In case of playback problems, you can also watch this video here
If you are interested, here are the 3 (very short) chapters in my book Shapeshifting Inside and Out where I talk about your work:
Chapter 8: Primitive You
Who is Primitive You?
She is the part of your mind that responds to danger. She’s a life saver when you need to jump out of the way of a speeding car or there’s a fire alarm going off. When she perceives danger, she takes over your mind. You become a fight or flight machine.
Now, modern life has plenty of causes of stress that are not life threatening. Computers freezing. Marriage breakdown. Workplace conflict. Global conflict. Financial troubles. When we are confronted with any source of stress – life-threatening or not – Primitive You takes over and we automatically go into stress response. The thing is, she hasn’t evolved at the dizzying rate of all our stress-inducing inventions. When your computer crashes and you lose all your work, the only tool you have at your disposal is Primitive You’s emergency response unit. This is equipped with one mode of operation: it’s called ‘Watch Out There’s A Tiger Coming’. This is why exercise is such a good stress release – because you are working in harmony with Primitive You. She interprets your gym workout as fleeing from that tiger which is very, very real to her. You know you’ve done your session on the treadmill, but she thinks you’ve outrun the tiger. Now she’ll let you relax.
Primitive You’s emergency response unit has a third emergency service. You know about fight and flight – and now I’d like to introduce you to the freeze response.
Possums know all about the freeze response. When faced with a predator such as a bear, these hardy little creatures know that fight or flight is often not an option, so they curl up and pretend they are dead.
The idea is that the predator might lose interest (no more thrill of the chase), or complacently assume that lunch is in the bag and leave to fetch its young for feeding. It’s genius if you think about it. As the character Ozzie the possum says in the animated film Over the Hedge “We die so that we can live”.
At some point the possum needs to escape before the bear returns. Peter Levine has identified something he calls ‘healthy aggression’ that is needed as the little creature comes out of its freeze response. It’s a huge surge of energy that allows it the power to leg it fast should the bear and its cubs be approaching.
Are you thinking: That’s nice, but I’m not a possum…?
This is true, but you are equipped with exactly the same freeze response and healthy aggression mechanism.
Levine defines trauma in this way in Healing Trauma:
‘Our ability to respond to a perceived threat is in some way overwhelmed’
The key word here is perceived. As he says ‘trauma does not have to stem from a major catastrophe’.
Now, if you’re in a situation where you perceive you are overwhelmed, which of your three emergency responses – fight, flight or freeze – will Primitive You pick?
The answer: the freeze response. Every time.
The nervous interviewee whose mind goes blank when asked a seemingly straightforward question is in freeze response.
The pedestrian who suddenly sees the oncoming juggernaut bearing down on them and stops like a rabbit in headlights – they are in freeze response.
The attack victim who does not cry for help – they are in freeze response.
How much guilt and shame could be prevented if only the people in these scenarios understood that their freeze response is an instinctual and automatic survival tactic, not a sign of weakness or that vile assumption ‘asking for it’? If you do one thing today, go out and share the concept of the freeze response with someone. Anyone. One day that concept could reach somebody who really, really needs to understand it.
Most people get over a bad interview, but traffic accidents and being attacked are very common unprocessed life experiences.
According to Levine, traumatised human beings are, unlike the possum, afraid of their healthy aggression. What happens is that they get stuck in freeze response.
Because the freeze response is one of Primitive You’s emergency services, if you don’t come out of it then you are still – according to Primitive You (who lives completely in the present moment) – in danger. No matter how many months or years pass, if you have not accessed your innate healthy aggression, Primitive You will run your life – and indeed ruin it.
It’s important to remember that the freeze response is NOT universal. Not everyone responds to abuse and similar experiences in this way. Only you can work out if you are stuck in freeze response.
Chapter 9: Deep and Meaningful Disney
Frozen is Disney’s most successful animated film to date. It also has a lot to tell us about the deep soul mining that this book is about.
