Freeze response: the intersection of autism, trauma and chronic illness

Peter Levine PhD, psychologist and creator of Somatic Experiencing, has spent over 45 years studying the immobility or freeze response to trauma.

“It is one of the three primary responses available to reptiles and mammals when faced with an overwhelming threat. The other two, fight and flight, are much more familiar to most of us. Less is known about the immobility response” (from “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter A. Levine).

He points out that though our culture tends to regard this instinctive response as weakness or cowardice, which stems from a fear of death (since these states have obvious similarities), it has sound evolutionary basis and is in fact a gift in our biological make-up.

“Nature has developed the immobility response for two good reasons. One, it serves as a last-ditch survival strategy. You might know it better as playing possum. Take the young impala, for instance. There is a possibility that the cheetah may decide to drag its ‘dead’ prey to a place safe from other predators; or to its lair, where the food can be shared later with its cubs. During this time, the impala could awaken from its frozen state and make a hasty escape in an unguarded moment. When it is out of danger, the animal will literally shake off the residual effects of the immobility response and gain full control of its body. It will then return to its normal life as if nothing had happened. Secondly, in freezing, the impala (and human) enters an altered state in which no pain is experienced. What that means for the impala is that it will not have to suffer while being torn apart by the cheetah’s sharp teeth and claws” (from “Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma” by Peter A. Levine).

In the human state, when inescapable or overwhelming threat confronts you, recourse to this function is entirely involuntary; you don’t decide to go into it, it just happens automatically in response to the overwhelm and threat encountered. Temporarily, while threat remains present, this response can be a buffer from pain or even the experience of death but, after the event, as with other species, the reset comes when you shake that trauma out of your body, expending all the massive surplus or “tornado” of energy your body held onto during the “freeze”, as a result of the huge acceleration of fear or adrenaline during the initiating event followed by such an abrupt grind to a halt. Left in the body, this stockpile of energy could easily turn into trauma, however, undomesticated animals do no such thing but, rather, discharge the surplus energy by shaking it our of their muscles and getting on with their day. Once that energy has been discharged the impala resumes its grazing, if with somewhat twitchy leg muscles for a time afterwards, but wild animals don’t then overthink the experience and that shaking process is enough. Humans, as ever, aren’t that simple and tend to overthink what they just went through, even sometimes missing out the discharge stage altogether.

So, what happens when the reset doesn’t follow? When you don’t have the resources to shake it off quickly when something bad has happened to you? When all that immense energy gets stuck in the body because the human brain sometimes interferes, getting the emotions involved, meaning all that energy gets frozen and perpetuated in muscle and nerves as long lasting trauma that often only generates more trauma, through heightened sensitivity, on repeat? How does this relate to chronic fatigue, chronic pain, sensory defensiveness and other chronic conditions “stuck” in the body? How about the autistic experience of life, which can be more sensorily and experientially triggering at every stage, not to mention compromised when it comes to opportunities to process and discharge multiple traumatic experiences that differently wired people often fail to notice or acknowledge we are even going through?

Levine has spent years developing techniques to coax trauma states out of the bodies that have become stuck in the groove of trauma, releasing them from the freeze response, sometimes after many years. Whilst this is a mere abbreviation of the process, the key seems to be to acknowledge the original experience (feeling it in the body) and then discharge that energy in ways it wasn’t able to discharge at the time and there are methods in his books and in various videos available online.

I can’t help wondering how applicable somatic experiencing could be for someone who has been through trauma in their earlier life due to the fact that they did not “hold all of the cards” of the situation at the time of that instigating event. In more than one traumatic event that I can think of, the perpetrator of abuse seemed to somehow know I was at a disadvantage whereas I was completely oblivious to my own vulnerability. Apart from abuses I refer to later in this post, I had random things happen to me like being abused in a swimming pool when I was in my early teens and it was as though I was singled out, though my friend was left alone. Studies and anecdotes alike (see article and I have heard this in podcasts many times) seem to suggest that autistic girls are up to three times more likely to attract abuse than their age peers, and what about young autistic women since I know my own vulnerability persisted until well into adulthood, exacerbated by still not realising I was autistic. Do “bad things” happen more often to autistic people, increasing the likelihood of trauma?

