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  • Writer's pictureHeather Koubek

Lemme tell you a little story about a Possum

Updated: Feb 5, 2022

We have all heard about our heroic fight or flight response. People can pick up cars to save babies trapped underneath! We can run like an antelope to escape danger! It is perceived as our superpowers. I have spoken a lot about how this superpower can become mis-wired, resulting in us functioning all day on adrenaline and stress hormones. What is often overlooked is our freeze and collapse response. Let me tell you a little story about an opossum.

A few years back, on a bright and warm June day, my kids brought me out to the backyard with their screams. A juvenile opossum had gotten itself trapped in our soccer net. I mean wrapped securely, like when we wrap our leftovers in saran wrap. He was very still- we had to get up very close to see that he was indeed breathing. I promptly cut him out of the net and held him- barely a pulse. So I put him in a shoe box with a towel in the darkest part of our basement. My intention was that was a more humane way to die than in the bright sun or mauled by my black Labrador Retriever. All day long we checked on him- still breathing, seemingly asleep. At about 9pm, my daughter brought her friend down to see our new friend. More screams. He was gone. Down went my husband who cursed and yelled, as the Possum ran to and fro like lightning. “He is fine!!!” Sean yelled. We eventually captured it with a trail of grapes and released it to the wild. He came back to visit briefly the next day at dusk. He was truly well.

We humans can do this too when we are in danger. If we are in a situation in which we cannot flee or fight back, our brains do this miraculous thing. It slows down our vital signs and sends out pain relieving chemicals. This is all done so we can survive an attack we cannot escape. If we are injured, we will not feel the pain as intensely. Ask my Possum friend. It works. The only issue with this response is that it’s not perceived as a superpower- conversely it’s seen as weakness. When we reflect back on a situation in which we had to shut down like this, we feel shame. We did not lift any cars. We did not use our bodies to fight back or run. We didn’t save ourselves.

In TV or movies we do not often see the freeze/collapse response portrayed as it is not exciting to watch. Truth is this is a much more common response to intense or chronic danger. Please understand it’s a wonderful survival mechanism that works! But because it can be perceived as the weaker reaction, it tends to add a layer of shame onto an event that is already painful. It tends to linger in our nervous systems longer so that recovery from this trauma can be more of a challenge.

I am here to ask you all to look at this response as heroic!! To cut yourself some slack if you rolled over and played dead. This is not a sign of weakness. It is as much of a survival skill as fighting back. The issue with this response is not that you are weak, but that over time it can cause you to freeze and collapse in your daily life. Just as with any stress response that has run amok, it begins to activate in safe situations. You begin to detach from all situations, good, indifferent or bad. When you see (or have been) a person in a long-term abusive relationship, this is why it seems from the outside that the abused is “letting it happen.” The reality is their nervous system is mis-firing. Their conditioned response to danger is detachment. This is simply how they survive their daily existence.

If this is you, there are ways out of this loop of freeze/collapse. As always, it begins when we look inward. When we seek out things that will help us face our painful and vulnerable emotions in a safe space. When we begin to become mindful of our survival techniques WITHOUT JUDGEMENT. When we can identify when these responses that have outworn their welcome in our daily lives. Clinicians who specialize in trauma-based modalities are a good start. Bodywork like CranioSacral therapy is another good option. Hypnotherapy can also help bring your mind and body into alignment. This will be a long journey that will not be easy or linear. However, it will be worth the efforts; it will help reconnect you to yourself. Once this is achieved, you will be able to safely attach to all manner of beautiful and complex people and situations in your life. So your inner Opossum will begin only to be activated if absolutely necessary.

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