If you haven’t seen it, here’s the plot:
Princesses Elsa and Anna are sisters. Elsa has magic powers – she can make it snow, and shoot ice from her fingertips. Initially this is a great play aid, but one day she accidentally strikes ice into Anna’s head. Their parents take Anna to a troll who saves her, but removes all memory of Elsa’s ice powers. As a precaution, the parents separate the girls and tell Elsa to wear gloves to protect not just Anna, but everyone else from her potentially fatal powers. Neither has any other playmates, so this means a very lonely childhood for both. The situation is not helped when (in classic fairytale fashion) the parents die on a trip abroad.
Elsa (now a young woman) is crowned queen. At the coronation, Anna meets the handsome prince Hans. They ask Elsa’s permission to wed, which she refuses. This leads to an argument: Elsa loses control, covers the kingdom in a blanket of snow and flees to the mountains. Released from society, she builds herself an ice castle and lives there alone. Anna follows her, begging her to return and bring summer back to the kingdom. Elsa says she doesn’t know how to do this and accidentally strikes Anna again, except this time it’s in the heart.
Anna is taken by the plucky Christophe (a love interest she has met on her travels) to the troll, who tells her only an act of true love can stop her dying. Anna interprets this as a kiss from Hans. She and Christophe rush back to the palace. Anna finds Hans, who unfortunately turns out to be a gold digger. He leaves her to die, and orders the execution of Elsa, who has been captured. The film’s climax sees Anna and Christophe (who realise they are in love) desperately trying to reach each other for that life-saving kiss before her heart freezes and kills her. Nearby, Hans informs Elsa that Anna is already dead. Just as he is about to shoot Elsa, Anna manages to divert his aim and save Elsa. Too late for herself, her heart freezes and she turns to ice. Elsa, filled with remorse, cries her first tears of the film and embraces her sister. This unfreezes Anna’s heart and she returns to life. The winter ends instantly, Hans is sent away and everyone else lives happily ever after, with Elsa now in full control of her powers. The film ends with her creating an ice rink for everyone to enjoy.
A pretty standard fairytale, albeit with an injection of modern girl-power. What else is there to the film?
Here’s what: Frozen is a parable of coming out of the freeze response.
Anna and Elsa are aspects of the same person. Let’s call her Anelsa. As young children they are a unified whole, playing harmoniously together. The accident is the Anelsa’s unprocessed life experience.
At this point Anelsa splits into two: Elsa becomes the stuck freeze response; Anna the conscious mind, trying to live a full life.
It’s not the accident itself that causes so much misery. Instead, it’s the well-meant but disastrous actions of the troll and parents: in removing Anna’s memories of the accident, they prevent Anelsa from moving to stage three (seeing herself as a brave survivor). By separating Elsa from all human company, they condemn Anelsa to being stuck in the freeze response. Both girls suffer throughout childhood, remember. Elsa is afraid of her own powers, AKA the healthy aggression needed to exit the freeze response.
As they approach adulthood, Anna’s desire to marry Hans represents the need to start living properly and to embrace her sexuality. Elsa, as the freeze response, sabotages any potential happiness – she is the queen, and what she says goes. Have you ever read an inspiring book, or watched a motivational guru, and decided you would change your life – no argument? Then three weeks later all your great plans have been consigned to a box marked ‘good intentions’ and shoved to the back of your mind. Well, stop feeling guilty. If you have an unprocessed life experience, you are no more able to change your life than Anna can get Elsa’s permission to marry. The only difference is Anna can see and argue with what is sabotaging her – but your freeze response, while being invisible, is no less powerful.
Elsa’s angry outburst that creates winter highlights the role of emotional denial in the stuck freeze response – and how emotional release is vital in moving out of this state. The freeze response is playing dead, but it’s only meant to be temporary. Elsa can stop her ice powers running dangerously rampant by deadening her feelings, but this too can only ever be temporary. Such hemmed in rage must, in the end, be released. This anger, while on the surface a terrible disaster, is the first movement toward healing Anelsa. There is no happy ending without this out-of-control emotional release to trigger the adventure.
