Several weeks back I had fascinating conversation with a fine art and publicity photographer. He takes exquisite photos, the type of photo where you believe you are peering into the soul of his model. Interestingly, he remarked that there are instances when he sees beyond a natural anxiety or awkwardness in a model even as she (or he) is able to pose and smile - that somehow the face seems frozen.
The emerging neuroscience of acute stress and trauma may help to explain what, in part, the photographer sees.
We are fortunate that our nervous system is organized to protect us from danger. Say, for example, you happen to see a Gray Wolf in your path as you walk through Yellowstone National Park. A natural threat response will activate to ensure your survival. One part of your nervous system automatically releases a cascade of stress hormones designed to shut off the portion of your brain that thinks and plans, because stopping to consider your next move would surely be deadly. Concurrently, your body will attempt to flee or hide. Your heart rate increases, pupils dilate, and muscles tense. None of these changes are actions you choose freely - it’s how our nervous system is designed to respond to life threatening situations.
But what if the threat is your home? What if the Gray Wolf is a human predator upon whom you rely for safety, security, and love? That complicates the story.
Human children will first reach out to someone close to them when they are afraid - a parent, a family member, or (in adulthood) a partner. If these people are not safe, that fight/flight response will engage. Unfortunately, for children living in homes characterized by chaos or abuse neither fight nor flight is usually possible. Children are then left unsafe and with no way out, creating an unsolvable dilemma in which the biological drive for protection takes them to the source of danger from which they are trying to escape. Their traumatized physiology moves into a collapse mode as a way of self-protection. Traumatized children are chronically afraid - frozen, with a compromised ability to think, rationalize, and respond - and may grow into adults who view vulnerability in close relationships as dangerous.
A frozen state is visible in our faces, faces that lack the relaxed facial muscles, natural movement, and warmth necessary to make and sustain human connection. It is reflected there because our nervous system connects to specific muscles in the face and neck that communicate interest, amusement, responsiveness, as well as a host of other emotions - including fear. A face that reflects chronic and long lasting fear is dangerous for us because we are wired for belonging. Feeling frozen contributes to isolation as it inhibits our ability to form meaningful relationships.
Fortunately, change is possible. Your reaction to acute stress is the natural adaptation to the situation in which you lived and, as such, it is learned. The good news is that something that is learned can be unlearned. One essential piece of trauma work is becoming attuned to the ways in which you hold your experiences in your body. What do you notice about your breath? Your posture? The muscles in your face? What do you notice when you scan your body from head to toe? As you begin to listen to your body you can work with what you’ve learned, so that you can live freely with less anxiety and fear.