That’s the theory, called polyvagal theory, put forth in this Guardian article by Stephen Porges.
I think this is something we need to consider:
Can you explain polyvagal theory in layperson’s terms?
Polyvagal theory articulates three different branches of the autonomic nervous system that evolved from very primitive vertebrates to mammals. And it’s quite interesting how the sequence evolved. First, you have a system that is really an ancient one, which is death feigning or immobilisation. Then it has a fight or flight system, a mobilisation system. Then finally, with mammals, you have what I call a social engagement system, which can detect features of safety and actually communicate them to another. When you trigger feelings of safety, the autonomic nervous system can help health restoration. In terms of dealing with a life threat, you most likely go into this feigning death, dissociative state.
When we talk about the fight or flight response, in particular, this is where a lot of survivors get hung up, and I think what Dr. Porges says here is incredibly important.
Society praises fight, accepts flight, but tends to attach shame to immobilisation. Is that fair to say?
The most important word there is “shame”. Survivors are shamed and blamed because they didn’t mobilise, fight and make an effort. That’s a misunderstanding. It’s a poorly informed explanation because the body goes into that state and they can’t move. The theory had traction because it gave survivors feelings of validation. Survival was really an expression of the heroic nature of our body in trying to save us. Sometimes it goes into a state in which we can’t move, but the objective is to raise our pain thresholds and to make us appear to be less viable to the predator. Within the legal system, there’s been a lot of issues when a person hasn’t fought off a predator. And I think this is being poorly informed about how bodies respond.
I’m sure many survivors are nodding their heads right about now, especially male survivors, who it seems society expects more “fighting” from, despite the fact that our bodies natural response to danger may be quite the opposite. Some level of dissociation and inability to move might actually be the more likely response. We may commonly refer to this as the “freeze” option.
Most importantly though, is that Dr. Porges is talking about a society where we don’t blame victims, we don’t judge how they reacted to trauma, we don’t even try to evaluate it. We don’t talk about why you didn’t fight, whether you fought hard enough, what you should have done to get away, etc. We just accept the natural reaction our bodies had to the situation, (Which, again, especially when talking about sexual assault, our bodies reacted the way they institutionally do because of a long history of evolution, not because we “wanted it”.), and support their attempts to heal.
In other words, can society just accept that what was done to us, was exactly that, done to us. By someone else, who is the one to blame.
Will we ever get there? I don’t know. There are a lot of instinctual reasons that point people hearing about someone else’s trauma to evaluate and judge it, mostly to find a reason why it won’t happen to them. Those are some pretty powerful forces moving within us. Maybe the best we can do is try and understand that these forces are in play, and let people do what they need to do, and not judge anyone.
Then again, if you’re a survivor, anyone who wants to judge how your body reacted, probably just doesn’t need to be part of your support network. That’s cool, there are a lot of fellow survivors who do get it. Find them.