As I come to terms with my autism at this pretty advanced stage of my life (I found out at 51), recollecting all the events of my life that are linked to unrealised autism can be its own form of trigger as you take in the enormity of autism’s effect on all of your life, though you didn’t know it until now. In effect, being autistic has utterly defined my life….and was defining my life even before I knew I was autistic. Coming to terms with that, as per so many later-life diagnosed women I am hearing on podcasts lately, I recognise that I am now in a position of revisiting some of those traumas from a different stance and then perhaps reprocessing them through the informed eyes of one who now realises what the missing piece to my understanding was. At the time, I so often felt I was faulty or to blame, had brought about my own victimisation in various ways I struggled to fathom or that the abuse and criticism hurled at me was justified. If only I had known about my autism at the time, I feel it is much more likely that I would have walked away from abuse, have chosen differently, worked better with my own limitations and chosen a very different life instead of putting up with so much to “normalise”. I would also have chosen my confidants better, not been such an open book when it came to trusting people and excused myself for responding differently to my peers instead of pushing myself ever-harder to assimilate their behaviours or be in environments that massively overstimulated me.

So I am halfway through Levine’s book “Waking the Tiger” and have been working my way through some of his videos online to gather some of his techniques for my own use. As ever, I will be approaching this post, not as a dissemination of Levine’s theories (there are loads of YouTube videos available), but as a personal account of why I think it is relevant to explore somatic therapies because, after all, I am autistic so using my own examples is what I do best and if you are a regular reader you will know that by now. If it bothers you that I am being too personal, I suggest you move on to another source of information.

Just one day in to the deep dive and I realise I have spent years and years stuck in the described state of freeze response to trauma, having never managed to follow through with the appropriate reset behaviour after extreme terror, anger and hopelessness (all three in almost equal proportions) which are the typical states to lead to a freeze response according to Levine. As hopelessness, futility and despair tend to persist throughout trauma, for instance “when your spouse, friends and relatives unite in their conviction that it’s time for you to get on with your life…you should have learned to live with your symptoms by now” (Waking the Tiger) then you are at risk of being triggered and retriggered back into the frozen state!

Instead of processing it, I have always tended to shrug trauma off as too dramatic a label or rationalised a more “appropriate” reaction such as trying not to make a fuss, rock the boat or challenge anyone (though I now question how much this “quiet and well behaved” behaviour was the internalised expectations of those I grew up around). Far too many times, I have suppressed my own anger since I really don’t like the feeling of anger or the effect it has of engaging a retaliatory effect. Since I was a very young child, I have tried to quietly turn the other cheek and not react, not draw attention or prolong the pain nor the fear of alienating myself any more than I already was, which was an ever-present dread. This (with the hindsight of realising my autism) is all very clear to me now. For years, I felt left out and treated differently for no apparent reason and no one wants to be around a victim or an angry person, besides I was convinced I would never be believed or taken seriously if I shared what upset me (my track record wasn’t encouraging since no one seemed to relate to my sensitivities and unusual insights at home). If I told them, I risked people deciding I had brought it all on myself and ending up even more alone and misunderstood than before; in fact, those that victimised me seemed to know this about me…they were always quite confident I wouldn’t speak out, which enable them to continue. As per many late diagnosed people, women especially, I look back and realise how undiagnosed autism made me a sitting duck for abuse at school, in relationships and in the workplace.

During school bullying, when raped and throughout the decade-plus of mental abuse that included gaslighting, manipulation, belittlement and strategic isolation from those few friends that I had managed to make by my prevous partner, it was somehow known by those perpetrators that I would never kick back. My rapist had known me for five years and had got deeply into my head, my fears and insecurities due to his romantic relationship with my one-time best friend who shared confidences about me, to him, that should never have been passed on. He just knew he could take this liberty and walk away scot-free and unchallenged, behaving as if it was all in my head, because I was, as predicted, awash with so much self-doubt and anxiety afterwards that I did nothing, alerted no one and set about squirrelling all that pain and betrayal deep into myself, for years. In effect, I was frozen in anger and hopelessness and terror.

