Last week I gave an overview of how the pain and trauma of sexual betrayal frequently manifest. Today we look at "shock," a.k.a. "freeze."
One of the respondents to the "2014/2015 Survey of Wives of Sex Addicts" said she felt like she was walking around in shock for about three months after disclosure. Another stated:
“I almost checked out mentally when he told me. I couldn't respond or speak for a long time and it scared the crap out of him and me. I think I just had to go somewhere safe in my mind until I could process it all and deal with the trauma.”
In the Multidimensional Partner Trauma Model training that APSATS (Association of Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists) runs for coaches and therapists they explain:
Trauma organizes survival responses in the lower brain structures and disorganizes cognitive functions in the neocortex.
In other words, normal thinking goes offline while "fight, flight and freeze" take over. We may vascilate between these three "f's"—or between hyper-arousal (fight and flight) and hypo-arousal (freeze). Sometimes we just get really stuck in one of these modes... such as freeze or shock.
One of the hallmarks of shock is the inability to feel much about the traumatic event… or anything else. I remember my first counselor (about a week after disclosure) telling me he was quite impressed with how I was handling the situation. He said he was we used to women smashing things in his office. He said something like, “this is the most civil and intellectual conversation I’ve ever had with the wife of a sex addict before.”
As it turned out smashing things was coming. What he was looking at in that moment was a type of emotional paralysis: a “this does not compute” reaction. I was cognitively processing what I’d been told as best as I could (despite “foggy” brain), but emotionally, I was a bit constipated.
Other symptoms of hypo-arousal/shock include:
- physical numbness (particularly in the extremities)
- feelings of hopelessness
- poor circulation
- digestive sluggishness (with actual constipation)
- muscle weakness
If these symptoms are proving debilitating over a length of time, we probably need to consider consulting a doctor or natural health practitioner as well as a partner (of sex addict) trauma specialist coach or therapist.
Shock and Denial
Severe shock can also lead to ongoing emotional paralysis that affects many areas of life. Some of us, particularly when we're struggling with hopelessness, may even enter a denial state around the traumatic event. The denial can take various forms including:
- Denying we are hurt by the betrayal
- Denying there is anything “wrong” with the acting out
- Denying it happened and that we know (this is different than trauma-induced memory lapses)
Denying is more likely to be an issue if we feel social pressure to ignore the poisonous behavior that traumatized us. This will be the case in Christian circles where sex (healthy or unhealthy) is considered a taboo subject or where it is expected that men are to be given license when it comes to sexual acting out, while women have to just "get over it."
However, we don’t have to play that dysfunctional game. Neither do we have to stay stuck in shock/denial because “there is no hope for this situation.” That’s Satan’s lie, and we don’t need to fall for it.
It's quite common for shock to be the first manifestation of our trauma, and for most people this will resolve with a little support and self-care, so long as they are not being continually re-traumatized.
If we're feeling a bit stuck in this emotion, however, moving forward may require us to do extra "processing." This may be as simple as taking a day away from it all and thinking/journalling about the enormous impact of the betrayal and how it makes us feel. Even more helpful, though, can be to find a safe person (e.g., specialist counsellor, support group, friends, faith-family members) to talk to. Such a person can often, by their empathy, help us to move toward feeling our negative emotions and then find our way back from them.
Our primary emotion may not be negative, of course. It may be relief (as some survey respondents reported) because we FINALLY have an explanation for our husband’s long-standing poisonous behavior. Even still, at some point we will almost certainly have pain to face, pain to grieve, and pain to process with God and safe people.
Next week I’ll talk about the emotion that so frequently lies just beyond the shock: anger.
Grounding hint: next time you are triggered and finding yourself going into freeze, try stamping your feet, pressing your thumb nail into other fingers, or just saying out loud, "I'm triggered." Begin to take slower, deeper breaths.