the phenomenon of "inescapable shock" -- 7/31/19

Today's selection -- from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D. Many of us know of Ivan Pavlov through his famous experiment, which developed the learning procedure known as classical or Pavlovian conditioning. But there is also a less well known, but equally important discovery made by Pavlov in 1924, which had profound implications for research and theory related to trauma:

"[I]n 1924 ... the thaw in St. Petersburg during the spring of that year caused the River Neva to flood Pavlov's basement laboratory, inundating the cages of his experimental dogs who were trapped in the icy water with no means of escape. The dogs survived, but after the water receded the dogs continued to be terrified, even though they were physically uninjured. A significant proportion, though physically unscathed, 'broke down' emotion­ally, behaviorally, and physiologically. Many of them laid around motionless, barely paying attention to what was going on around them.

"Pavlov interpreted this as a sign of ongoing terror, which had obliterated any curiosity in their surroundings. We now know that physical immobility and loss of curiosity are also typical of frightened, traumatized children and adults. Some of the dogs sat shaking in the corner of their cages, while other, previously tame, animals struck out viciously at their handlers -- again, behav­iors well-known today in traumatized adults and children.

"Pavlov showed that after exposure to extreme stress, animals find a new internal equilibrium different from the previous organization of their inter­nal housekeeping. The traumatized dogs kept acting as if they were in grave danger long after the waters of the Neva had receded. When he measured their physiology he found both markedly increased and depressed heart rates in response to minor stresses, signs of instability of the autonomic nervous system, as well as full-blown startle reactions in response to slight changes in their environment, like approaching laboratory assistants.

"He attributed these dramatic changes to 'the existence of two conflicting physical impulses': during the flood the caged dogs had been physically immo­bilized -- trapped in their cages -- while their bodies were programmed to run and escape in the face of life-threatening danger. This resulted in: 'the collision between the two contrary processes: one of excitation and the other of inhibi­tion, which were difficult to accommodate simultaneously ... [which] causes a breakdown of equilibrium.' This probably was the first time that a scientist described the phenomenon of 'inescapable shock,' a physical condition in which the organism cannot do anything to affect the inevitable. ...

"[C]onfrontation with the reality that there is nothing one can do to stave off the inevitable leads to 'learned helplessness,' a phenomenon that is critical for understanding and treating traumatized and humiliated human beings. After all, the agony of the 'dogs in their cages along the River Neva may not have been so different from children who are put down by their parents or teachers and have nowhere to go, or women who are trapped in violent intimate relationships struggling with two opposing impulses: one, to maintain a loving relationship and the other, to escape their pain, hurt, and betrayal.

"Pavlov noted that not all his dogs reacted to the flood the same way -- pre-existing temperament shaped the response. He categorized his dogs into four basic temperaments: strong excitatory, lively, calm and imperturbable, and melancholic. Each type reacted differently to stress. Some no longer responded to their caretakers and failed to react to loud sounds. Others suf­fered from 'paradoxical inhibition,' in which weak stimuli, like soft sounds, produced extreme responses, while they barely reacted to sounds that upset most other dogs. ...

"Pavlov described one other reaction, which he called the 'ultraparadoxi­cal stage, in which animals showed positive responses to negative stimuli, like loud sounds or starvation, something that reminds me of war correspondents who suffer from having witnessed friends' deaths, but who cannot wait to go back to a combat zone, because it is the only thing that makes them feel alive.

"The observations about his dogs' reactions to the flood led Pavlov to the last major study of his life: on the 'Reflex of Purpose,' which he called 'the most important factor of life.' All creatures need a purpose -- they need to organize themselves to make their way in the world, like preparing a shelter for the coming winter, arranging for a mate, building a nest or home, and learning skills to make a living. One of the most devastating effects of trauma is that it often damages that Reflex of Purpose. How do we help people to regain the energy to engage with life and develop themselves to the fullest? Like Darwin, Pavlov understood that the sense of purpose involves both movement and emotions. Emotions propel us into action: positive emotions to appetitive states like food and sex, and negative emotions to defend and protect ourselves (and our offspring). This invites us to focus on emotions and movements, not only as problems to be managed, but also as assets that need to be organized to enhance one's sense of purpose."


Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.


The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma


Penguin Books


Copyright 2014 by Bessel van der Kolk


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