All these many years later, I see all too clearly how that stockpile of stuck emotions built up in me, mostly out of the misplaced desire to keep myself away from undesirable attention or risk further isolation. I also lacked the communication methods to cry for help so my modus operandi, developed during longterm bullying at school, was to put on a front of never wobbling, always coping, seeming pretty-much OK even to those closest to me. Thus I never allowed the appropriate responses to occur, to reset my nervous system. Instead I just soldiered on alone and buried it all, carrying all the undischarged energy of trauma in my cells and coming to think of this as normal, though I recall bizarre sensory experiences (clues to a trauma response) such as tingling and palpitations, muscle rigidity, TMJ (jaw) tension and widespread pain were an issue by my late 20s. As time went by, I rationalised that all this “stuff” from my past was just water under the bridge and invariably instructed myself to get back on my feet and move on, without all the fuss. At best, I much-later processed some of it out loud in my blog, at least claiming for myself the long overdue need to be heard (if by complete strangers but unlikely those who perpetrated and seldom those who know me since there are very few I would want to hear, in this much detail, about my hidden trauma). Those times I shared, even then, felt terrifying and only triggered me back into further trauma.

Meanwhile I never processed all those stuck nervous system reactions out of myself and they have accumulated. Last time I was traumatised, in particular, I felt I just had to keep on going, whatever the personal cost, as my daughter’s safety and stability relied on me being this immutable person in her life. One small emotional wobble and I could have lost everything, the very roof over our heads, so I bottled it all up, braced for the executive function challenge of my life, which involved keeping the wolf from the door during some extremely hard times financially, never knowing that so many of my challenges in that respect came back to my unrecognised autism. When that immediate threat withdrew, my body intervened at last to force an emergency ’STOP’ point and then it buckled. Now at 16 years later, I am still bowed-down in such a profound freeze response that I can’t seem to reset without retraumatising myself as soon as I start to pick up a little in my health. I’ve become so micro-sensitive to so many triggers, since there’s not much left in life that doesn’t subconsciously remind me so much of past trauma, that I only get so far before relapsing back into the freeze response all over again, taking the form of chronic illness.

Realising all this in one fail swoop has been the gift of finally taking steps to reset my life, particularly regarding where we live (as discussed in my last post). The past 16 years have been like a breath held, too fearful to breathe out for far too many reminders of trauma. The very bricks and mortar of this house hold memories of trauma; I may deny it and dress it up but its always there. It “seemed sensible” to consolidate and stay put when the last trauma event subsided, in fact choosing to stay in the same place and reinvent my life from there felt like an act of defiance at the time. Now I’m not so sure; sometimes we really need pastures new to heal and move on. I’m about to get to those green pastures at last and my body seems to know it as it’s starting to have opinions. In just a few days, it has let me know (via many different routes) that its time to look at the work of Peter Levine and no more stalling.

There was a time before trauma, in earliest childhood, and I find some resources there, though things were always compromised by my unrecognised autism which kept me and my needs from being met, especially sensory needs, even by parents and close family who had no idea I was so affected, nor that I needed stability, repetition, alone time and quiet to thrive. However, if was from school onwards that I was confronted with the starkest reality that I was not being met as others are or “as” my intrinsic self and that I had to modify myself, drastically, in order to blend in, and that even then I was still considered to be different, an outsider and not always treated kindly. Also, I was often passed-by when I needed help or interaction, assumed to possess a degree of self-sufficiency that I didn’t really have since it was just a calm and unemotive “front” of seeming to be alright that I had learned to adopt in order to protect myself. Underneath that surface, there was always so much more going on and there was often so much anxiety about meeting expectations.

I was so strong in the skill of masking that anyone who knew me when trauma happened and who heard about it later couldn’t understand how they didn’t even know but that’s just how it is; I really am so adept at putting on that unruffled front (the same these days, when I am in a lot of pain and yet people don’t always take me seriously when I tell them). I heard an anecdote yesterday of an autistic woman who went to ER with a broken arm but the consultant refused to believe it was broken until he saw the x-ray as she didn’t “behave like a person with a broken arm would normally behave”. This is another trait of autism, we don’t often show our emotions in our faces and gestures, which can go the other way and lead to endless comments of “smile, it may never happen” when you are perfectly happy on the inside.

