There are at least four different ways the body can respond to highly traumatic or stressful situations. With my current trauma I have been taken into the “collapse”/”shutdown” state, which is when the nervous system decides it cannot escape the threat, cannot overpower it, and cannot make it lose interest. It is a state of complete helplessness where the only thing left is to disconnect from ourselves and our surroundings so we don’t feel as much pain. It is a response which looks extremely disturbing to onlookers, which is why somebody who saw me like this a few weeks ago called an ambulance. I looked as though I’d overdosed or something. I lay on the ground not speaking or responding. He turned me over and my muscles flopped meekly to the ground like a rag doll. Usually I’d be embarrassed to be causing such a scene, but I was so out of it and did not care about anything anymore. It all felt like a bad dream.

During the shutdown/collapse response you are HYPO aroused. I think this is why when I start drinking, it doesn’t take much alcohol to knock me out. Physically, your heartrate, blood pressure and temperature tend to decrease when in the shutdown response. A lower blood pressure minimises blood loss in the case of tissue damage.

The shutdown response can be acute e.g. fainting, out of body experiences, severe dissociation. It can also be present long term, manifesting as treatment-resistant depression and obedience.

Tori Smith has a great summery of the different responses, with a focus on the shutdown response, on their website. There is also a journal article which I found really eye-opening here.

There is a lot of misinformation in new age circles that happiness (and therefore unhappiness) is a “choice”. That our behaviour is a choice. People wonder why those experiencing domestic violence don’t just leave. But when it comes to trauma, these responses are not things we choose. They are snap decisions made for us by our nervous system.  This is something Tori describes:

“There is quite a large stigma in our culture about how people “should” or “shouldn’t” respond to a traumatic situation. Comments like, “Well why didn’t they try to fight or run away?” are incredibly harmful, and are indicative of a culture that does not understand our biological responses to fear. By understanding and normalizing the entire fear response spectrum from fight to collapse, we can create more compassionate language in the way we respond to survivors.”

I have found there is this real, often distressing sense of weakness, both physically and spiritually, when we reach the shutdown response, especially for those of us with complex trauma. It’s like we have been running a marathon. It’s like we are totally stretched to our limits. We are ready to just give up/collapse. It is a horrible feeling. It is something Moby sings about in “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die”. Unfortunately I don’t usually reach the point where I die, or lose complete consciousness or memory of the event, so I just have to feel it. It would be kinder if death would finally take me, but alas I am still here.