a racing heart and sweaty palms. However, trauma can develop when both return to baseline and a resolution to the situation are absent. A more esoteric way of thinking about trauma is that when in danger, the body amasses energy to deal with the problem, and when that process fails, the nervous system is off-balanced. Animals instinctively know how to rebalance their nervous system by physically shaking, energetic play, vocal expression, etc. Most humans learn to repress these releases as part of controlling their emotional expression. Trauma, therefore is stored in the body as unreleased energy which gets transformed into stress and tension. A compounding factor is our modern society which triggers our nervous systems in ways which do not require physical responses (receiving a stressful email, for example). To deal with many daily modern stressors, we are asked for evermore calm and composure, the very opposite of how our nervous systems usually deal with extraordinary circumstances. In the long run, we end up building up tension and stress. And this is but half of the story!
The Best Things Written
To relate trauma, I often return to Doctor Peter Levine’s books In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (2010) and Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma (1997) as they both explore how the body mind and spirit int errelate. It’s groundbreaking work because he bridges the science of psychology with the experience of a bodyworker. Peter explains how the nervous system results from three iterations dating back thousands of years and this helps me inordinately in understanding trauma. Another seminal work in this area is Doctor Steve Haines’ 20-page graphic novel Trauma Is Really Strange (2015). Originally a handout for Haines’ patients, this has been instrumental for me to recommend to clients who are unaware of trauma dynamics and why their nervous system reacts as it does. But who lacks the time or capacity to study Levine’s work.
In one of Levine’s books, there is a story about a school bus that gets trapped inside a collapsing tunnel. Some of the children escaped and, with almost superhuman strength, dug their way out to meet the rescue workers halfway through the debris. Afterwards, the kids who managed the situation with action showed fewer long-term negative effects of the traumatic experience.
The Nervous System May Be Efficient But Not Always Very Smart
The other half of this fascinating story is how the nervous system is in a state of constant adaptation. While this constant tweaking of what response is most useful in what situation is mandatory to live a life, let’s look at a number of potential issues that can arise when the nervous system does its job a bit too well. For example, avoiding the neighbour’s angry dog after being bitten as a kid is okay, while avoiding spending time outside as an adult because there may be a dog around the corner is not. Nor is being sent into an apathetic freeze response at the sound of a bark; this is the definition of a trigger.
While the nervous system is indeed very efficient, it might have been slightly better tweaked to create triggers in a way that does not lead so often to overreactivity. When a trigger is especially potent – the song playing during sexual abuse, the colour of the car that hit us – they can return to create emotional reactions years later. Unfortunately, this does not help prevent similar situations in the future. Triggers can also get mistakenly over-generalised, as sadly happens often with race and gender.
The nervous system can also be numbed from over- or under-use. Consider the case of a person living in a warzone or trapped in domestic abuse, or the case of a complacent young adult living at home and off their parents’ money.
The Effects Of An Imbalanced Nervous System
The location of the nervous system disbalance in either the social, fight, flight or freeze design will determine how it affects a person’s everyday life. Let’s look in more detail now at the ramifications of each.
An unbalanced social design results in social dysfunction, ranging from being unable to understand social situations to adapting entirely to others at the expense of one’s own needs or forcing one’s own will onto others. It often comes down to boundaries. For example, not understanding the boundary between ‘my’ needs and ‘our’ needs. Or giving up on expressing boundaries because of a lack of trust that they will be respected. Or not respecting the boundaries of others because of having experienced one’s own being broken so many times. Someone with an unbalanced social design often appears to be totally lacking in boundaries. The F-word fawn describes this phenomenon: it is the unconscious adaptation to others at our own expense.
An unbalanced fight or flight design results in triggering uncontrolled fear, anxiety and panic, aggression and rage, or oscillating between them. Finally, a disbalance in the freeze design results in numbness and feeling disconnected from the body. In the book Walking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, Peter Levine refers to this phenomenon by quoting an old shamanic expression: the soul has left the body.
As always, this is a simplified model to help navigate a highly complex subject, but thinking like this has been helpful for me to know that the trauma lives in the body, not in the story. When working professionally with clients and when playing privately, recognizing the different trauma responses gives me a sense of safety in navigating away from them. It’s also important to remember that the three designs are intertwined. Fight and flight are not possible when the freeze state is activated, for example, and social engagement is not possible when in fight or flight mode.