Chaotic, oceanic emotions like rage contain the key to healing. I do wish the ‘thoughts create feelings’ brigade, with their implicit assumption that emotions are controllable by the conscious mind, would get this. They do untold harm with their superficial nonsense about replacing fear with love for example. It’s like trying to tell the weatherman to lower the air pressure, because the thunderstorm he’s forecasting isn’t very serene or convenient. Just as the thunderstorm is the only way to lower high air pressure, emotional release is the only way to lessen the power of painful feelings. See the chapters Gifts in Disguise and Speaking Your Truth for more on this.
When Elsa leaves the town in deep snow, Anna has a choice. She can accept what her sister has done, ie live the unfulfilling and diminished life of someone forever stuck in freeze response. Turn into a lonely spinster. The kingdom would barely survive and she could only ever rule as a substitute – and never truly own her life.
But Anna chooses to make a change. This is pivotal in terms of healing Anelsa. Elsewhere in this book, I’ve downplayed the importance of the conscious mind, mainly because its importance is chronically overvalued by pretty much any self-help system, and virtually every weight loss method I’ve ever encountered.
The truth is that the conscious mind (represented by Anna) is actually vital in healing any unprocessed life experience, as long as it acknowledges and respects the primitive mind (represented by Elsa). Just like Elsa, Primitive You will not want to co-operate. The key is to keep trying anyway, as Anna does. Anna is a brilliant role model for how you should approach this whole process. However harmful Elsa’s actions are, Anna always sees through her pain and grasps that Elsa means her no harm. Anna is curious, adventurous and highly adaptable.
Anna’s decision to go after Elsa catapults Anelsa into stage three. Follow her example, and do not wait for anyone else to move you to stage three – that’s the adventure, moving there yourself. By the skin of your teeth will be the most likely mode of travel – there is no other way.
Yes, these traits are easy to tack onto a cartoon character, and in real life this adventure doesn’t generally show up as a rip-roaring adventure with a nice neat ending and funny snowman thrown in to lighten the load.
But an adventure it is all the same.
My movement out of freeze response and into stage three that I describe in this book was much tougher to experience than watching a movie, but at the end of Frozen nothing about your life has changed. Nothing. Compare that to your own adventure which starts changing your life immediately…and there’s no looking back. It took me less time to read about the freeze response than it takes to watch Frozen, but it absolutely changed my life. It didn’t make the pain go away – but straightaway it dealt a fatal blow to much of the invisible toxic guilt I’d been carrying for years.
Back to Frozen. When things go badly wrong (Elsa strikes Anna in the heart, Hans leaves her for dead) all hope rests on Christophe’s shoulders. The film sets us up to believe that only his act of true love – kissing Anna – can save her. This is one of the biggest clichés in life: someone else can surgically remove your pain and take responsibility for your healing. In stuck freeze response, it ain’t so.
In the end, Elsa saves Anna. The script tries to tell us different – that Anna’s act of self-sacrifice indirectly saves her own life – but seen from the angle of Elsa being the stuck freeze response personified, this is what happens:
The split that has disempowered Anelsa is repaired when she exits the freeze response via positively channelling her emotions. After years of emotional denial, then her only expression being rage, Elsa finally cries tears of remorse.
Remorse is being able to accept what she has done, and know that it cannot destroy her. The fact Elsa can accept and own the dark side of her powers allows the aggression of the freeze response to be healthy – because it can be released when it’s no longer needed. This is what the little possum in freeze response does instinctively: when he judges the bear has gone, he accesses his healthy aggression to protect him and escape as fast as he can, in case the bear is still around. Then he carries on with his life.
As she cries, Elsa embraces the frozen statue of Anna. This is the first time she has touched anyone in years. Emotions live in the body, and because they help us mediate the world and navigate potential threats, being connected to our body is indispensable in healing and living fully. Trauma is stored in the body – and it is via the body that trauma is released. Elsa’s embrace is key in bringing Anna back to life; reconnecting to your body is key in processing those life events that act as blocks to your power.
Elsa finally understands that it’s not her powers that are dangerous. The true danger lies in what she was taught as a child: deny and squash the emotions that trigger the power. They became uncontrollable precisely because they’d been denied for most of her life. Keep your gloves on and symbolically disconnect from your body.
Now the gloves are off, but in the best way possible.