Some people did see flashes of real me warts and all, and still do, without recoil at my differences and those are my resources as I go through all this. I have to get real with those who truly see me as I am, or who at least try. I need to consolidate supporters (not places full of triggers) as I dare to dive into the giant pot of pain instead of averting my attention from it but I also know that, mostly, the process of discharging the trauma lies with me. Perhaps also a therapist, if I can find one familiar with both autism plus this somatic approach to trauma, but that part is proving difficult to arrange where I live and so far I have not found anyone local enough to go to (I’m not sure how well somatic methods translate over zoom). I’m not discounting talking therapy but I already know that CBT is not for me (as is often the case for autistic people…perhaps we are too logical). If I did go to a therapist I feel I would want them to be autistic too, to avoid being at cross purposes or having to waste so much effort explaining reactions they can’t relate to, not to mention the risk of being patronised or dismissed (I suspect these are some of the reasons I have not had good results in the past). There is such a thing as the “autistic click” when you finally speak to someone who really gets you without having to translate everything. I have heard so many positives of finding an autistic therapist and have attached an article on how autistic people make such excellent therapists below; in fact, time over and without my unfair share of trauma and illness, I might have gone into this myself. If only I could find an autistic therapist though; extracts of a Guardian article on the topic below flag up just how fearful professionals are of disclosing their autism for fear of discrimination.

Over the years, I wish someone had pointed me at the right kind of therapy sooner. Even without knowing my autism, so many of them must have gleaned I was deep into a PTSD response, yet alternative therapists full of good intent but with no trauma-training took me on some fairly risky excursions, digging deep with spiritual abandon and so often releasing so much trauma, so abruptly, that I was only re-triggered back into the depths. Others must have known they weren’t quite what I needed but kept me coming back all the same. Often the very scale of my trauma was made to sound heroic or spiritually cathartic as it came up but it was way too much for me to handle alone and in such a hotchpotch way so I ceased all therapies several years ago.

Until I knew about my autism, I didn’t even have the words to ask for what I need. I lacked the language to describe what I’ve been through and what I now experience. These days, thankfully, I have that language somewhat under my belt and have accumulated very many terms I can try to use to the initiated yet I still need someone at the other side of that dialogue who is familiar with the language of autism and neurodivergence (not many therapists or medical practitioners are). If I could undergo therapy by writing I would as, again akin to many autistic people I have heard discuss their communication preferences, writing enables me to get closest to what I feel in an eloquent and precise way, whereas talking leaves me handicapped and wrong-footed from the start. Even starting this process face to face feels too much or like I won’t be able to access the area of my psyche that needs the very work undertaking, if I’m reliant on spoken words and vulnerability to a stranger. The risk of scripting what I feel they expect to hear when I can’t access my own feelings quickly enough is a pitfall I’ve fallen into before as it’s been my default coping mechanism for years. All of this is why the somatic approach could be a route in for me, if only I could find someone to try it with.

Slower processing is also a factor here; the inability to process trauma immediately after it happens is a very real thing for me as it can be long-winded and intermittent. The problem is when it all mounts up and overlaps with any other traumas so that you lose track of which one is which when it all boils over together. Bringing something up years after it “happened”, because that’s when it reaches your particular threshold for processing, does not add to the credence it receives either (and means justice isn’t done when it should have been, in more severe cases). Yet in the context of autism this is just how it is for me; I only really began processing my rape 20 years later yet it was as real and fresh for me as when it happened. Anyone reading my account (of course, I did my expressing in writing) would no doubt have thought of it in the past tense but when trauma exists there is no linearity, it’s just there here and now.

There were times in my past when I was being victimised yet wasn’t even sure that I was because I believed this was my ordinary experience, I certainly lacked the words to enquire about this and to do this vocally was impossible. When bewildered by behaviours I backed off and I always tended to give the benefit of the doubt to a ridiculous degree, preferring not to think the worst of the most unpleasant and obvious of intentions. Who, after all, could I discuss my confusion with; who would grasp (without judgement) that I struggle so to make such assessments and take appropriate safeguarding actions? I’ve always defaulted to writing about experiences when I’m confused, even to friends or in my blog when I call for help processing, but this isn’t how most of the world operates, most people have no interest in reading about what you are feeling and very few consider it a valid form of discussion as I do. The other risk of writing it out is that the highly cerebral pursuit or clarity can turn into its own form of dissociation, leaving the body out of the equation.

