Understanding Trauma Responses

On Monday night Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told her story about her Capitol riot experience, describing the unfortunate event, as well as insight on trauma alongside it.

In an emotional Instagram Live that went viral, now being viewed more than 3 million times, Ocasio-Cortez mentioned that the fear she experienced in the Capitol riot last month garnered an even bigger impact on her due to previous trauma she had never spoken about publicly: sexual assault. 

Understandably filled with emotions she revealed that she froze in the moment as well as, “when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.” 

Different Types of Trauma Responses

Almost everyone is familiar with the almost automatic flight or flight response when one no longer feels safe, but this freezing response that AOC recalls is also quite common. View the quick breakdown between the different types of trauma responses from Ashley Treatment “A Closer Look at Freeze, The Third Stress Response” below.

Fight – Tightened jaw or fists, clenched teeth, a desire to strike out physically such as kicking or punching, glaring, raised voice, feelings of nausea or knots in the stomach, thoughts that are homicidal or suicidal in nature, anger, and rage.

Flight – Feelings of anxiety, shallow breathing, darting eyes/inability to focus, restless movements in the limbs, fidgeting, feeling trapped, feeling tense, feelings of restlessness.

Freeze – Feeling stuck in a certain part of the body, feeling cold or numb, physical stiffness or heaviness of limbs, decreased heart-rate, restricted breathing or holding of the breath, a sense of dread or foreboding and the feeling of not being able to move.

According to Dr. Leon F Seltzer in his Psychology Today: “Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both?” piece, the freeze response usually occurs when the situation confronting you overwhelms your coping capacities and leaves you paralyzed in fear. The freeze response is also more common for those that experience a large amount of fear in response to certain stressors, most commonly in children where the ability to protect or defend oneself is limited. 

As further pointed out by Ashley Treatment, there is also an additional response that has recently gained attention and consideration, but is not currently included in the stress response model called fawning. 

Ashley Treatment further discusses that, “Fawning is a response marked by people-pleasing behaviors, conflict avoidance, unable to find one’s voice or ability to stand up for themselves in the face of a threat, and taking care of the needs of others to one’s own detriment.”

Trauma Compounding On Trauma

Experts have gone on to say that there is truth to what Alexandria mentioned about trauma compounding on trauma. 

Trauma can compound on trauma where a certain traumatic event can bring one back to a previous traumatic event, and not specifically trigger previous trauma, but build upon it. 

Jennifer Gomez, a Psychology professor at Wayne State University made sure to point out in USA Today’s “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is explaining something about trauma. Experts Say We Should Listen” that AOC’s feelings may be more closely linked given that both traumas were interpersonal.

Gomez further states that sexual assault “is a violation that takes their power away. … The insurrection also is very deliberately and explicitly taking power away, with harm directed at specific targets, like women of color, more than others, like white men.” She further elaborated, “AOC, and all the many others who have experienced violence, is reacting normally to extreme events. The links between sexual assault and the insurrection, in particular, are profound.”

Trauma is showcased and resolved among every individual differently, which is why I encourage you or someone you know that has undergone a traumatic event or experience to reach out and seek professional help. 

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org).

Sources: Ashley Treatment “A Closer Look at Freeze, The Third Stress Response”

Dr. Leon F Seltzer Psychology Today (Jul 08, 2015) “Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both?”

USA Today (Feb 2, 2021) “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is explaining something about trauma. Experts say we should listen.”

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