Henceforth she can control her powers; the ice rink she creates at the end of the film is a symbol of the healthy protection that Anelsa has now developed for herself, free at last from the stuck freeze response.
I know why Frozen is such a massive success. For the same reason that Harry Potter is. These stories connect us to The Lost Child within us that is still living in the shadow of unprocessed life events, and show us a way out of a deadened life of struggle to freedom, empowerment and adventure. It is my aim for this book to connect the dots and bridge the gap between those works of fiction and your life.
Chapter 25: And It All Drops Off
Marianne Williamson, in A Course In Weight Loss, describes how she did the work on herself, and then one day looked down and all the weight had magically dropped off. I remember screwing up my face in incomprehension and the-grass-is-greener self-pity when I read this. How could that ever happen to me?
But it did. I just took a different path.
Most people, when I explain moving to stage three, intuitively get it. It’s immediately inspiring and gives a concrete basis for the blind positive thinking of ideas like ‘your past does not equal your future’. It liberates us because it gives us a road map for finding our true inner strength.
The idea of moving out of the freeze response is much less straightforward. People get it on an intellectual level. But that’s not the point.
To truly grasp the power of the freeze response and how key thawing it out is, you need to experience it. And where do you do that?
In your body.
Before you throw your arms up in frustration (why is she stating the bleeding obvious?), hold on a minute.
For many people, being ‘in their body’ is an extremely difficult state to achieve. Now, this is not some vague, new age concept I’ve stolen from a yoga wear designer. The best way to understand what it means to be ‘in your body’ – or embodied – is to grasp its opposite – disembodiment. You will intuitively get this concept more easily, because we live in a culture where disembodiment is the norm. It’s most likely how you operate, even without realising. Think of disembodiment as checking out of your body.
How We’ve Checked Out Of Our Bodies
1 The Photoshop Ideal – media images of beauty have been invisibly polluted by this invention. If even supermodels – the cultural symbols of physical perfection – are deemed to be in need of digital beautifying, then where does that leave the rest of us? With a sense of inadequacy so deeply ingrained that we’ve stopped questioning it. Scratch that, we never began to question it. This inadequacy morphs into body shame and we buy into The Photoshop Ideal – hook, line and sinker. In this situation, the easiest thing to do is check out of our bodies.
2 Food has stopped being something that nourishes, maintains and strengthens us. We de-nature it, and in its processed, addictive, inflammatory state, it gets us high, distracts us and comforts us. We use it as a negotiating tool with our kids and an instrument of self-sabotage when we diet. Many people spend all day thinking about food – except when they are actually eating. For me, ‘eating’ wasn’t even the right term. I inhaled my food. Another great way to check out of my body.
The fast food billboards sit right next to the beauty billboards. You’d think there would be some kind of contradiction there. But deep down they serve the same purpose – they help us deny, disrespect and leave our bodies.
3 In the same way that young men are encouraged to sacrifice their bodies during wartime, work culture encourages us to sacrifice our bodies for the corporate effort. It’s like a kind of invisible conscription, except the only war you’re fighting is The War Of The Mirrors. Long hours in often sedentary environments tip toeing around others’ egos, or caught in the crossfire of different departments’ demands. A perfect recipe for disembodiment. Drained, we go home and begin our futile attempts at squashing and distorting our emotions and stress via the contents of the fridge – instead of allowing them to move through us.
All this is hard enough for those who are not living in the shadow of unprocessed life experiences, but it’s a recipe for seemingly unending misery if such events are holding you back. Remember Peter Levine’s wise words: trauma is stored in the body.
The only way to come out of the freeze response is indeed via the body.
The next point is really important, so listen up: we humans can get stuck in freeze response, but unlike the possum, fool ourselves into thinking this is not where the action is. The truth is that for humans, it is possible to be walking around, functioning still be stuck in the freeze response. Marc David, founder of The Institute for the Psychology of Eating (www.psychologyofeating.com), has said that many people who believe they are depressed are actually stuck in freeze response. And what is depression, if not some half-life, drained of vitality and forward movement?
Harriet Morris – eating psychology & body confidence coach
07 78 62 855 92 * Skype: theshiftinside