When you have autism going on, I think it’s all too easy for many types of trauma to amass over the course of your life. I have trauma with the medical establishment, from being fobbed off and misunderstood and from badly handled procedures plus so much trauma over unresolvable health issues and especially unmitigated pain. I have trauma with family and aspects of my childhood. I have trauma with money and “the workplace” (see my last post), all pointing back at my autism and the issues of not being understood, seen or met with my particular needs. Related to that, I have trauma about survival and the very sound of commuter traffic sets that off, as mentioned in that other post. The added layer of finding it just so hard to hold down a job without burnout and major sensory issues, due to autism, intersects with all of that. I have trauma around all the violence, unfairness and cruelty in the world and get especially triggered by harm done to nature and animals to whom I feel so deeply connected, as in, when they hurt I am likewise hurt in a very direct and physical way that is common to the experiences of a lot of autistic people. My extreme sensory sensitivity and other sensitivities such as to diet are a constant source of trauma as they necessitate such high degrees of vigilance and preplanning (in other people’s terms, fussiness and control freakishness) plus they inevitably marginalise me away from the activities and environments that other people find accessible and enjoyable. I don’t choose to be this way; it’s just how I am wired.

As Levine points out, the standard definition of trauma as distress caused by a stressful occurrence “that is outside the range of human experience, and that would be markedly distressing to almost anyone” is somewhat vague since who is to say what falls into these categories from one person to the next, especially when you bring different neurotypes into the equation. My sense of alienation or the experience of a sensory trigger could be as agonising to me as a bereavement or a physical wound to the next person.

Add to all this, being so sensorily aware as an autistic person vastly increases the risk of attaching trauma to a very broad variety of sensor cues. I’m a deep thinker, a slow and in-depth processor, capable of hyperfocusing to the nth degree, so imagine how that sets up an echo chamber of pain when experiences perplex, alienate and deeply wound. I numb myself or dissociate to cope but, when that pain finally comes out of its box, it sets up on repeat and just keeps on going!

From now on (and this intention has really landed in me this year…there is no going back) the only way I can be a person in this world without instigating further trauma is to be my fully autistic self, no more apologies, no masking, no camouflage or blending to be polite or complicit in so-called normality when that doesn’t fit. In order to reenforce that I am not broken and that I am only disabled in so far as the environment around me does not meet my particular needs, I have to set out to claim my right to adapt what I do and how I do it to the methods and needs that are most intrinsic to me. However, years of masking for self-protection have not helped my ability to feel safe when being authentically “me” so this, in itself, is a trauma risk. My track record is not just poor, it is yet another trauma trigger as flashbacks of so many loses, misunderstandings, shunnings and rejections come pouring back to me. The world in general does not feel just or kind. I have very little trust left in anything outside my immediate relationships and my trust in myself, which has thankfully grown in recent years as I have come to realise I’m not broken but wired differently. This makes it so hard to seek appropriate help or to be authentic about my struggles to people that are so-far untested as to their response. I like to hunker down into safe and intimate spaces, to cultivate routines and comfort and to be self-reliant to a very high degree. This does not make it easy to seek help or make myself vulnerable with unfamiliar parties. My sensory experiences are so extreme they micro-traumatise me constantly and this is my baseline for the average day, made worse in alien places with sensory triggers galore. Staying calm and predictable is the only way I know to cultivate safety, so how do I challenge that in the hope of finding relief from the cycles of trauma? How do I expend surplus energy before it becomes locked into my system and sends me back into shutdown?

At my stage of life, how do you untangle those things to do with trauma from all the things to do with undiagnosed autism, or even ongoing autism when it sets-up uncomfortable situations because of a breakdown in communication? How much is autistic shutdown versus traumatic shutdown? Inevitably there is a high degree of crossover. Just thinking about this makes me feel weary and stumped before I even start to dig into somatic experiencing however, while one causal factor is a permanent state, I have every hope that trauma can still be recovered from and not perpetuated, now I know about my autism (which is why it’s been the most important discovery of my life).

I am my 8 year old version, I am my 25 year old self, I still am my 36 year old…there is a nonlinearity to my experiences, where they are stored on the inside as a real and tangible part of me. That in itself can feel too much but it also means that, when I make breakthroughs, all those versions of me gain some sort of relief, like a ripple effect across time. Perhaps I am that unseen support, the resourcefulness, the sudden influx of determination that always seemed to come through to me out of nowhere, to keep me going and staying optimistic, putting one foot in front of the other, even in the very hardest of times, because I somehow always did,

Almost everything I’ve tried these past years had been about containment, striving to hold on and hold steady for my health, keeping things calm, relaxing and manageable. For a lot of years it didn’t feel “convenient” to let out my trauma as I was a parent and trying to protect my daughter from repercussions. Even those spiritual practices I tried have been mostly about tightening up my borders, consolidating, bringing more of myself onboard…problem being, with so much trauma locked into my body already, there really wasn’t any room. Whenever I try to help people, my particular way of doing this is always to make their problems my problems, bringing their issues deep inside of me. This is because processing, for me, is a whole-body thing requiring that I internalise and visualise the thing in order to unravel and make sense of the situation (since I am not able to process very much outside of me where the world is, as it were, designed according to a completely different operating system to mine). I have done this in countless situations, taking onboard the problems and traumas of friends and family but, again, I really have no room to spare on top of my own stored trauma and so I invariably tip my own balance out of kilter through my version of empathy. Because of this, every time I attempt to tackle something, I trigger myself back into my trauma and overwhelm, which makes me feel useless, fragile, lacking ordinary resilience. I’m not trying to “make it all about me” but the particular way I take on others’ strife as my own makes this inevitable; I simply don’t know how to get “only a little bit” involved in something and, these last few years, I’ve been like the pitcher of water that is so full, one more drop would suffice to spill me over.

More recently I’ve sensed that to make more space I need to purge, not so much contain or consolidate; and this was where dance came into the picture a couple of years ago, since which it has been my own version of somatic therapy, one where I don’t need a therapist and can work things out without the words. This is where I first realised the dichotomy: although my chronic health is fragile and I am often so weak or in very much pain, taking things calmly, gently or restfully isn’t always the way forwards for me; sometimes I have to move vigorously and thrash about to release pain or prevent it from building back into trauma. It’s a very fine line not to overdo it but I have to listen to that urge in my body and follow through, not suppress any more. This comes right back to what Peter Levine shares about how the animal will instinctively shake themselves down after a fright as a means of preventing trauma from taking hold in their body, releasing all that pent-up energy to reset the nervous system.

Interestingly, my first dip into polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges (which is related to somatic therapy) seems to acknowledge the same dichotomy. Some of the techniques commonly used to calm a person from fight or flight, referred to as restorative surrender, such as long extended breath (as often used in yoga, mediation etc.) can actually trigger me back into a trauma response. This seems to be because of a deep-seated fear that the body is about to shut down into freeze (yet again). When you have spent years dipping into prolonged phases of shutdown in which you experience the kind of deepest fatigue where you can’t seem to get a grip at all, like barely being alive, and when you start to dissociate from your life and get so lost in brain fog that you lose your treasured cognitive clarity, the fear of that freeze can be terrifying (this can be equated with the common dread of yet another fibromyalgia or ME / CFS flare-up). In polyvagal terms, you become deeply fearful of dorsal vagal shutdown. “Shutdown, or freeze-or-faint, occurs through the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve. This reaction can feel like the fatigued muscles and lightheadedness of a bad flu. When the dorsal vagal nerve shuts down the body, it can move us into immobility or dissociation” (Polyvagal Theory in Practice).

In such circumstances, what polyvagal theory seems to propose is that if you can find an activity that stimulates playful arousal (expressive art could be one means, dance is another) then you can both stimulate and feel safe all at the same time. Looking back, I see how both these activities have served me in this most invaluable way for me and I do also acknowledge that I often need to be stimulated, more so than pacified into surrender, in some of the situations where I am right on the cusp of feeling triggered by my own health challenges. I just have to be so careful that the stimulation type doesn’t incorporate anything likely to invoke a trauma response; however, the right kind of stimulation can keep me from the fear of further shutdown. I think, bringing my own autistic experiences into the equation, the associations of surrender can very-often be triggering or even traumatising in their own right, because of having had to surrender just so many times in the past as a safety mechanism around threatening people and situations, whereas proactive movement that is entirely self-supportive, self-expressive, highly subjective (as in, not done for or in the presence of anyone else) and safe can be a sort of antidote.

The time does feel ripe to explore all these things in a more organised and intentional way. Perhaps some part of me knew I could only proceed once I felt I could actually get on and change things up in the landscape of my life, to start afresh in another location, with no particular associations to keep on triggering me, just as a veteran is unlikely to heal while they are still in the vicinity of the battle ground. This time I get to properly start over, knowing and owning my autism, never apologising or suppressing it again as I make new associations, with people as well as places, and this makes all the difference!

Can you recover from deep relentless trauma? Many sources indicate that you can using such methods. Of course autism is for life but here’s the thing…autism doesn’t have to be triggering if it is accepted and met just as it is. It’s the mindset that it’s wrong, must be fixed, apologised for, played down, camouflaged or masked, in order for the person with it to be accepted and included, that traumatises. In my new life, I embrace it fully, even value it, do my very best to accommodate it and I most certainly own it and explore it. Those that don’t at least try to meet me with it have no place in my life so I will step away, towards those that do.

What I’ve tended to do in the past, my default if you will, is to turn every hypothesis I have about my stuck health into something cerebral; to research the crap out of it and “special interest” it to death but not this time. The idea of trauma, what it is, how it gets stuck, isn’t going to be enough this time, no text book accounts of the vagus nerve, however thoroughly revised, is going to be enough…this thing has to be approached via the felt senses (not my forte since I find them so utterly overwhelming already) as its the only way in to the feelings and through them as they arise. I am going to have to learn to be so much more present and aware in my body…and far less on this machine writing about it all, or in my head.

So, though I intend to deep-dive Awakening the Tiger, also Healing Trauma (Levine’s other book) and as much other somatic information as I can, I know that’s just the very beginning; and I won’t be propounding a load more theories here (at least not on this topic) for a while. I have to cease distracting myself by hiding in the intellect for days on end and get extraordinarily real this time…because its personal, it’s profound and it’s pivotal; and whilst understanding is a good start it’s not where the real healing happens.


Peter A Levine, Ph. D., is the developer of Somatic Experiencing®, a naturalistic and neurobiological approach to healing trauma, which he has developed over the past 50 years. He holds a doctorate in Biophysics from UC Berkeley and a doctorate in Psychology from International University (source:

This summary, from an article “How Emotional And Somatic Balancing Techniques Helped My Autism” by Eva Angvert Harren who I came across in a YouTube interview and who developed a method called Stop.Drop.Check and runs a program called BEAM LiFE:

Everything for Autistics is amplified I believe we, on the spectrum, feel more than the average person, more intensely, more physically in our skin and fascia tissues that everything is amplified; like living inside a loudspeaker, full of needles. It’s loud and prickly. This creates tension and pain in our bodies, it becomes too much, and we ‘leave,’ numb out, check out with various addictive behavior patterns. We become so preoccupied with our self, just to survive the silly routines of a day. We hide in our brain with opinions and explanations for everything, and no ability for intuition to lead us. We train and practice behaviors that will keep us safe, and we become ridged and almost robotic…I stumbled over the book “Awaken The Tiger” by Dr. Peter Levine, and woke up to Somatic Experiencing. It saved my life. It saved my marriage. It saved my relationship with my two girls.”

This, from an article The therapist’s subjectivity: A look at autism on Somatic Psychotherapy Today: “Beside the wish to be part of, to be seen and to be acknowledged, the world can sometimes be too much—too many sounds, too many eyes, too many feelings. The world can be overwhelming. Everything feels exposing and all I wish is to hide, but not to disappear. To still be in control and keep a thread of contact through an imaginative bubble, but, yet, so real. The choice to see and be unseen is a crucial stage before opening the door. Each one chooses his suitable keyhole”.

Other resources:

Somatic Experiencing resources

Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming Experiences – Peter Levine

Healing Trauma: A Pioneering Program for Restoring the Wisdom of Your Body – Peter Levine

Ergos Institute of Somatic Experiencing

An introduction to Smovey Rings, a somatic device that Peter Levine sometimes uses in his therapy practice and which I have some experience of myself.

Finding a therapist

Worldwide Somatic therapists

UK Somatic


Somatic therapist in Buckinghamshire, UK

Autistics make excellent therapists – Embrace Autism article

Why its so hard to find an autistic therapist but why they can be worth their weight in gold when found – article in The Guardian “‘Clients say it feels like we’ve always known each other’: the mental health experts who believe their autism has turbocharged their work“:

“Oxana is an assistant psychologist. “Being autistic for me means that I am on high alert most of the time,” she says. “I tend to overthink social interactions, notice patterns of behaviour, have an excessive urge to understand systems and organisations. This makes me a good therapist because I ask a lot of questions and facilitate patients to find their own truth. I do not have any preconceived notions of one ‘right’ way to solve their problems.”

(Same article quoting psychotherapist Steph Jones who has mirror touch synaesthesia as part of her neurodiverse profile) “”It is…fast-track rapport-building…Being able to tune into someone so quickly means it can feel like we’re skipping the starter and getting right into business, whereas other therapists may need to spend much longer building relationships. I can only describe it as some kind of instant resonance. Clients will often describe how it feels like we’ve always known each other – and it’s just as intense for me as it is for them.””

“Zoë, a specialist neurodevelopmental clinician, credits her autism with allowing her to qualify in several psychotherapy specialisms with ease. “My autism does actually feel like a superpower: I have focused and studied so hard that I have a wealth of experience that clients often reference, saying how it makes their therapeutic process so much easier,” she says.”

The same article tackles discrimination from work colleagues and clients and how fearful professionals are of disclosing their autism, which then makes it difficult for those of us with autism to locate them.

Polyvagal Theory

Reframe Your Thinking Around Autism: How the Polyvagal Theory and Brain Plasticity Help Us Make Sense of Autism – Holly Bridges

The Polyvagal Theory. Explained (video) How we find safety, connection, mobilise, shut down, traumatise and survive and just how critical the vagus nerve is to it all.

This case study from an article Polyvagal Theory in Action: “We talked about the existence of a kind of aliveness that still feels safe. We talked about the possibility of existing in a playful place in which there is no right and wrong, only preference. We acknowledged that since her birth, she and her parents had feared that her health would fail again. This environment in which she had grown up had supported nervous system functioning designed for life-threatening situations…I suggested that perhaps she could explore some calmer, more playful kinds of subjective experiences”.

Disclaimer: This blog, it’s content and any material linked to it are presented for autobiographical, general interest and anecdotal purposes only. They are not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or prescribing. This article does not constitute a recommendation or lifestyle advice. Opinions are my own based on personal experience.Any links and information shared are for your own assessment and research purposes, I have no affiliation with any of the attached information sources and share them as point of interest, with no recommendation implied. You should check all health-related supplement and other protocols with your medical doctor before proceeding. Please seek medical advice from a professional if you are experiencing any symptoms or before you change your diet, your nutrients, your habits or anything elsewith health repercussions.

4 thoughts on “Freeze response: the intersection of autism, trauma and chronic illness

  1. I feel extremely lucky to have found an autistic therapist recently, I usually have one or two sessions with someone and realize quickly that it’s not a good fit. I’m also right at the end of my training to become a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner myself and this week was telling my own SEP about my discovered neurodivergence and she suggested that I might like working with Bridget Blasius ( She said Bridget works with a lot of neurodivergent clients (and assumed Bridget also was but didn’t know for certain) – so that might be a resource to check out if you’re open to doing sessions online!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that, will take a look 🙂 I’m so glad you have found an autistic therapist, I totally relate to the one or two sessions before realising its not a fit as I’m masking and adapting what I say to be relatable all over again (or they are clearly not getting me). Part of it is that I suspect its so hard not to mask when I meet anyone as its been a lifelong habit for as long as I can remember but I do suspect if I had that “click” with an ND therapist there would be a sudden change of gear as I’m like that with my ND family members, its a whole other way of communicating and we slide into it so easily.


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